- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2008

Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison, isn’t as well known as Mount Vernon and Monticello, but now it should be. On Sept. 17 — Constitution Day — a celebration at this historic property in Orange, Va., will mark the completion of a five-year effort to restore the mansion to its appearance during our fourth president’s later years.

Today, the 20th-century additions to the house are gone, revealing a smaller, squatter structure with side wings topped by railings. The metal roof has been replaced with scalloped cedar shingles and the portico’s Tuscan columns have been put back in their proper place.

The restored Montpelier is not as elegant as its Palladian-style cousin, Monticello, but now appears every bit a Madison house. Visitors can easily imagine the Madisons relaxing on their front porch while admiring views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Inside, the rooms where the retired president readied his notes from the Constitutional Convention for publication, entertained his friend Thomas Jefferson and died in 1836 at age 85 have been returned to the way they looked back in his day — minus the furnishings.

Like the cottage at the Old Soldiers’ Home where President Lincoln spent his summers in Washington, Montpelier isn’t filled with period antiques or books collected by the president. Its empty spaces serve as a backdrop for telling the story of the Madison family and the Founding Father who grew up on the estate and was intimately involved in its architecture.

“Most people don’t know who Madison was and why he is important as the genius behind the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” says Michael C. Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation, which has operated the property since 2000. “This house tells them a lot about Madison’s practicality and creativity.”

The first portion of the manor home was built by the president’s father, James Madison Sr., and expanded by his son in 1797 so both generations could live side by side in adjoining but separately accessible quarters.

During his presidency, Madison had the two sides of this duplex connected into a grand mansion under the direction of master builder James Dinsmore, who had worked on Monticello. Two new wings, a rear colonnade and indoor kitchens were built to accommodate the couple, their frequent guests and Madison’s widowed mother, Nelly.

After her husband died, Dolley Madison sold the property in 1844 and returned to Washington. A succession of owners changed the house, including William DuPont, who purchased the estate in 1901. His daughter Marion DuPont Scott, a force in the world of horse racing, continued to alter the property until her death in 1983. Still scattered around the estate are stables, horse tracks, a bowling alley, a train depot and numerous cottages built by the DuPonts and their predecessors.

At Mrs. Scott’s bequest, the National Trust for Historic Preservation assumed ownership of the property and in 1987 opened the house for tours. Visitors to Montpelier in those days probably remember the pink stucco facades and lavish DuPont additions at the back and sides. They may recall Mrs. Scott’s favorite “Red Room” with its Art Deco decor, now moved to a new visitor center near the house.

Before the restoration, the only vestige of the Madison era seemed to be the round garden temple at the side of the house, built by the president with an underground ice house. “No matter what we did, visitors ended up wondering what was from Madison’s time and what wasn’t,” says Mr. Quinn. “We had to bring James and Dolley Madison back and the only way to do that was to return the house to the Madison era.”

Sounds simple enough, but the idea of peeling back layers of history from the house sparked heated debate in preservation circles. Some felt the 20th-century additions should remain intact to represent the evolution of the property, rather than be demolished to make way for an early American reproduction lacking historical integrity.

“Restoration has had a bad name for a long time because it was often not done well and often compromised the real stuff,” says architectural historian Mark Wenger of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker Architects, the Albany, N.Y., firm overseeing the Montpelier project. “We didn’t want to trade a real house for an imaginary one.”

The National Trust realized that evidence was needed to prove a restoration would not result in an “elegant fake,” in the words of one preservationist. So the group undertook an 18-month study to determine how much architecture from 1812, the year Madison finished his last makeover, had survived in the house. The survey concluded that enough of the original elements survived to allow the structure to appear authentic.

The DuPonts, it turned out, had recycled Madison-era doors, archways and windows in their additions. One of their employees had rescued the dining room fireplace mantel and put it into storage. Other elements turned up in outbuildings on the property, such as wooden joists found in the bowling alley.

Historical documents — old photos, inventories and Dinsmore’s detailed accounts of his building materials — provided clues to the appearance of missing archways, chair rails and moldings. Hundreds of investigative holes punched into the walls revealed the places where stairs, walls, doors and windows once stood.

“The house became the star witness [to history] and it rarely failed us in answering all the questions about what was here,” says Mr. Wenger.

While the building was being deconstructed, surprising discoveries of original elements continued. Chipping away the stucco from the brickwork exposed the ghostly outline of a porch pediment. Removing paint from the formal entrance door revealed sliding pocket windows allowing for ventilation. Dismantling a pilaster on the front porch unearthed a newel post from the stairway at the north end of the house.

Where building parts and finishes had to be replicated, the restoration team used many of the same materials as used in Madison’s day. Wall framing was re-created in the same yellow pine, floorboards repaired in matching heart pine and walls finished in coats of lime plaster and distemper paints, which were mixed without lead pigments.

Some of the original building systems are revealed in a second-floor bedroom where a partially finished wall shows how plaster was applied directly to the brick structure. A piece of a floral wall pattern from the 1760s, painted before Madison renovated the house, remains visible in one corner.

Wallpaper, furniture and artwork for the rooms are now being identified but most won’t be installed for three to four years, according to Mr. Quinn. A large Madison-owned painting, “Pan, Youths and Nymphs” by Gerrit van Honthorst, was tracked down in Amsterdam and currently hangs in the visitor center.

Montpelier now sets the stage for learning more about Madison’s life and his legacy in surroundings more faithful to his era than in the past. “There is no other monument to him,” says Mr. Quinn. “That fact transcends the significance of all the later owners of the property. If there ever was a time to rewind history, this is it.”

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