Another Visit to Montpelier

Five years ago (yes, this blog has been going for that long and more) I blogged about visiting Montpelier, James Madison’s house in Virginia. Last weekend I finally got back to see the house in its restored glory. I was worried I wouldn’t like it as much as I did last time when it was a construction zone, down to lathe and plaster. I remember standing in the drawing room and feeling shivers down my spine when the docent said that Jefferson, Lafayette, and Madison had all been in this room together, and that analysis of nail holes gave them clues as to where Madison had hung his paintings. Now, with the room fully restored, and the paintings (or reproductions thereof) hung, it was the full reveal–beautifully done but lacking that leap of the imagination the room demanded in its unrestored state.

No pics allowed in the house, but I took a few of the outside. Here’s the view looking west toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, barely visible on the horizon, the final frontier of the republic at that time.

When Lafayette visited he gave Madison a cedar seedling which grew into this magnificent tree, and one of Madison’s black walnuts survives next to it.

The garden created by the Dupont family, who were the last private owners of the house, is quite lovely, even when there’s not a whole lot in bloom. It’s full of bits and pieces they picked up in Europe (ah those were the days).

There’s a lot of interest now in the slaves who worked on Madison’s estate and excavations have revealed the buildings where they lived and worked. Here are the reconstructions of those buildings. One of their most famous slaves was Paul Jennings, who did the heavy lifting when Dolley Madison rescued the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington from the White House when the British invaded. He was also present at Madison’s death. His memoirs, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison are available on google.

The restoration is not yet complete. We saw a room full of odds and ends that may or may not have been owned by Madison. Madison didn’t mark his books, astonishingly, and when Dolley sold the house in 1844 to her son from an earlier marriage, he sold stuff right and left to pay off gambling debts. There was also a room where the original plaster/lathe was revealed and an exhibit of costumes worn by Eve Best as Dolley Madison in the PBS American Experience episode.

Tell me about your favorite historical sites or places you’d like to visit.

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Maggie Robinson
10 years ago

We’re going to the Leighton House Museum in London this May. My youngest daughter had a summer internship there when she was in college, and I can’t wait to see the paintings and decor. We’re spending 5 days in Scotland too, and I’l be queued up in front of every historic home open to the public, LOL.

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

This is definitely on my list of places to visit! I’m a huge Dolley Madison fan. Though I’m kind of sad to have missed it in mid-restoration–I’m fascinated by stuff like that…

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

Sounds lovely, Janet. Maybe a day trip is in store for me!

I loved Stratfield Saye, Wellington’s country house, because it was still a family home and I could picture him living there.

Around here, I love The Library of Congress and Hillwood House.

10 years ago

We drove by a few times when we lived in Northern Virginia, but never stopped and went through. When traveling with 2 teen daughters and one hyperactive early elementary son, you have to choose where you plan to visit carefully. History is important, but so is what the site has to offer. A house under renovations or construction was a climbing play area to our son. Even on a short leash, he was a handful.
Now that we are traveling on our own, it is easier to stop and enjoy these types of sites. Thanks for the peek.

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