Time moves slowly at Montpelier

Landmark: Historic home is making the transition from private residence to public museum.

April 22, 2001|By Krys Stefansky | Krys Stefansky,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MONTPELIER, Va. - James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, never liked the limelight. He was a quiet man who loved books more than crowds, a man with a soft voice and a modest signature, one of the smallest on the U.S. Constitution.

His home, Montpelier, was always his beloved refuge. When Madison became president in 1809, he left his estate in the rolling hills of Virginia's Piedmont reluctantly. Today's visitors to the historic home can see why.

The house is as grand as ever, and along with its lovely gardens and surrounding forest, it is becoming more and more popular as a museum. Here are memories of Madison, his beloved wife, Dolley Todd Madison, and another famous family who bought the home and left its mark long after the Madisons' deaths.

Now owned by the National Trust and administered by the Montpelier Foundation, the property has been open for viewing since 1987. It is still in transition, from private home to public museum, but this season's visitors can see some of the changes in new tours, new rooms and new exhibits, restoration of the family cemetery and a new walking trails system. New on-site parking areas make a shuttle bus system obsolete and the 2,700-acre estate more accessible.

The changes will no doubt lure more visitors. Dolley Madison would have approved.

Beginning in 1723

The property's fascinating history begins in 1723.

That year, nearly 30 years before President Madison's birth, his grandfather received a royal land grant. The property's old-growth forest was rich with vegetation and a tall canopy of trees. Two hundred acres of it, now known as the James Madison Landmark Forest, still offersome of the best examples of hardwood Piedmont forest and boast 250-year-old tulip poplars. The property is framed in the distance by the hazy humps of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In 1732, the president's grandfather built a home here and called it Mount Pleasant. Eventually, he left the family home and land to his oldest son, James Madison Sr. The future president lived here until he was 9.

For the past three summers, archaeologists have dug near the family cemetery, looking for the site of the house. Visitors can see the work under way, just a stone's throw from the two obelisks and magnolia that mark the graves of President Madison and his wife.

In 1760, after Madison Sr. had finished building a larger home on a rise a short distance away, the growing family moved. Their new house, four rooms upstairs and four rooms down, was one of the largest in the county. It faced northwest, toward the mountains, was surrounded by acres of trees and sat above a small stream.

Madison Sr. named the new house Montpelier.

He ran a profitable blacksmith shop on the front lawn in addition to growing tobacco on his plantation. His keen business sense made it possible for his oldest child to study extensively and, later, to pursue a career in public service.

James Madison Jr. first left Montpelier when his father sent him to be educated on a neighboring plantation, then eventually to the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. The brilliant and well-read young man became involved in the politics of the emerging United States, and his analytical mind made him an expert on the governments of other countries.

After engineering the new Constitution and serving as chief sponsor of the Bill of Rights, Madison came back to Montpelier. His parents were aging, and it was time for him to run the family estate. But he did not return alone.

About Dolley Madison

He brought his bride, a young widow named Dolley Payne Todd. Todd had lost her lawyer husband and one of her two children when a yellow fever epidemic swept Philadelphia in 1793.

Born in North Carolina, Dolley Payne had been raised a Quaker. Her family had moved to Philadelphia to get away from slavery.

She met Madison the spring after the fever hit, and just four months later, in September 1794, they married. It was an unlikely match. She was 17 years younger than the shy and studious Madison. And she was, at 5 foot 7 inches, about 3 inches taller than her husband.

Madison brought Dolley and her 2-year-old son, Payne Todd, to Montpelier and turned his attention to the family estate, while still serving as one of the first two congressmen from Virginia. The first order of business, in 1797, was to add on to the house.

To give his bride her privacy and a sense of having her own home, Madison turned Montpelier into a duplex with separate entrances. His parents lived on one side, and he and Dolley on the other.

Dolley, comfortable in the limelight, became famous in the surrounding countryside for her lavish and frequent parties, which often spilled onto the back lawn. She brought out her husband's sense of fun, challenging him to footraces on the front porch in the rain.

And at Montpelier, she coddled her remaining child.

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