Investigations in the Drawing Room

In the Drawing Room

Last week, Susan Buck, Architectural Finishes Conservator, visited Montpelier to continue work on two ongoing projects in the drawing room (M108): the search for curtain hanging evidence and the hunt for clues about the original wallpaper.

Small wooden markers show the depth and angle of nails holes, which might have been used to secure drapery hardware.

Small wooden markers show the depth and angle of nail holes, which might have been used to secure drapery hardware.

The search for evidence of how curtains were displayed:

 One Madison era visitor mentioned the windows in the drawing room were “hung with light silken drapery.”[1] But, how were the curtains suspended and what design did the Madisons choose?

To learn as much as possible about the drawing room curtains, we are searching for physical clues for drapery hardware. Having already eliminated the premise that the Madisons had cornices above the windows because no physical evidence survives, Dr. Buck performed additional forensic work to see whether wooden laths were nailed directly to the top of the window frame to hold the window treatments.


Dr. Buck collects a sample of wallpaper from the top of a window frame in the drawing room.

Dr. Buck collects a sample of wallpaper from the top of a window frame in the drawing room.

Back on the ground, Dr. Buck examines the sample through a hand-held microscope.

Back on the ground, Dr. Buck examines the sample through a hand-held microscope.

Further clues to the nature of the original red flocked wallpaper.

During an earlier phase of research for the mansion restoration, Dr. Buck found a very tiny fragment of what appears to be the wallpaper that James and Dolley Madison chose for the drawing room. Discovered on top of the window frame, analysis revealed it was a rag paper coated with red distemper and then printed with a pattern in a resinous material (possibly shellac) to which miniscule pieces of red wool were adhered to mimic expensive fabric wallcoverings.

But was the paper monochromatic (red wool on a red ground) or could it have been two toned (red wool on a white or another light color ground)? Was the velvety flocking embossed with a pattern? Dr. Buck returned to hunt for additional fragments of the paper, finding a fragment which also had red flock on a red ground. This confirms the character of the earlier find, but still leaves us with questions – and work to do!

Wallpaper sample analysis


Wallpaper sample analysis

Shutters Reappear

They are up! Last week, the bright green shutters returned to Montpelier! They have received a final coat of paint and copper caps and have been carefully installed. Each shutter is unique to a particular window. We hope to post some pictures of the entire house soon, but here are some pictures of the process in the meantime.

1Margaret Bayard Smith, “Mrs. Madison” in James Herring and James B. Longacre, eds., The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, vol. III, (New York, Herman Bancroft, 1836)


9 Responses to Investigations in the Drawing Room

  1. Sarah Everett says:

    Wonderful! I truly hope that the mystery of the wallpaper of the Madisons is discovered:) And I had the honor to see the green shutters go up the day before I had to head back home to Juneau from having volunteered as an intern at James Madison’s Montpelier for 5 weeks:) It was an experience I’ll never forget and I most sincerely keep Montpelier and all the efforts of the research there in prayer:) God Bless James Madison’s legacy!

  2. david boysel says:

    Since it is impossible for me to visit in person,
    I am grateful for the updated curatorial website.
    One day I would like to see the mansion for myself.
    I so much appreciate the care and expertise going into this project.

  3. Reneau de Beauchamp says:

    For quite some months I have been assiduously following your restoration updates – with both delight and encouragement at your academic pursuit of ‘correctness’. In light of the latter, I should care to presume in making a remark on the pre-C20 differentiation between ‘drapery’ and ‘curtain’. Drapery, as I’m sure you’re aware, literally meant that which was ‘draped’ at and/or over a window; what we today generally refer to as ‘valance’. Whereas ‘curtains’ were the fabric panels (usually movable) hanging over the sash, and often frame as well, falling to a length apropos the room or socio-economic status.
    Depending on the literate level of C19 commentators, and their readers, this difference between properly applicable terms was well understood.
    It was not at all unusual for windows, particularly in formal spaces, to be ‘draped’ and not ‘curtained’.
    Your tolerance of allowing me to comment on this issue is appreciated.

  4. Thank you for the updates. I cant wait to see the pictures of the entire mansion. Keep up the good work.

  5. Sam Elswick says:

    Fantastic work! I drop by the blog every nbow and then to keep abreast with all of Montpelier’s new discoveries. I wish I had the time and the resources to conduct similar investigations in our historic house! I can sypathize with your struggle to identify exactly how the window treatments looked. I spent a lot of time doing research to discover window treatment styles from the 1830s and 1840s when we renovated one of our guests rooms. I had trouble finding information–it seems like there’s a lot of stuff about the revolutionary war era, and about the Civil War/victorian era, but the 1820s to 1840s seems to often be the “creepy cousin” that no one wants to talk about!

    As you progress through this line of inquiry, please let us know what you discover!

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    Keep up the superb works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my
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