Last weekend I went to an amazing historic house in Virginia, Montpelier, the home of James Madison.
One reason I loved it so much was that the house is under major reconstruction. One notable owner of the house was the Dupont family, who bought it in 1900. The last Dupont to own the house left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation with instructions that the house was to be restored to Madison’s time. This was a bit of a problem. The Duponts had converted the original 22-room house to a 55-room house (with real plumbing). So the trick was to get from this:
to this (illustration courtesy of Montpelier Foundation and PartSense Inc.):
and this is how things look from the outside at the moment:
Inside, I found it absolutely thrilling. The rooms are down to lathe and some original plaster as the house is restored to its former 1820s glory. Tiny fragments of original materials have been found (one amazing find was in a rodent’s nest, which had become a time capsule thanks to a scrap of paper with Madison’s handwriting, plus some fabric and wallpaper). Everything is being re-created as it was in Madison’s time, using historically-correct materials and tools. There’s a huge amount of documentation too, as Jefferson, Monroe and Madison were all building at the same time and exchanging letters and ideas.
The house is in a beautiful location at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, only two hours from Washington DC but it feels like another world. It also has beautiful grounds, with some trees dating from Madison’s time, including some cedars that were brought as a gift when Lafayette visited.
At one point we were standing in a room that frankly looked a mess–it was the original dining room, and our docent said something like “Imagine the greatest political conversations of all time when Lafayette, Jefferson, and Monroe visited Madison.” I got shivers down my spine.
You can see a blog of the restoration of Montpelier here.
Try and visit the house before restoration if you’re as fascinated by historic construction and restoration as I am. It’s due to open officially in about a year’s time. But the docent also told us that one room will be left in its current lathe-and-plaster condition for visitors to see how it looked before.
Do you have a favorite historic site? Tell us about it!