Good things really do come in small packages and the recently restored Montpelier, home of James Madison, fourth president of the United States, is no exception. Literally excavated from the sprawling, modern-day residence it had become, the presidential mansion has reclaimed its spot atop the lush green hills of Orange, Virginia. The property is well worth the visit if you’re looking to get away from it all and learn a little history, all while basking in the sweeping vistas of the beautiful Piedmont Valley.
Though smaller in size than its more famous cousins, Mount Vernon and Monticello, Montpelier nonetheless has a big personality. Built in 1760 by Madison’s father, the Georgian-style estate was James Madison’s home for most of his life. The plantation encompasses an astonishing 2,650 acres and includes horse pastures, formal gardens, a forest and a number of historic outbuildings.
The transformation of Montpelier began in 1983 when the last private resident of the home, Marion duPont, left the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (Her home is pictured above.) The duPonts were the eighth in a distinguished line of Montpelier owners going all the way back to 1844 when Madison’s wife Dolley first sold the property.
By the time the duPonts bought the home, very little of the presidential mansion was still in evidence. In addition to many enlargements (the interior had grown to 36 rooms), the home’s exterior had been changed from brick to stucco. DuPont further expanded the home to include a staggering 104 rooms. Although the estate came to be known as one of the grander baronial-style residences in the area, the duPonts nonetheless took care to preserve two of the first floor rooms in a ‘Madison-era form.’
Perhaps it’s not surprising that upon her death, Marion’s instructions were to return the mansion and landscape to their original condition. This was to include period decorations and as many authentic pieces of furniture that could be found. In 1984, the National Trust for Historic Preservation became the ninth owners of the property. To begin the renovation, they enlisted Colonial Williamsburg’s architectural research department to uncover as many facts as they could about the evolution of the property.
Williamsburg’s historians began by making cuts through layers of old wallpaper and plaster where they found remains of fabric walls and hidden substructures providing clues to the home’s original blueprint. While scouring old photographs from the 19th century, they found details about some of the original rooms. Soon the researchers were uncovering old doorways, passageways and other architectural features that were in keeping with historical accounts of how the home must have looked in Madison’s day.
The restoration project, which was completed in 2008, took five years. As the house was slowly revealed, the stucco exterior was removed to uncover the original 18th century brick and the two-story additions were demolished. Finally, the interior was returned to its original 22 rooms. All materials used in the restoration were authentic to the period, including the application of horsehair plaster and paint containing linseed oil and chalk to the all the walls of the interior.
Newly restored in its bucolic setting, the Madison home has retained the beautiful gardens begun by James Madison and renovated by Marion’s mother, Annie, in the early 20th century. Located behind a tall red brick wall to the rear of the mansion, the Annie duPont Garden is a formal 2-acre garden encompassing a broad, multi-tiered space including a horseshoe-shaped terrace carved into the hillside planted with masses of colorful ornamental flowers. Tall boxwood hedges enclose brick walkways that lead downward through the garden into areas embellished with magnificent stone urns, architectural columns and marble statuary.
The original garden, upon which Annie duPont’s garden is founded, was the inspiration of Charles Bizet, a French landscape designer who Madison hired to design the space. Bizet created the formal horseshoe-shaped garden to include a mix of vegetables, fruit trees, flowers and ornamental shrubs, which was the fashion at the time. Unlike Jefferson, who combined ornamental with useful plants in his gardens at Monticello, Madison chose to create grounds that were purely ornamental and ‘dispensed with any pretense of productivity or practicalities.’
Today, the garden contains a rich array of peonies, irises, balloon flowers and daylilies, which were favorites of the duPonts.
Madison’s terraced garden was a small piece of his broader vision for the estate, which included acres of ornamental grounds. To create them, he flattened the hill behind the house to accommodate an expansive green lawn and integrated large groupings of natural-looking ornamental trees and shrubbery across the property. He even pruned and shaped the property’s forest, incorporating elements of the English landscape park with the American wilderness. All of these elements can still be seen and enjoyed today.
For more information on Montpelier, its history and hours of operation go to montelier.org. The estate is approximately a two hour drive from downtown Washington, DC, but only 45 minutes from Monticello. The drive alone is worth the trip, as it winds you through historic Civil War battlefields and the lush green hills of Virginia.
Cover photo: Shutterstock.com