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…”
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.