A PRESIDENTIAL DETECTIVE STORY

By Lynne Dakin Hastings,
Vice President for Museum Programs, James Madison’s Montpelier

Montpelier.

The venerable homes of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson have been a part of public consciousness for many decades, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century with the rescue of Mount Vernon. James Madison’s Montpelier has a different history, taking shape as a Presidential site only in the twenty-first century. Purchased by William duPont in 1901—after more than half a century of multiple owners and benign neglect, the home underwent a gilded age transformation. More than tripled in size, and filled with modern “improvements,” the house became the centerpiece of a gentleman’s country estate. DuPont Scott, daughter of William duPont, left instructions in her will that the home should be given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in the hopes that Montpelier might be restored to Madison’s era. For more than fifteen years, a good faith attempt was made to preserve the duPont house and relate its entire 250 years of history to visitors. The endeavor was unrewarding, and the visitors who came left confused and dissatisfied.

Pan, Youths and Nymphs, Gerrit van Honthorst, c. 1630

In an effort to reinvigorate the site—and create a living monument to James Madison, the Montpelier Foundation was established in 1999. A three-year feasibility study was undertaken to determine what level of authenticity remained of the Madison era house and cultural landscape. Unbelievably, an amazing amount of the historic fabric was intact, obscured under layers of later additions. Doorways had been closed, woodwork reused in other spaces, mantels removed and stored, shutters hidden in barns; but, all of the evidence and most of the Madison era historic fabric was there. A great detective story was underway—to recover the home and lifestyle of the fourth President and Father of the U.S. Constitution and his wife, the woman who inspired the title “First Lady.” The investigation led to a five-year restoration of the building, completed on Constitution Day, September 17, 2008. The seminal investigations led by Mark R. Wenger of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker—and the restoration supervised by John Jeanes, were complete and a new chapter ready for “drafting.”

Robert Garrard,
London, 1803

The mystery story continues as curators, archaeologists and historians begin a multi-year research effort to refurnish primary living spaces in the house and gain insight into other work spaces throughout the historic curtilage. The first phase will focus on rooms for which considerable evidence is accumulating, including the drawing room, dining room, bedchamber, and study, and a room to illustrate the old fashioned apartments of James Madison’s mother, Nelly (1731–1829). Individual pieces of furniture are being introduced gradually, in exhibit fashion on platforms, with labels which relate the ongoing research and dynamic investigation. Interpreters engage the public through challenging questions, while audio quotes provide first person accounts. Visitors are challenged to see the project as a process of scientific and archival investigation with a yet unknown outcome.

William Worthington sofa, 1805–1810

The Madisons’ extraordinary art collection has received much of the initial research attention, leading to the dramatic rediscovery and acquisition of a Madison owned painting, the massive Pan, Youths and Nymphs by Gerrit van Honthorst, c. 1630, which graced Montpelier’s drawing room along with at least 15 other paintings, including a group of portraits of the founding fathers. “Soft furnishings” in the form of carpets, wallpaper, and window treatments will be among the first long-term installations, as fabrics and patterns are selected based on careful analysis and comparison. Leading the effort is a team of outstanding scholars working full-time on object and documentary research. While the major research undertaking is expected to be completed by the end of 2011, the process of locating Madison objects and acquiring them, similar period examples or carefully crafted reproductions of the originals, may take a lot longer. Continual discoveries or clues, like that of a never-before-seen memorandum in Dolley Madison’s handwriting for household and personal goods including 2 Looking Glasses, long, and large…, 100 yds best carpeting, and a dozen fanciful but very cheap snuff boxes, turn up regularly, keeping the staff excited and energized. Additional acquisitions in the past few months include an 1805–1810 sofa made by William Worthington of Washington, D.C., who made furniture for the Madisons, and the long term loan of a silver cake/bread basket, made in London by Robert Garrard in 1803 and engraved with the Madison foliated cypher.

Many of the top experts in the curatorial field are serving as consultants, and an advisory board including curators associated with the White House, State Department Reception Rooms, Colonial Williamsburg, National Park Service, University of Virginia and MESDA has been established to vet the endeavor. Montpelier looks forward to exploring our puzzles with the Decorative Arts Trust this fall, and hopes, as the mystery is unraveled and solutions revealed, that you will return often.

This article from our archives was originally published in July 2009.



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