Montpelier is the home of James Madison, 4th President of the United States of America. John Madison was the first member of the Madison family to arrive in the New World, immigrated to Virginia in 1653. Ambrose Madison, John Madison’s grandson, was very successful in colonial Virginia; Ambrose held several elected offices and owned thousands of acres in the Tidewater area. In 1723 Ambrose Madison acquired a 5,000-acre tract land grant, along with his brother-in-law Thomas Chew. Ambrose Madison’s portion of the land encompassed much of what is today know as Montpelier. As a condition of the land grant, Ambrose Madison had three years to make certain improvements to the property, including erecting a house and clearing the land. After an inspection and certification by neighbors, Ambrose Madison was granted a full title to the land in 1726.
Montpelier was not the first home on the site. Ambrose Madison built a home on the site known as Mount Pleasant and moved his family there in 1732. Ambrose Madison died approximately six months after the move, apparently poisoned by three of his slaves. His wife, Frances Taylor Madison, ran the plantation until her eldest son, James Madison, Sr., inherited the plantation on his eighteenth birthday in 1741. In 1749 James Madison, Sr. married Nellie Conway. In 1751 Nellie Conway Madison gave birth to the first of her 12 children, James Madison, Jr., the man who would come to play a pivotal role in the founding of the United States of America.
Around 1760, for reasons that are not clear, James Madison Sr. began construction of another house on the property, a house we know today as Montpelier. By this time the Madisons had four children, including nine-year-old James Jr. It would be fair to assume that additional space was a motivating factor in the construction of Montpelier. The precise date is unknown, but in his memoirs, James recalled helping to move in smaller pieces of furniture when he was nine. This new house would form the basis for the home known as Montpelier. The two-story brick house featured a central hallway flanked on either side by rooms in the front and rear of the home on each floor.
The house remained essentially unchanged until about 1797 when Madison Jr. returned to Montpelier. He had recently retired from Congress and brought with him his wife, Dolley Madison, her son William Payne Todd and her younger sister Anna. As was the case in the construction of the original mansion, the reasons for adding on to the house are not explicitly stated in the available records. Most likely Mr. Madison needed additional space for his new family. The elder Mr. Madison and his family were still living in the original portion of the house. The younger Madison added thirty feet to the northern end of the home. At this point, the home functioned much like a modern duplex. Current research reveals no indication of a connecting hallway or doorway between the new and old portions of the home. In order to bring an architectural focus to the structure, Mr. Madison added a two-story Classical portico. According to Bryan Clark Green and Ann Miller, authors of Building a President’s House (The Montpelier Foundation, 2007), “Montpelier may possess one of the earliest known two-story porticos in Virginia. It appears that only three two-story porticos pre-date Montpelier’s ca. 1797-1800 portico. Of these buildings, Montpelier’s portico seems to be the earliest built example with relatively correct Classical proportions.” (Building a President’s House, Montpelier Foundation, p.6)
Montpelier as it is believed to have appeared from 1797-1808. (Montpelier Foundation and PartSense Inc.)
Renovations to Montpelier slowed after 1801. By this time James Madison Jr. had inherited the property from his father Colonel Madison. From 1801 to 1809 James Madison served as Secretary of State for Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States. James Madison then served two terms as President of the United States. It was during Mr. Madison’s second term that the third phase of renovations began at Montpelier. A constant stream of visitors was a part of daily life on the plantation. Madison’s status as President and the Madisons reputation for hospitality was sure to attract more guests than the home could comfortably accommodate. Wings were added to each side of the house to serve as space for the visitors. The Madisons lived at Montpelier after James retired from public service in 1817. The Madisons lived at Montpelier until Mr. Madison died on June 28, 1836.
Montpelier as it is believed to have appeared from 1809-1812. (Montpelier Foundation and PartSense Inc.)
A series of crop failures and several instances in which Mr. Madison was forced to pay off his stepson’s ‘indiscretions’ and gambling debts left his estate in dire financial straits. Dolley Madison eventually sold the Montpelier estate in 1844 and moved back to Washington DC. After the sale, Montpelier passed through seven different owners. Each owner made changes to the home, some more drastic than others.
The most notable of the subsequent owners was William DuPont. Mr. DuPont purchased the estate in 1901. He made several changes to the original house and greatly increased the size of the home. When the DuPonts purchased the home, it consisted of 22 rooms. After the changes made by the DuPonts Montpelier had 55 rooms and 12 bathrooms. William, his wife Annie and their two children, Willie and Marion, made Montpelier their primary residence. After the death of her parents in the late 1920’s, Marion du Pont made Montpelier her lifelong home. Marion loved horses and steeplechase racing. She established a horse breeding and training center at Montpelier. Two horses owned by Marion DuPont and sired by the famous thoroughbred Man O’ War, Annapolis, and Battleship, are buried on the estate close to the mansion. In 1928 Marion held the first Montpelier Hunt Races, an annual event held on the first Saturday in November.
One of the more unique rooms at Montpelier is the “Red Room”. The Red Room was originally part of the expansion to provide a wing exclusively for James Madison’s mother Nellie. It is also unique in that it is the only room Marion DuPont changed after she inherited the estate from her parents. The name of the room comes from the bright red upholstery covering the furniture in the room. Legend has it that the original material for the upholstery came from Henry Ford, of Ford Motor Company fame. Reportedly Marion expressed her love of the bright red upholstery in her new Ford automobile and secured a bolt of the material for her furniture. The room also features a mirrored wall, chrome trim accent pieces, a glass block fireplace and many pictures reflecting Marion’s love of horses and horseracing. The room has been preserved just as she left it in the William DuPont Gallery located next to the Montpelier Visitor’s Center.
Photo by Crystal Thompson
“In her final years, Marion determined that Montpelier should be preserved and opened to the public as a monument to James Madison. In her will, she made arrangements that transferred the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and in 1984, a little more than one year after her death, the National Trust assumed ownership.” (Montpelier Foundation, 2007) She further specified that the mansion be restored “in such a manner as to conform as nearly as possible with the architectural pattern which existed when said property was owned and occupied by President Madison.” (Montpelier Foundation, 2007). Honoring this request began in 2003 after an eighteen-month interior investigation completed.
Following the transfer of ownership to the National Trust a series of investigations both archeological and documentary in nature, began in 1987. The search was twofold in nature: to discover just how much of James Madison’s Montpelier had survived, and second to determine if a restoration to Mr. Madison’s version of Montpelier was possible and practical. What struck me most about this process was the exhaustive nature. Investigators conducted five separate probes inside the mansion to determine how much original material was left. Investigators found 37 of the 52 Madison-era doors scattered throughout the house. Mantels and pieces of chair rails were recycled by the DuPonts or stored carefully in the basement area. “In carrying out the inquiry, the research team opened some 300 beneath-the-surface study units in the mansion, cutting probes in walls, lifting floorboards, and chiseling through stucco and plaster inside and outside the mansion, all in pursuit of information the surviving fabric could reveal.” (Green and Miller, Building a President’s House The Montpelier Foundation, 2007). The reconstruction of Montpelier resembles a giant high-tech, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, with researchers matching chair rails and door frames based on nail holes and paint samples gleaned from painstakingly scraping away layers of paint and wallpaper. Archeological finds such as a wallpaper swatch taken from a mouse nest have provided much-needed glimpses into Montpelier’s past.
The search also involved pouring over surviving documents over the course on Montpelier’s existence. As the search went on, drawings and correspondences were uncovered, adding to the current understanding of Montpelier’s early days. An 1802 watercolor painted by a friend of the Madisons, Dr. William Thornton, shows the home following the 1797-1800 addition, but prior to the third stage of additions. Details such as unstuccoed brick and the two-story portico helped researchers determine what was constructed and in what order. The Thornton drawing is thought to be a ‘concept’ drawing, as it depicts some details such as the temple built over the icehouse and the lunette window at the top of the portico which was part of the later renovations. A 1799 Mutual Assurance Society policy provided documentation that the portico was in place by that date at the latest. Ensuing policies provided additional background. A drawing for a policy in 1808 shows the house before the two wings were added. The Mutual Assurance policy dated in 1813 shows the two brick wings and provides measurements that greatly assisted modern researchers in their archeological efforts inside the house.
One of the most prized documents was a drawing found in 1999 by the Virginia Historical Society. The Society obtained a collection of drawings done and collected by Thomas R Blackburn. Thomas Jefferson employed Blackburn during the construction of the University of Virginia. Mr. Blackburn did not participate in the construction of Montpelier; he acquired the drawing through unknown means. The drawing is undated, but research based on letters exchanged between Jefferson and Madison dated the drawing to some time during 1808. “The drawing, probably made by Jefferson’s master builder, James Dinsmore, guided the expansion of Montpelier into the house in which James and Dolley Madison reached the apogee of their power and fame. It reveals many important facts about the development of the plan and elevation of Madison’s house, confirms the important role Madison played in its design, and further affirms Jefferson’s influential role as an advisor on the project” (Green and Miller, Building a President’s House The Montpelier Foundation, 2007).
Another striking detail about the document search is the amount of correspondence between James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. The detail Madison put into the construction of Montpelier was stunning to me. I was accustomed to seeing letters exchanged between intellectual giants such as these three. Usually, such letters referred to things such as the limits of federal power or the rights of man. Some of the research conducted by Montpelier reveals an exchange between Madison and Jefferson. Madison asked if Jefferson had knowledge of “’any composition for encrusting brick which will effectually stand the weather; and particularly what is thought of common plaister(sic) thickly painted with white lead and overspread with sand. I wish to give some such dressing to the columns of my Portico, & to lessen as much as possible the risk of the experiment.’ A month later Jefferson replied that although he had made inquiries, he had only been able to find that ‘common [interior] plaister would not do.’ Whitewashing of brick was common, he continued, however ‘most of the columns of those fine buildings erected by Palladio are of brick covered with stucco, & stand perfectly.’” (Green and Miller, Building a President’s House The Montpelier Foundation, 2007).
Perhaps the most memorable thing for me about Montpelier was the fact that the restoration was still in progress. Usually, when visiting a historical home the restoration is already complete, or the walls and infrastructure are just stabilized in place and not restored to original condition. At Montpelier, you can see the rooms in various states of restoration. Currently, the walls are being re-plastered. As was the case with the doors, door trim, and mantels, much of the original wooden lath remains from Madison’s home. The original nails, likely made at Monticello, still remain in some places.
Photo by Ed Thompson
In the formal dining room, the original mantel used during James Madison’s time was located in the basement. Additionally, interior research discovered that the room was originally a bright yellow. This yellow was a favorite color of Dolley Madison. Both the original mantle and the unique yellow can be seen in the photo on the next page. Current plans call for the room to be painted to match the original color.
Photo by Crystal Thompson
In conclusion, I have lived no more than twenty-five minutes from Montpelier for all but eight years of my life. This was my first trip inside the mansion. More often than not, I can be found on the grounds of Montpelier on the first Saturday in November attending the Montpelier Hunt Races and taking in the pageantry of the events of the day. One can appreciate the scenery, the awe-inspiring mountain views, and the rolling Piedmont countryside just by walking around during the Races. Reading The Federalist Papers or other works detailing Mr. Madison’s accomplishments can provide an appreciation of the intellect of James Madison. Only a tour of the Montpelier mansion and grounds can provide a full picture of the man. One can read descriptions detailing James Madison’s love of books, but viewing the room used as his library provides a level of understanding you can only appreciate by viewing in person.
The orientation of the house is another revealing detail about James Madison. The house faces the Blue Ridge Mountains that lay to the west. This is where he believed America’s destiny lay, where any man might be able to claim some land and determine his own destiny. The Madison Temple, used as the symbol of Montpelier by the Montpelier Foundation, provides a first-hand glimpse into the duality of James Madison. The Doric-style temple was intended as a study for James Madison. The design pays tribute to classic Italian design. Below the Temple lies the practical aspect of the structure: the Madison Temple covers the 24-foot deep ice house. The ice house stored ice harvested from the various ponds around the estate. The structure is both decorative and functional. As is the case with so many things at Montpelier, there is much to discover once we explore beyond what we see on the surface.
At first, the unfinished setting of the house was disconcerting. Not bad, just unusual. As I toured the house, I found myself appreciating the craftsmanship that went into this structure. A home such as this built in our time would be impressive in its own right. In 1760 there was no Lowe’s Home Center or Home Depot to run out to get the lumber or the lath for the plaster walls or even the plaster itself. Everything was made on the site. The only exceptions to this were the metal for the roof and the glass for the windows. It is a testament to the laborers as much as James Madison himself that these items are today an integral part of the house instead of in a display case in the James Madison Visitor Center nearby.
My only regret after visiting Montpelier is that I waited so long to go inside. Montpelier is a tribute to the vision of James Madison. Like his good friend, Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Madison was an active participant in all aspects of the project. It reflects all aspects that made James Madison a truly great man: artistic vision; practicality; commitment to realizing our full potential. It is equally a testament to the workers, paid, indentured and slave laborers who contributed their talents during the initial construction and the series of additions. The DuPont family should also be credited for preserving so much of the original portions of the house. They appreciated its historic significance and worked to preserve a portion of our heritage in an age when people did not value historic preservation. Montpelier is a special place, not just because of any one reason. It is special because of the many and varied talents of the ensemble that brought it together and, just as importantly, kept it together.
Montpelier Foundation Home Page:
The Madison Temple
Building a President’s House: The Construction of James Madison’s Montpelier
Green, Bryan C; Miller, Ann L; and Hunt, Conover, Orange, Virginia: The Montpelier Foundation, 2007