A Visit to Montpelier

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!

Enter to win copies of my books at longandshortreviews.com this week, and meet my dirty-minded alter ego Jane Lockwood this Sunday!

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15 years ago

Wow, the part about finding clues in the mouse nest was amazing. What a neat piece of information. I tend to be a bit geeky about little bits and pieces like that. I have been fortunate enough to visit many beautiful places all over the world. The summer palace in Austria from which the Kaiserin left to be assassinated is particularly poignant as her private parlor was left exactly as it was the day she left. The most amazing restoration I have ever seen, however, was in a little town called Eutaw, Alabama. I was contracted to sing a fund raising concert there. The house was fully restored and the money was being raised for the same couple to restore another one. It was a gorgeous ante-bellum home. The first owners were relatives of Mary Todd Lincoln and they had a trunk of things, including letters, that she had left behind. I sang the concert from the balcony with a small orchestra on the terrace out front. It was just so amazing. Everything was so authentic, the furniture, everything.

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

I think my very favorite historic house is Stratfield Saye, Wellington’s country estate. When I saw it in 2003, it was a family house; I could hear a baby crying; the maid came through carrying a vaccuum. So it was easy to imagine Wellington walking through those rooms, sitting and playing with his grandchildren.

15 years ago

A friend of mine used to live in the hamlet of Paris, VA, which is about 50 miles west of DC. The house she lived in was built in the late 1700’s and was called La Grange. It was supposedly named after Lafayette’s home in France and Lafayette saw the house when he toured the area after the Revolutionary War. The walls were very thick and the house had the original fireplaces. It had been retro-fitted with baseboard heat and running water but it was still cold and drafty. The property included a barn where my friend found Italian furniture stored which was reportedly 600 years old, and an icehouse. Sometimes you could see something out of the corner of your eye that appeared to be a man dressed in Colonial clothing with his hair in a queue, who was surveying the scene. I saw him myself and I’m generally not a believer in such things. My friend decided to paint and began scraping the old plaster down from the walls. In the kitchen she found the inscription of “John 1802” carved into the old plaster.

Pam Rosenthal
15 years ago

I think it’s mostly handwriting that gives me historical chills. A microfiche in the British National Archives of a letter to the Home Office about a possible provocateur, and the marginal note from the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, indicating that the guy was in his own employ, brought goosebumps. “A smoking gun,” my husband whispered to me.

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

Sometimes you could see something out of the corner of your eye that appeared to be a man dressed in Colonial clothing with his hair in a queue, who was surveying the scene. I saw him myself

Oooo, gives me chills, emdee!

And it reminded me that I once lived in an old farmhouse in what is now Edgewood Arsenal, MD (used to be the politically incorrect Army Chemical Center). The bricks had dates from the 1700’s etched into them, pre-Revolutionary war, as I recall.

We never had any ghosts but we did have a snake slither across our lawn and try to climb in the window of our basement. The MP’s (military police) who came to deal with the snake assured us kids that it was certainly poisonous!!! I think it was a common garden snake, though.

15 years ago

The Building of Bath Museum is still my favorite for information about historic construction. I love to visit old houses…which is ironic in one way, because my mom and aunt and uncle used to drag me through those places kicking and screaming, until eventually the brainwashing took and I now drag myself there.