A Presidential Detective Story

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.”

“We are today beginning a journey that is nothing less than recovering the presence of James and Dolley Madison. Their furnishings have been spread far and wide over the last 150 years, but the painstaking process of re-assembling them at Montpelier will give all Americans an opportunity to engage the mind, the character, the personality—the humanity of the Father of the Constitution and the nation’s defining First Lady,” said Quinn.

Lynne Dakin Hastings, Montpelier’s vice president for museum programs, estimates that the research and furnishings of this multi-year research and acquisition undertaking may cost an estimated $10 million.

“I believe that it is impossible to understand the essence of James and Dolley Madison without an holistic understanding of the environment in which they lived. The colors and forms that they chose, the objects with which they surrounded themselves, speak volumes about who these people were within the larger world. Recreating portions of the Madisons’ interiors at Montpelier will help produce realistic images of their domestic felicity and hospitality, as well as the setting and opportunities that fostered one of the greatest Founding Fathers. Images of home, however humble, engage us all, and present symbols with which we may identify and empathize.”

Montpelier President Michael C. Quinn previewed the announcement to around 300 attendees at yesterday’s fourth annual Dolley Madison Legacy Luncheon at Montpelier. The Luncheon attendees have been the leaders in the refurnishing effort. Beginning with the inaugural event in 2006, they have raised significant funds to furnish the mansion while honoring Dolley Madison and her influential role in shaping the political conventions of a fledgling democracy, and her many contributions as a preeminent hostess in both the nation’s capital and at Montpelier. Additional lead donors are: The Estate of Paul Mellon, Nancy Woodson Spire Foundation, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and an anonymous donor.

With funds from these lead donors the Presidential Detective Story has begun, and some objects have already been discovered! To date the Foundation is exhibiting the following objects:

Pan, Youths and Nymphs, by Gerrit van Honthorst, circa 1630s.
This massive oil on canvas graced the Madison’s Drawing Room, which has been described by visitors as museum-like and served as the main room in which visitors were initially greeted and entertained.

Mrs. Madisons Memorandum for Mr. Zantzinger.
This is a “shopping list” prepared by a purchasing agent, itemizing household objects Dolley Madison wanted Mr. Zantzinger to procure, including “two [large] Looking-Glasses,” “100 yds best carpeting,” and “one dozen fanciful but cheap snuff boxes.” Dolley, like many women at this time, enjoyed taking snuff.

A silver cake basket, circa 1803.
According to family tradition, this silver basket was used by James and Dolley and descended through the Macon family. In 1809, society reporter Margaret Bayard Smith wrote, “The long dining table was spread, and besides tea and coffee, we had a variety of warm cakes, bread, cold meats and pastry.”

A silver vinaigrette, 1806 owned by Dolley Madison.
A vinaigrette is a small container with a perforated metal top that holds lavender or fragrant oils to mask unpleasant odors or smelling salts for fainting spells. Women would carry a vinaigrette in a pocket, handbag, or attached to a chatelaine (chain holding household keys).

A William Worthington sofa, circa 1805–10.
This is a period piece, representative of a sofa bought by James and Dolley for use in the White House and at Montpelier.

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One Response to A Presidential Detective Story

  1. Sarah Everett says:

    Dear Mr. Madison’s Montpelier,
    On this day, Dolley Madison’s 241st birthday, I am so thrilled to hear about The Presidential Detective Story, and both here from far away Juneau and while I am volunteering from early this July to late this August, I would like to do everything I can to support and help Montpelier in this process. I have also heard about the new sculpture of the Madisons that Montpelier has been given, on schedule for dedication next week. The legacy of the Madisons are growing, thanks to the efforts of everyone there at Montpelier:)
    God Bless and may Montpelier blossom!
    Most Sincerely, and with much Warmth and Esteem, I am Yr. Humble Srvt.
    Sarah Everett

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