Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Montpelier Restored

In January 2007 I was at Montpelier and reported that it was undergoing massive renovations. They have finally finished these renovations and it was officially reopened on September 17, 2008 (the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was even there). The renovations cost $24 million dollars and the goal was to return it to what it looked like between 1809 and 1836. These renovations were started in 2003, so this has been a massive project:
In 2003, the Montpelier Foundation launched its restoration, funded largely by $20 million from the estate of banking heir Paul Mellon. After architectural historians uncovered evidence of the old structure from documents and physical imprints beneath renovations, workers removed entire wings added by the duPonts, reducing the structure from 36,000 square feet to 12,261 square feet. They also stripped off stucco from the exterior brick, rebuilt the front porch and rear colonnade, and replaced the tin roof with a cypress-shingle roof, among other projects.

This renovation was discussed in the latest issue of Preservation Magazine. There was fear that an accurate renovation would be impossible, but researchers were able to find the needed information to correctly redo the house:
Several post-Madison changes were obvious. In the late 1850s, the front porch floor had been removed and the columns brought down to the ground. But architectural advisers doubted they could learn enough about other remodelings to proceed with an accurate restoration. "Probably every person on the committee went in there thinking you should probably not remove the duPont stuff," says Travis McDonald, director of architectural restoration for Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia retreat.

What changed their minds was painstaking research.

Historians peering under the hipped roofs on Montpelier's wings expected to find stuccoed walls, but discovered bare brick instead (leading to a lot of delicate chipping over the next few years). Researchers punched 300-plus investigative holes into the walls, discovering the ghostly outlines of missing chair rails and stairs. They even uncovered original fireplaces behind the duPonts' elaborate mantels, and fragments of carvings on chimney pieces—evidence enough to allow a master stoneworker to refashion the originals. The team also pored over James Dinsmore's bills, which included accounts of exactly which materials he had used. "It's been a mountaintop experience to witness the revelations as the house gives up its secrets," says Mark Wenger, an architect who was on the staff of Colonial Williamsburg when he started the investigation, and now works with Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker Architects—the firm overseeing the restoration.

Serendipitous discoveries continued after the investigation ended and deconstruction began. A lecturer from Bryn Mawr College, informed of the Montpelier project, searched the records of a 19th-century insurance firm and happened upon a plat of the estate dating to 1837. It revealed several previously unknown buildings—slaves' quarters and smokehouses that are now being excavated by Montpelier's director of archaeology, Matthew Reeves.

In the end, Wenger's team determined that the house was "both knowable and physically recoverable," and the architectural advisers concurred.

Now, with the heavy lifting of restoration nearly done, curators are attempting to trace Madison's widely dispersed furnishings. In one recent coup, the curators tracked a large Madison-owned painting, Pan, Youths and Nymphs, by Gerrit van Honthorst, to a collector in Amsterdam, who has agreed to loan it. Associate Curator Allison Deeds has even figured out where it hung, using original nail holes and period descriptions of the room as her guide. (Paintings won't appear on the walls of the main building until the plaster dries and the air conditioning gets up to speed.)

Despite this, not everyone agrees with the renovation of the house:
One skeptic is Daniel Bluestone, director of the historic preservation program at the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. Though he concedes that the scientific-sounding research and analysis at Montpelier are "seductive," they make it easy to overlook just how much of the building is, in fact, new—as opposed to "recovered." (Mark Wenger guesses that roughly 20 percent of the house is not original construction.)

A more central question, says Bluestone, is, "Do you take your preservation in layers?" The 2002 house, with its intertwined Madison and duPont legacies, offered extensive opportunities for public education. "What the Montpelier approach does is create a time capsule," he says. " That breaks any sense of continuity between the past and the present."

But in any case the finished house is gorgeous and well worth a trip if you are in the Virginia area.


Greg said...

Thanks for this post. I'm planning my first trip to Virginia/Washington D.C. in the Spring and now I've got one more place to worry about finding time to visit!

Jennie W said...

Have fun! DC is great and there is also a ton to do throughout Virigina. You can check out reports from my entire VA trip if you'd like: http://www.american-presidents.org/2007/01/my-dc-tripthe-introduction.html .

I highly recommend Monticello - it was completely awe-inspiring!

Jennie W said...

Oh and I forgot - be sure to see Mt. Vernon!

Greg said...

I've only have about five days; is it possible to see Monticello/Mount Vernon in one day and get much out of it? I'll see both either way, but if i can compact two or three major attractions in one day it will help.

Jennie W said...

Driving time is a bit of an issue (and DC traffic is TERRIBLE - Monticello is out in the country, but Mt. Vernon is pretty close) and then there is the guided tour issue (specific times and they often end pretty early in the day). If you plan on being on one for the very first guided tour, you should be able to see more than one place a day, but I definitely recommend some planning. Check to see when the tours starts(and be sure to see if one is open later than the other), so you can plan which ones you need to make and then factor in driving time between both. Also remember both places have extensive grounds so they can definitely be all day excursions, but if you are time crunched, decide what you want to see at both place in advance and at what time and that will help (and the grounds are usually open longer than the house tours). For instance, I had to skip most of the grounds at Monticello when I was there because I had to be back to pick up my husband by a certain time (we were actually in DC for a convention for his work) and I wanted to be able at least stop by Ash Lawn.