Update June 18, 2009

June 18, 2009

Read about us in the Times!

The New York Times, that is. Last Friday’s paper featured a column in the Art and Design section about historic sites interpreting slaves and servants in addition to the homeowners. We are mentioned and there are audio links to an actor speaking the words of Paul Jennings; this is the same audio which you can hear during tours of the house. The first recording, “I was always with Mr. Madison,” can be heard in Mr. Madison’s study (M104), the room in which Madison died.

Jennings was a slave of the Madisons who worked in the White House during Madison’s presidency and later returned to Washington, DC, with Dolley Madison after James’ death. It was in Washington that Jennings earned his freedom. At the end of his life, an interview with him was turned into a short book, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison. Our own Beth Taylor is currently conducting extensive research into the life of Paul Jennings; you can buy a copy of A Colored Man’s Reminiscences in our gift shop to help support her research.


Mr. Madison's Study


All of the shutters have now been fitted, hung, and stamped with their location information. However, before we can hang them permanently, they need a little more work. We are sending them off to have all newly cut and fitted edges primed and top-coated and for all shutters to receive a copper cap, to get a final coat of paint, and then dry over the next couple of weeks. We will let you know when they come back and are hung again.

In Brief: Court Records

Another area of research we are investigating is court records. These can be helpful in a number of ways: to find lists of Madison property; track family inheritance and land ownership; and trace social and business connections by looking at who was involved in suits with, or against, the Madisons.

We started by looking at the records for the county in which Montpelier is located – Orange County, Virginia. The county courthouse has copies of the original deed and will books, which recorded the wills, inventories, and deeds of sale for the whole county. However, we are also searching through court proceedings to find mentions of the Madisons, some of which were moved to Richmond during the 20th century. There is a lot of material to sift through, complicated by the fact that how courts were organized changed more than once during James Madison’s lifetime. So far we have found some good leads, which are followed up by even more research in the court records!


Update June 4, 2009

June 4, 2009

Recently we were fortunate to have four furniture experts from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation come on-site to consult with us on furnishings at Montpelier, both from our permanent collection and items on loan. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff who came were Ron Hurst, vice president for collections and museums; Tara Gleason Chicirda, curator of furniture; Christopher Swan, conservator of furniture; and Albert Skutans, conservator of furniture.

Staff from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Montpelier Foundation discussing and taking notes

Staff from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Montpelier Foundation discussing and taking notes


Chris Swan examining one end of a daybed.

Their expertise helped to further confirm much of the research that we have already done on several of our pieces, and led us as well to many new avenues of research. They identified the types of woods used in the construction of many objects, and hypothesized about their likely dates and regions of origin. This information has allowed us to do even more pointed research, and has already helped us begin to decide which pieces are most suitable to represent the furnishings at Montpelier during James and Dolley Madisons’ residence.

Albert Skutans examines the construction of a drawer.

Albert Skutans examines the construction of a drawer.

Some of the details that Ron, Tara, Chris, and Albert looked for in determining the origin of pieces such as beds and tables included the types of joints holding pieces of wood together, the patterns of detailing such as turnings and inlay, and nearly-microscopic evidence of paint residue or upholstery on stripped pieces.

Many times their expert opinions helped to prove the possibility that James and Dolley could have owned a piece based on the period of construction. However, there were also a few objectswhich were judged to have been of a style or form that did not come into being until after James died and Dolley left Montpelier, therefore making them inappropriate for display at Montpelier.

Albert Skutans and Tara Gleason Chicirda examine drawers of a desk-bookcase

Albert Skutans and Tara Gleason Chicirda examine drawers of a desk-bookcase

Chris and Albert, whose specialty is furniture conservation, spoke with us about the condition of many of the pieces, and advised us on what kinds of treatment to consider for objects which need to be stabilized and conserved before they can be safely put on display.

The day that we spent with our colleagues from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation could not have been more productive and valuable for the Montpelier furnishings project. It was also a reminder of the importance of collaboration between museums and historic sites, and the exciting theories and advances in research that can be made when we get together to learn about each others’ collections.
Ron Hurst explains to Cheryl Brush that the depth of the case, plus the short shelves, means this might be a china press.

Ron Hurst explains to Cheryl Brush that the depth of the case, plus the short shelves, means this might be a china press.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff wore these headset magnifying glasses

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff wore these headset magnifying glasses

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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Shutters Update April 29, 2009

April 29, 2009

The restoration crew has started to hang shutters on the exterior of the house.

Rear of the house, from the Architectural Record, Vol VI (July 1896-June 1897).

Rear of the house, from the Architectural Record, Vol VI (July 1896-June 1897).

The shutters are modern reproductions based on Madison-era shutters found in a barn here on the property. There were 31 shutters found in the barn, 12 for the second floor and 19 for the first. They retained their original paint coating, a green made from verdigris pigment, which is made from weathered copper. We’ve painted the reproduction shutters the same green, basing the coloring on research by Dr. Susan Buck (see this post for a picture of the process) Read the rest of this entry »


April 17, 2009

After our last update, we were asked: what is “curatorial research” and how do Montpelier’s researchers go about figuring out whether an object belonged to the Madisons or not. Curatorial research can be very involved, but let’s start with “provenance” and continue from there over the next few posts.

So what exactly is provenance? You may have heard the term if you have visited a museum, watched “Antiques Roadshow” or “History Detectives”, or collect antiques. A good definition for “provenance” is, “a history of who owned an object”. As you can imagine, at Montpelier, we are very interested in objects that were previously owned by James and Dolley Madison; one way to describe these pieces is to say that they had “Madison provenance”.

Figuring out an object’s history often starts with finding out how the current owner acquired it. From there, many times we can work backwards from one owner to the next – and, if we are lucky, we may be able to trace the piece all the way back to James and Dolley Madison. For some objects, we are able to easily determine provenance because others have already documented it or a clear chain of ownership exists. For other pieces there are gaps in the chain of ownership. Our goal then becomes filling in the gaps. Read the rest of this entry »