A Presidential Detective Story

May 20, 2009

Rediscovering the Furnishings of James and Dolley Madison

Today, on Dolley Madison’s 241st birthday, The Montpelier Foundation announced the launch of the second phase of the restoration of James Madison’s home—A PRESIDENTIAL DETECTIVE STORY: Rediscovering the Furnishings of James and Dolley Madison.

Montpelier marked the completion of a five-year, $25 million architectural restoration of Madison’s home on Constitution Day, September 17, 2008, at the National Restoration Celebration. Because Dolley Madison sold Montpelier eight years after James’ death, much of the furniture and household objects were sold at auction, given away, or passed on to extended family members. Now, the Foundation is embarking on the next chapter in this detective story—discovering and returning the interior decor and furnishings of the home during James Madison’s retirement years.

To accomplish this ambitious goal, Montpelier’s curatorial department is conducting a major research project to locate, understand, and provide context for Madison furniture and decorative arts. Montpelier is gathering a top-notch team of researchers and curators to embark on this new Presidential Detective Story. The nation’s preeminent experts on everything from wallpaper and draperies to sofas and sideboards are being consulted to ensure that furnishing the home achieves the high level of authenticity for which Montpelier has become known. Curators will continue to add more objects to the mansion over the coming months and years.

“The Montpelier Foundation is very pleased to begin the work of restoring the interior decor of the home of James and Dolley Madison,” said Montpelier President Michael C. Quinn. “This initiative will embody the same excellence in scholarship, authenticity, and quality that we brought to the architectural restoration, and will return the style of the Madisons at home.”

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Update May 14, 2009

May 14, 2009

Constitutional Exhibit

Now open in the south wing room of the house (M118), which is accessible from the back yard, is our exhibit “James Madison: Architect of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights”.









Those of you who visited Montpelier prior to April, 2009, may have seen the exhibit in our Education Center. The exhibit is self-guided, with commentary available on the audio tour. The exhibit describes James Madison’s role in the development, writing, and implementation of two of America’s most important documents – the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In addition to text, the exhibit uses images and excerpts from historical documents.










The room is arranged so that you can view the exhibit at your leisure and utilize the chairs.  We hope our visitors will discuss the exhibit, the Constitution, or James Madison with each other.  In the future we would like to have staff lead discussions with our visitors that would include topics relevant to how the Constitution affects us today.










The shutters continue to be hung. This week they are installing more shutters on the front of the house20090514-2cs





Gene Lyman stamps the top of a shutter.

Since the shutters and their fittings are handmade, each shutter only fits in one window of the house. Thus, both window and shutter are assigned an identifier code.  Stamping the shutters allows them to be removed to be repainted or fixed and then be returned to their correct location.

In Honor of Mother’s Day

May 8, 2009

What better time than Mother’s Day to consider how the design and furnishings of Montpelier reflected the presence of the matriarch of the Madison family – James Madison’s mother Nelly Conway Madison – and how one family accommodated two generations under the same roof. Montpelier was built by James Madison senior in the 1760s to house his immediate family. In 1797 when James, Jr. took a temporary hiatus from politics and moved home with his bride Dolley, father and son added a two-over-two room duplex with a side passage to house the younger couple. When, following his father’s death, James junior enlarged and remodeled the building once again, he did the opposite carving out a suite of rooms on the first floor for his widowed mother.

Nelly Conway Madison was a remarkable woman. She oversaw the domestic management of her husband’s plantation, gave birth to twelve children, helped to educate them, and lived to age 98. In recognition of the important role she played in the Montpelier community and to illustrate the inclusion of two households under one roof, Mrs. Madison’s Best Room (M112) is one of four rooms which have been singled out for refurnishing.

Mrs. Madison’s “apartments” encompassed two rooms from the 1763 house and two rooms and storage areas in the adjacent wing James junior added between 1809 and 1812. Visitor James Paulding remembered that this wing was “appropriated to the mother of Mr. Madison then upwards of ninety years of age. The Old Lady seldom joined the family circle but took her meals by herself, and was visited everyday by Mr. & Mrs. Madison…”[1]

Our challenge will be to show how different Nelly Madison’s apartments were from the rooms occupied by her son and daughter-in-law. Even when empty, her Best Room shows a fondness for the past retaining features from the 1760s era house including a high wainscot which lines the walls and the British-made sandstone fireplace surround with its weighty egg and dart carving.


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