- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2004

MONTPELIER STATION, Va. — James Madison’s home looks as if it was struck by a tornado. The south wing has crumbled onto the lawn in peach-colored heaps of brick and wood. The floors are peeled away, and the opulent mint-green wallpaper is exposed to the sun.

This is no disaster. The mess in Madison’s back yard is part of a $30 million home-improvement project that will remove two centuries of additions and return the 244-year-old mansion, Montpelier, to the way it looked when the fourth president lived there.

“We want to bring his presence back,” says Montpelier Foundation President Michael Quinn. “We want you to walk in the house and think he’s still living in there.”

Although visitors will have limited access to the mansion’s interior until summer, the estate will remain open daily throughout the restoration. Furnishings will be on display in a nearby education center; the gardens, old-growth forest, slave quarter and other sites on the estate will be fully accessible, and special tours will offer an inside look at the restoration progress and plans.

The restoration was begun partly because Madison’s home, built on 2,700 acres of grassy hills and horse tracks about 90 miles southwest of Washington, bears little resemblance to the way it looked when Dolley Madison sold it in 1844.

William duPont, a businessman who bought the house in 1901, buried many of the original features as he converted Montpelier into the kind of country house that was popular at the time in wealthy neighborhoods along the East Coast.

The exterior walls were covered with plaster and mango paint. The library where Madison once pondered the Constitution was turned into a bedroom. The duPonts reused just about everything: Madison’s doors and windows were pulled off their hinges and pounded into other rooms as the mansion more than doubled in size.

The result has left Montpelier in a poor state for historians, and it has long played second fiddle to Thomas Jefferson’s carefully preserved mansion 25 miles away at Monticello.

Montpelier officials have talked for years about restoring the home. It was the dying wish of its last resident, Marion duPont Scott, who turned the property over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983.

More than a decade after public tours began in 1987, researchers started to examine whether it was possible to restore the home even though no original blueprints were thought to have been made. Supported by grants from the estate of philanthropist Paul Mellon, they peeled back wallpaper and plaster in hundreds of places, locating lost doorways and windows through changes in the brick pattern and grooves left in the walls.

“It takes a certain kind of sickness to want to do this,” says Mark Wenger, an architectural historian who is putting together an 1820s-era blueprint of the house.

Even as earth movers started knocking down walls of the first duPont rooms in late March, staff historians were making discoveries.

In the dusty chamber that once was Madison’s dining room, Mr. Quinn gasped with excitement as archaeologist Alfredo Maul showed him strips of wood taken from another room that once were part of an unknown staircase. Placed side by side, chocolate-colored paint marked the steps.

“You can actually see where the stairs were,” Mr. Quinn says.

“Some of the original nails are still there, see?” Mr. Maul adds.

Outside, men in hard hats are busy picking away at the house with chisels, power saws and hammers. One worker peeks out of a third-story window before returning with a wheelbarrow and dumping a load of debris over the edge. Another wades through the piles of discarded bricks, tapping them with a steel ax to remove the mortar.

By mid-June, the demolition crew will have removed about 60 percent of the house, including elaborate drawing rooms with silk-paneled walls and bronze chandeliers where the duPonts had drinks and entertained friends around their Steinway piano.

Montpelier workers will then start renovating the interior, returning windows to the right locations and repairing the brick.

Artifacts from the duPont era will be saved and stored, Mr. Maul says, and eventually displayed in a museum exhibit at Montpelier.

Historic buildings regularly undergo some kind of renovation, but it’s rare to see them demolished on this scale, says William Beiswanger, Monticello’s restoration director, who was skeptical initially that Montpelier’s plan would improve the house.

“Generally, the notion is that you don’t rip off additions to buildings,” Mr. Beiswanger says.

Mr. Beiswanger changed his opinion when Montpelier researchers gathered enough data to turn an awkward country mansion into an accurate representation of Madison’s estate.

When the renovation is finished in 2007, Montpelier officials hope to use the house as a final piece in transforming the estate into a center for studies on the Constitution. Montpelier began holding educational retreats for middle school and high school teachers last year.

“We’re mixing these very intellectually intense lectures and discussions with a hands-on exploration of Montpelier,” Mr. Quinn says.

“You can actually go to the library where Madison thought up the Constitution.”

Tours, lectures continue during the restoration

James Madison’s Virginia estate, called Montpelier, will remain open daily (9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) while reconstruction takes place, but for the next few months, just one or two rooms in the mansion will be accessible.

Other parts of the 2,750-acre estate — which includes an education center, farmland, a terraced formal garden, a landscape arboretum, and a 200-acre old-growth National Landmark Forest with two miles of trails — will remain open.

Visitors also are being offered a special Restoration Tour that includes a slide show and briefings explaining the restoration plan.

Furniture and other items from the mansion will be on display throughout the restoration in the Montpelier Education Center, located behind the mansion. “Treasures From the Madisons’ Collections” showcases 18th- and 19th-century furnishings; “Public Places, Private Spaces” previews how the dining room and bedchamber will look when restoration is complete.

Archaeology sites: An outdoor kitchen, slave quarter and Madison family cemetery are among the archaeology sites open to visitors.

Tours: The following guided themed tours are offered weekends through Oct. 31, with the cost included in the regular price of admission:

• The Montpelier Enslaved Community Tour, 11 a.m. Saturdays.

• A Century Ago: The duPont Estate Tour, 2 p.m. Saturdays.

• The Montpelier Old-Growth Forest, 2 p.m. June 6, July 4, Aug. 1, Sept. 5 and Oct. 3 at 2 p.m.

• Civil War Encampment and Gilmore Farm, tour of the 1863-64 Confederate South Carolina Brigade encampment and the home built in 1872 by a freed slave, 2 p.m. June 13, July 11, Aug. 8, Sept. 12, Oct. 10.

• Grounds and Gardens, 2 p.m. tomorrow, May 23 and 30, June 20 and 27, July 18 and 25, Aug. 15, 22 and 29; Sept. 19 and 26, and Oct. 17, 24 and 31.

Location: 11407 Constitution Highway, Montpelier Station, Va., on Route 20, four miles past the town of Orange. (Note that the town of Montpelier, Va., on Route 33 near Richmond, is not the Madison estate.) The Madison estate is about two hours from Washington (Route 66 West to Route 29 south to Route 15 south to Route 20 south) and 90 minutes from Richmond (Interstate 64 west to Route 15 north to Route 20 south).

Admission: Adults, $11; children 6 to 14, $6.

Contact: 540/672-2728 or www.montpelier.org.

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