Visiting the Madison's Majestic Montpelier
Orange Travel Blog› entry 57 of 107 › view all entries
Midsummer and time to take a day off for a mid-week trip. Where to go? Susan and I quickly decided on Montpelier, the Virginia Piedmont home of James and Dolley Madison. James Madison was the fourth President of the United States (1809-1817). Montpelier was his family's estate in Orange County, Virginia. The house has been recently restored to its early 19th century appearance. The restoration required the demolition of extensive additions to the house made by the DuPont family in the 20th century. We'd last visited the property in 1988, when the DuPont era house was open to public. We both were interested in seeing the restored, now much smaller, house.
It took a little under two hours to drive the 86 miles (145 km) on a sunny, if hazy, Tuesday moning.
Admissison is payed at the gate and then thre is a drive to the parking lot for the visitor center. The drive takes one past a horse track and equestrian facilities dating from the DuPont ownership of the property. It's still an active component, too, as a rider was running the track as we drove by. The vistior center offers a film to introduce the Montpelier of the Madison era and also about Madison's role in the framing of the United States Constitution. The visitor center also has exhibits of artifiacts about James and Dolley Madison. One wing of the visitor center houses a display about Marion DuPont Scott (1894-1893) and her ownershp of the house. Her family's additions have now been demolished, but the popular "Art Deco Room" with 1930's furnishings has been preseved in the visitor center as it was in the former house.
We next walked to the house for the interior tour. Montpelier has changed dramatically since we were last there. (The guide asked who had visited before and when.) Inside, meticulous work has been done to discover how the house was constructed and altered as it was expanded during the Madison's time. One room features cutaway views of the wooden framing underlying the plasterwork and details such as "ghost chairailing" (the outline of chairailing led to its reconstruction) and wallpaper fragments in a closet. Little furniture remains as the Montpelier Foundation searches for pieces the Madisons owned or contemporary substitutes.
It's always interesting in these historical houses to learn some new facet of construction.
After the tour, we were free to explore the Montpelier grounds. Susan and I had to take each other's photo posing with the James and Dolly Madison statue. (Montpelier specifically invites visitors to share such photos on Facebook.) Then we looked at the cellar kitchens and storage areas. There was an archaelogical dig going on next to the house where summer interns were sifting through debris looking for shreds of pottery and domestic implements. (Visitors can join them if time permits.) A structure known as Mr. Madison's Temple is a favorite for visitors to photograph.
Away from the house, various depedencies are marked out on the ground. (Trees planted by the DuPont family have prevented the full excavation of these sites.) Slave quarters were located here, as Montepelier was a slave-operated plantation in Madison's time. (Dolley Madison, who had been a Philadelphia Quaker before marrying James, adopted the plantation lifestyle, attesting to its pervasiveness in that era.) There is a very interesting exhibit about Paul Jennings, Madison's valet, who was enslaved. Jennings wrote a moving account of Madison's death in 1836 and a book about his life at Montpelier and of Madison's presidency. (The first White House insider's memoir.
Further from the house is the Annie DuPont Formal Garden. The two-acre terraced space has been a formal garden since James Madison's father establshed it, though its character and plantings have changed over time with each owner of the property. Madison was an early cocnervationsit and preseved the old-growth forest near his estate rather than simply clear-cutting the entire expanse. Today, the Landmark Forest preserves trees 200 to 300 years old and other shrubs undisturbed by farming. A trail leads through the forest and Suan and I followed it for a ways.
Returning to the Visitor Center, we had a late lunch at the cafe. We also learned of one more thing to do--the former Southern Railway depot near the entrance to the estate was being rededicated that day as the region's post office.