Orange, Virginia

Admission fee Photography
Docent Gardens
Audio tour Furnishings
Tour brochure Rebuilt
Museum shop Primary focus residents

Toured June 21, 2014

Montpelier, the home of President James Madison, was built by Madison’s father c. 1765. Since then, the house has undergone several major remodels.

While technically not rebuilt, Montpelier has been extensively restored to its 1810 configuration, when Madison retired. Massive changes made by subsequent owners—entire wings—were demolished; the interior dismantled and put back together; and still about 80 percent of the pine floors are original. There are original crown moldings (only in the drawing room), paneling (south passage), doors (37 of 61), windows, and sandstone fireplace mantles. James Madison’s Montpelier provides details of the restoration and includes front elevations and images of the various remodels through the decades and photographs of the restoration in progress.

The tour begins in the Visitor Center with a short film summarizing the life and legacy of Madison and the history of the house. The docent picks up the tour at the portico. The docent on our tour, Pat, was very knowledgeable with an entertaining presentation that included lifestyle and attitude anecdotes of Madison's time (e.g., the College of William & Mary was considered a party school). She took us through the first and second floor, briefly discussed the architectural details and furnishings, and provided insight into how Madison and his family had used the rooms. Primarily the rooms were used as a jumping off point to discuss Madison’s life before and after his presidency. The sparse furnishings are mostly period pieces or reproductions of items known to have been owned by the family; however, there are a few pieces that are original to the house. Most of the second floor is unfurnished and contains exhibits, including a room that has been left partially unplastered so the wall laths and fireplace bricks can be seen. The cellars are not on the guided tour, but they are open to the public and provide a rare opportunity to see historical domestic work spaces.

Features. Even though the cellars were not furnished, I found the details of the space to be fascinating. The windows to the center cellar sections had only boards slatted across the openings. In addition to the standard areas for a cooking fireplace and baking oven in the kitchens, there were places in the cellar floor that are assumed to be for vegetable storage.

It was disconcerting to realize that most of the house has been dismantled and then put back together. In some cases, pieces of the 1810 configuration have been restored to their original locations after having been moved to other locations within the house during subsequent remodels. Montpelier is worth seeing as a large-scale example of historical restoration alone.

I was impressed with the windows to the sides of the front door, which turn out to be sash windows that lower into floor pockets to allow air circulation. Incidentally, these windows have the same design as the side windows at Westover (c. 1750). The drawing room, the most extensively furnished room, is impressive not only for the number of items in it but also for the amount of research that went into ensuring that these items represent what the Madisons actually had there. Of the original fireplaces, the bas relief center panel decoration of delicately curved and flowered vines around figures in a chariot on the fireplace mantel in the Madisons’ bedroom is of particular note.

I regret that we were not allowed to walk outside onto the railed porches over the two side wings. However, we were able to look out the windows onto them.

Grounds. The grounds are extensive and include framed outbuildings where domestic slaves would have lived, Madison’s temple, a two-acre formal garden, the site of the first Madison family homestead, the Madison family cemetery, the slave cemetery, hiking trails through old-growth forest, and the Visitor Center that includes the museum shop and two furnished rooms from the now-demolished duPont remodel. Free Apple and Android apps are available for touring the grounds; an iPod Touch can be rented for those without smartphones or tablets.

In addition to books on James Madison and the standard Americana fare, the museum shop offers various foodstuffs made specifically for Montpelier (I bought four bottles of blueberry butter) and two books of note—a reproduction of Madison slave Paul Jennings’ chapbook A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, originally published in 1865, and the aforementioned James Madison’s Montpelier ($9.95), edited by Evelyn Bence. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It contains full color photos on almost every page and more detail about the family, the enslaved community, the house’s history, the restoration, and the estate. If you can’t make it to Montpelier, this book is almost like being there.

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All photos © The House Tourist unless otherwise specified.