Montpelier Visit
    by Charity Revutin


Less than an hour north of Grounds, just outside the town of Orange, Virginia, sits Montpelier, home of President James Madison. We traveled to Montpelier on July 26 to meet with Director of Architecture and Historic Preservation Jenn Glass and Preservation Technician Betsy Sweeny. Ms. Glass gave us an overview of the history of the property from before President Madison’s birth to the present. The original house was built by James Madison, Sr., ca. 1760, and President James Madison, Jr., had the house extended and renovated twice, in 1797 and 1809. The 20th century owners of the property, the duPont family, expanded the house further. From 2004 to 2009, a massive restoration returned the house to its Madison retirement era appearance.

With Ms. Glass as our guide, we were treated to a tour of the house focused on its architecture and restoration. Ms. Glass had worked on the restoration and was able to share details of the project with us. For example, in the original (ca. 1760) entry hall, she had the job of determining which pieces of wainscoting belonged where. The secret to determining the positions? Nail holes. We also learned that rodent nests played a key role in restoration efforts.

After the house tour, Ms. Sweeny showed us around some of the grounds. First, we had a look at an example of adaptive reuse. A building that had been a dog kennel for the duPonts has been turned into a bathroom pavilion. Next, we moved over to the South Yard, which is where the domestic enslaved workers lived and worked. We toured two slave quarters buildings and one of the two smokehouses. The spinning house is in the process of being rebuilt. It sits in the shade of a very old tree known as the Witness Tree, so special care is being taken to not disturb its root structure.

Finally, Ms. Sweeny took us into the cellar of the house where the exhibit “The Mere Distinction of Colour” begins. She showed us the cob floors of the cellar, the gauging and undercutting of the first level floors, and the oldest door in the house. She also discussed some of the challenges involved in the installation of an exhibit in a restored historic space.