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A Lively Dialogue Focuses on Montpelier`s Future: Preservation Experts at the Madison Conference Cast Their Opinions on What Should Be Done at Montpelier, in Orange County, Virginia 

12-09-2015 17:35

On June 26 and 27 the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Foundation for James Madison`s Montpelier called together at Westfields International Conference Center, 100 preservationists, museum professionals, architects, historians and Orange County, Va., residents and politicians to vigorously explore the future of Montpelier. Addressing the question of whether Montpelier should be restored to the Madisonian era or preserved, and in the process honor the du Pont legacy, was simply the starting block. Following are excerpts from the provocative conference. (Editor`s narrative is in italics; non-italicized copy is speakers` oratory.)

J. Jackson Walter, president of the National Trust: You are all going to participate in a group discussion about preservation versus restoration. What should happen at Montpelier? What are we going to do with this place? . . . The answer is not a textbook one. There is no stone tablet that is going to tell us precisely the right thing to do with this property, and, in fact, there are substantial differences of opinion.

....If the question of Montpelier turns out to be complicated, so too is the question of who was James Madison.

The fourth president of the United States, Madison was considered the "father " of the Constitution because of his influence in planning and gaining ratification of it.

A.E. Dick Howard, professor of law and civic affairs at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville: The world we live in today is different because of what Madison and his contemporaries did. Madison imparted an empirical understanding of human nature to our constitutional system.

. . . He acquired that insight by being on the scene at the most remarkable series of constitutional developments. It fell to Madison`s good luck that he was a key player in just about every event that you could have named, certainly for a Virginian, to have taken part in between 1776 and 1791.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was the product of George Mason`s thinking. Madison, almost the youngest member of the convention, saw the flaw in Mason`s language of toleration--that the language of toleration connotes a dispensation from those in power. Madison moved an amendment that substituted the language of free exercise for the language of toleration.

This was just the beginning of Madison`s illustrious career. He was involved in the Continental Congress in 1780, re-entered the Virginia legislature in 1784, was influential in calling the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. His Virginia Plan formed the basic framework and guiding principles of the Constitution.

Howard:One need not even talk about Madison being secretary of state or president to say, `that is a monumental achievement.` . . . Indeed, I think the symmetry between the Jeffersonian and the Madisonian legacies is very marked.

Elected to the new House of Representatives, Madison sponsored the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, placing emphasis on freedom of religion, speech and press. He was Thomas Jefferson`s secretary of state (1801-1809) and was elected President of the United States in 1808.

Howard:Now what about 200 years later? To what extent are we a Madisonian nation? If you think about the central tenants of Madisonian constitutional theory, you will find them, I think, securely in place--separation of powers, federalism, separation of church and state, checks and balances, the vehicles for the development of the human spirit. These were the things Madison cared about. It seems to me they are very much at the matrix of constitutional law in America today.

The first formal National Trust investigations of the house and grounds at Montpelier was undertaken in 1987 and 1988 by a group of experts. (The National Trust acquired Montpelier from Marion du Pont Scott in 1984.) Among the team of experts was preservationist William Seale, who interprets historic sites and plans historic interiors.

William Seale:We found that the renovations of the turn of the century did not obliterate all that James and Dolley Madison left, and through this house we can see the historic couple in greater depth than we`ve ever known before.

Seale offered a brief chronology of Montpelier:

  • The original farm was settled by Madison`s grandfather about 1723.
  • Madison`s father, James Sr., with his brother-in-law, added 4,680 acres six years later.
  • In 1739, or thereabouts, a house was built on the property. James Jr. was probably born in that house. It was replaced by the core of the present house, then described as a brick mansion, between 1755 and 1765.
  • The house was a two-story, doublepile structure mounted on a partially raised basement. Brick patterns show that it was five bays wide on the front and three bays wide on the rear.... The house remained this way for nearly 40 years.
  • Madison was 41 when he inherited Montpelier, and then he inherited only part--1, 800 acres. His mother was bequeathed the right to occupy the house.
  • By 1797, then married to Dolley, Madison expanded his parents` house to the northeast, adding a 30-foot brick wing approximately two-thirds the size of the parental house. This in effect turned Montpelier into a duplex, with one portion for James, Dolley and Dolley`s son by a previous marriage and the other for Mother Madison. The two houses were separate without doors connecting, except in the room over what is now the entrance vestibule.
  • Madison shared with all presidents the concern that he have an appropriate homestead when his Administration was over. So he planned an extensive addition to the house. Mother Madison, however, retained the right hand part of the original house, with a new wing extending from it.
  • Madison`s Montpelier was a long, lanky house, intriguing more than august, rather in the way Mount Vernon is charming for its lofty aspirations more than its architectural excellence.

Seale:I was delighted to find that Montpelier is a biographical house, I would call it, like Mount Vernon--a building put up not for someone by someone else, but a house that grew part by part with the man, and the woman. Washington has been the subject of hundreds of biographies, but his greatest biography, and the one through which we know him best, is Mount Vernon. The same is true of Jefferson`s Monticello, of course. The third of the Virginia triumvirate is Montpelier, which is not lost to the age of Madison as we once supposed it was.

For Conover Hunt, a consultant to the National Trust for cultural history and interpretation, the excitement of Montpelier was what the Madisonian artifacts reveal about the man. Most were sold at auction after Madison`s death to pay off debts. She and others have begun piecing the collection -- or representatives of the collection -- back together.

Conover Hunt:Montpelier today is a house within a house within a house within a house, at least.... It is not an outstanding architectural monument to mankind. It is an outstanding artifact of social history, of the people who lived in these walls for a long period of time.... [It is] a very clear expression of James Madison`s intellect, his logic, his role in American history and his own self-awareness as a president and former president of the United States and one of the main architects of the nation.

Hunt presented the images of Madison `s Montpelier. . . a collection of presidential portraits, most of them by Gilbert Stuart . . . life portraits of James and Dolley. Approximately 135 pieces of artwork.

Hunt:What Madison created in the grand salon at Montpelier was an absolutely clear artistic statement of the history of the United States from discovery to nationhood. It was arranged logically.

In the dining room there were French candlesticks purchased from James Monroe, American silver from Philadelphia, English silver, several sets of French china, Chinese export blue and white porcelain . . . a very interesting collection of engravings, a documentary history of Madison`s career.

Hunt:The majority of the rooms should belong to James and Dolley Madison.... That is not to discount the very interesting biographical stories of William du Pont and his daughter Marion, as well as the story of the senior Madisons.

Arguing for an almost pure restoration of Montpelier was Helen Marie Taylor, civic activist and resident of Orange County, Va., the county where Montpelier stands. She rested much of her case on the provisions of the will of Marion du Pont Scott, sole heir to the estate that her father William bought in 1901. Scott turned Montpelier into a horse breeding farm and estate. In the house she created the mansion`s most unusual room--the avant garde Art Deco red room, decorated with murals and photos of her horses. Over the du Pont era, wings to the house were added. Having no children, Scott bequested that the National Trust be able to acquire Montpelier from her nieces and nephews, which it did following protracted litigation and negotiations.

Helen Marie Taylor:Marion`s will states that the property known as Montpelier was formerly the home of James Madison, president of the United States, and it is appropriate that it be owned by an organization which will restore the mansion house in such manner as to conform as nearly as possible with the architectural pattern which existed when said property was owned and occupied by President Madison. It is likewise appropriate that the mansion house be furnished with furniture once owned by James Madison or, to the extent that such is not possible, with furniture and furnishings of the period. Scott did not, however, intend to completely rid Montpelier of the du Ponts.

Taylor:[Reading from Marion du Pont Scott`s will] "It is my hope that the National Trust will be able to make arrangements for the steeplechase course and training track to be used in the fall each year for the running of the Montpelier Hunt Races.

". . . The National Trust shall, on a continuous basis, and as a memorial to William duPont, Sr., appropriately furnish the drawing and morning rooms added to the mansion by William du Pont, Sr."

Although indicating that the National Trust could fulfill these obligations to the du Pont family Montpelier transformed by the du Ponts through three rooms--the Red Room, the Adams sitting room and the du Pont parlor, Taylor advocated most earnestly a restoration of Montpelier as representative of the Madison-era as possible, by removing most of the du Pont additions.

Taylor:The [du Pont] wings are a motel addition on the back. That mess should go --you`ll never miss it, believe me.

The voice for preservation was W. Brown Morton III, assistant professor, department of historic preservation, Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Va. Morton defined preservation as sustaining a building`s existing form and integrity. Restoration recovers the form and details of a particular moment in time.

W. Brown Morton III:. . . Montpelier is a project in which the process is as important as the project, and what is done and why it`s done is as important as doing it.... The National Trust has the opportunity to make Montpelier a preservation project, not a restoration project.... Too many historic American properties have been stripped, gutted, dismembered or camouflaged in the name of restoration. Americans have been much too ready to remove 19th- or 20th-century additions to 18th- or 19th-century American buildings, whereas they would be horrified if someone suggested removing the 14th century transepts from a 13th-century Gothic church in Normandy.

. . . Sadly, the emphasis in American preservation has focused for much too long on restoration; i.e., returning a building and its setting to its imagined appearance at an earlier moment in time. Historic buildings and landscapes have been looked upon all too often as props on the stage of history, to be manipulated into the process of restoration, to match the story wanting to be told at that moment.

Morton suggested that our cultural resources are hostage to history, and we can never reinterpret a particular time at a particular place. If we do, we overlook a much richer heritage. In the case of Montpelier, Morton argued, the first occupant on that land may predate the Madisons by hundreds of years. And the lavish and sometimes outlandish style of the du Ponts has its place in the history of Montpelier.

Morton:I have a grand vision for Montpelier.... It should be the most innovative and the most responsible preservation education project in the nation.... The National Trust has the opportunity at Montpelier to reclaim its leadership in preservation education. Through its planning, investigation, research, evaluation and decision-making and through its process of intervention and nonintervention, the Trust has the opportunity to say to each and every visitor, this is how preservation should be thought about. This is how preservation should be done.

Given these diverse views, how should the National Trust proceed? How should Montpelier be interpreted? Susan Schreiber, consultant for interpretation with the National Trust, argued that the core of Montpelier is the Madison legacy.

Susan Schreiber:Successive owners certainly valued the association with the founding father, and William du Pont, in particular, was careful to build around the small core of Madison rooms.... What is important about Montpelier is what it can reveal about James Madison and his role and world view and that yes, despite the overlying layer, there is a great deal of the property that would make the search for James Madison, both for the Trust and for the visitors, very rewarding.

. . . The experts [who have visited Montpelier over the past three years] also have felt that the landscaping was a very important historic resource, at least as important as the house. In fact, they believed that the house`s setting, in this particular place, is critical to understanding Madison. At the time that the Madison family settled in Orange, this area, particularly the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond, were the beginning of the frontier....

... Finally, there`s the Ambrose Madison homesite [Madison`s grandfather]. While much archaeology has been done at Montpelier, the site of Madison`s grandfather`s birthplace has not been located. It will be an important bridge between the world of the frontier and the greater sophistication and affluence of the president`s plantation.

. . . The overall effect should be work-in-progress--an approach that invites the visitor into the laboratory where, rather than being presented with a set piece, they are encouraged to join with historians, archaeologists and the Trust in the process of understanding, reaching back and trying to recreate another world.

. . . I think the landscape is the key to the site and in some ways its most valuable resource. It should be maintained in its present du Pont form, the experts generally felt, which is an outstanding example of an early 20th-century country estate. It makes little sense economically or aesthetically to destroy it as it is.

. . . In the process of developing programs at Montpelier, it`s going to be important to find the answers to such questions as, what motivates visitors to choose to go to Montpelier? Do they come alone? With family members? With friends? As part of larger groups? Have they been to other related sites in the region, like Monticello? What do they know about James Madison and/or the Constitution before they get to Montpelier? What do they go away having learned? What did they find most interesting and meaningful about the interpretation?

Adele Chatfield-Taylor, director of the American Academy in Rome and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts design arts program, offered these observations and posed more questions.

Adele Chatfield-Taylor:It`s the most exciting educational opportunity that we`ve been offered in decades.

. . . To admit the complications right at first, as [Montpelier`s director] Christopher Scott did by calling it an architectural hodge podge, is a breakthrough.

. . . So I offer these observations . . . Number one. How does the Trust now proceed? Is it time now for a long-range plan?

. . . Two. How can the Trust maintain the quality of the thinking that`s gone into this program so far? How can they be brave enough to continue to take the time to get it right?

. . . Three. How does the Trust maintain the balance to make sure that whatever the result is, it`s partly didactic, to do justice to the remarkable principal tenant of this property? And how do they present it and protect it as a work of art, which, like any great work of art, will not be overdefined but will be a resource that offers something alive every time we return to it?

. . . Four. Should it have to pay for itself, and if it should, must this be an overriding consideration when you are worrying about what to do?

. . . Five. Who should be involved next? And how do they maintain the educational value of this property as the years go by? In other words, how can it remain an educational opportunity to preservationists as well as members of the public? How can the best of what has been shown to us and given to us today be made available in perpetuity?


F R A N K   S A N C H I S

More than any other property in the history of the National Trust, Montpelier has riveted the attention of the professional community and the general public alike. Inside and outside the Trust, people have felt compelled to express their opinions on the significance of Montpelier and how the property should be handled for future generations.

Montpelier has been the subject of a Trust museum assessment report, a National Endowment for the Humanities self-study and a major conference of professionals and preservationists. The director of Montpelier has drafted a 12-year plan for the property. This process has resulted in the emergence of consensus on many issues regarding the significance and treatment of the property.

First and foremost, there is universal agreement that the primary significance of Montpelier lies with James Madison. Madison is why Montpelier has been preserved and why people will come to Montpelier--and Montpelier should be the place in America where people can learn about Madison and his accomplishments and understand the influence this place had on his thinking.

There is also agreement that in the immediate future the Trust`s job is to push forward with its research and expand the interpretative program. The direction is clear and forward movement has already occurred. A new director of research has embarked on an intensive one-year program. Funding for the interpretive exhibition is being sought from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

On the question of the physical treatment of the property--the visual framework for the interpretive focus on Madison--a consensus has emerged as well, though not without dissent: that the alterations made to the property after the Madison era should not be categorically eradicated, but neither should they prevent the exposure and presentation of the Madisonian features of the property as they are discovered. The sense of the majority is that the property has been so transformed since Madison`s time that to deny this by the wholesale removal of later alterations would be intellectually inappropriate. Such changes to these later alterations as need to be made to support the Madisonian interpretive focus should be done, however, with the integrity of the property in its current embodiment taking a back seat to this larger purpose.

Overall, there is broad recognition that the physical result of such an approach would be complex and somewhat fragmented. This, however, is seen as experimental, forward looking, challenging and worthwhile. A small but passionate group continues to assert that a straightforward restoration of the property to Madison`s time is the only appropriate path.

The way we, as preservationists, treat our buildings is a product of our own time and will be seen in the future as indicative of what we thought about their role in our culture. We are looking back at Colonial Williamsburg and the way that was handled only a half century ago. We have changed our minds about many of the things that were done then and are in the process of redoing them, with all of the resulting effects on the original fabric of that community. And, of course, some things simply cannot be undone--such as the removal of the 19th-century buildings that were as real a part of Williamsburg`s history as those of the 18th-century. The Trust is the first professional preservation organization to have the opportunity to affect Montpelier. As we begin to mold Montpelier, it behooves us to proceed cautiously and conservatively.

In my opinion the Trust should maintain the overall physical aspects of Montpelier and within that framework reveal the Madison components. In the landscape, as Madisonian features are discovered, they should be preserved and interpreted. The exterior of the mansion should remain essentially as non-museum portions. In the museum portion every aspect of Madison`s house that is discovered should be interpreted and, in some cases, restored, including entire rooms. In the non-museum portions alterations to accommodate the professional uses of the property should be made. The two William du Pont, Sr., rooms and Marion du Pont Scott`s hunt room should be restored to their periods of significance.

A creative, inventive interpretive program is key to the success of Montpelier. In order to assure that the Madison story comes through, the physical embodiment of the property is likely to be very different from other major historic house museums in the United States. It will rely, to an extent few others have, on creative, intelligent exhibition techniques. Montpelier will be controversial and have outspoken detractors. But, to me, this is the right thing to do--and it will be worth it!

As National Trust vice president for Stewardship of Historic Properties, Frank Sanchis has been involved in decisions surrounding Montpelier for the past four years. On this page is his assessment of what the future of Montpelier should be, a viewpoint that will be presented to the National Trust`s management and property committees and board of trustees.

Publication Date: Fall 1989


Author(s):Nora Richter Greer

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