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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.

So what is Prussian blue?

You can read a fairly technical description at Wikipedia or a slightly less daunting description at, but briefly it was a synthetic pigment first discovered by accident in Berlin in 1704 by the chemist and paintmaker Heinrich Diesbach and alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel; it was Dippel who was responsible for providing Diesbach with contaminated potash while he was trying to create a red pigment. Dippel, I guess, was probably trying to turn some unlikely substance into gold.

Previously, the only way to get a vivid blue was to use ground lapis lazuli, expensive and rare, which is one of the reasons the color blue has powerful religious symbolism, the color of the sky and of the Virgin Mary’s robes. Prussian blue quickly became the first, easily available commercial blue color, used in paint and fabric, the “greatest hit” color of the eighteenth century, and one of its first commercial uses was for the uniforms of the Prussian army.

It quickly caught on as a popular color for house interiors. The bright blue showed off elaborate plaster ceilings to great effect. This is the drawing room at Kenmore in Fredericksburg, VA, where George Washington’s sister Betty lived (and which reopens after restoration on March 1). This is Prussian blue mixed with yellow ochre, to give the “in your face” shade so popular at that time.

Here’s painting underway at Montpelier, VA, the home of James Madison, which reopened after major restoration last year. The original Prussian Blue, applied in 1775, lasted until 1844, when the last of the Madison line sold the house–the durability and resistance to staining or fading of the color was another reason for its popularity. I blogged about visiting Montpelier while it was under restoration in 2007 and I’m hoping to go back and see the finished product soon (and blog about it!).

These gorgeous, restored blue doors are from the Temple of Concord and Victory at Stowe House, UK. The building of the temple was started by Lord Cobham in the mid eighteenth century, with James Gibbs, architect of St-Martin-in-the-Fields and other famous buildings. In the great tradition of aristocrat dabblers, Cobham’s descendants messed with the design. Below, left, is Stowe, and the restored temple to the right.

For more about the color blue, read this wonderful book by Michel Pastoureau.

If you’re interested in historic interior design or restoration, visit where you can look at before and after restoration pictures of early wallpapers. Wallpapers deserve their very own post, which I’ll probably do at some time.

Have you visited any historic sites recently, or any sites where restoration is underway? Or what places would you like to visit?

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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 this week, and meet my dirty-minded alter ego Jane Lockwood this Sunday!

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