Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Circa 1825 floor plan and appearance restored to the time of the Madisons.

Montpelier, the Virginia home of James and Dolley Madison, has been returned to its circa 1825 appearance, following a five year $24 million restoration. The completion of the project was celebrated on September 17, 2008, Constitution Day. James Madison, our fourth president (1809-1817) was known as the Father of the Constitution, since he was the principal author of the document. The most astonishing thing about the restoration of this house is that it was hiding in plain sight for over a hundred years, sitting behind and beneath enormous additions and alterations, which have been removed.

Montpelier was built around 1760 by Madison’s father, enlarged in 1797 after Madison retired from Congress, and expanded again in 1809 immediately after his election as president of the United States. After Madison’s death, his widow, Dolley, kept Montpelier until 1844. The property bounced from owner to owner until it was bought by William duPont in 1901.

Montpelier as it appeared in 1993.

The duPont family added 33 rooms (20,000 sq. ft) to the extant 22-room mansion (13,000 sq. ft. at the time of Madison's death), raising the height of the wings on either side, for a cozy total of 33,000 sq. ft. Amazingly, they did not demolish any of the president's original home but covered it up with layers of additions and alterations. The original brick was masked by a fleshy pink stucco that unified the old and new structures. A few interior photographs taken prior to 1901 allowed preservationists to return the mansion to its early 19th century floor plan and appearance.

Photo above: rear of house in 2002

Photo below: 2007. The vertical line on the bricks clearly shows where the rear duPont wings were removed.

When Marion duPont Scott, William’s daughter, died in 1983, she bequeathed the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, dictating that it be restored to its condition when James and Dolley Madison lived there in the years immediately following his presidency.

Her Art-Deco "trophy room" that paid homage to her equestrian interests was dismantled and reinstalled in the visitor center, so that a bit of the duPont legacy can be enjoyed by today's visitors.

Mustard Seed Master Builders helped to set the historical record straight by bringing Montpelier’s original 12,000-sq.-ft. form back from 160 years of remodeling and decay. Proprietor Scott McBride has taken part in some important historic restorations, but nothing quite like this. As McBride explains: “When I initially met with Mark Wenger (the project’s architectural historian), he said to me, ‘This is the most important house you or I will ever work on.’ And so it was.” Adding to the complexity of the restoration was the fact that the house remained open to visitors throughout remodeling, and any and all original material that was in usable condition had to be incorporated into the project. The photo below shoes the drawing room during restoration:

A recent photo shows the same room after reproduction wallpaper and draperies were installed:

Part of the original house, these arches (shown in the photo below) were removed during remodeling in the 20th century. The duPont family saved and labeled each piece for future re-use, knowing that they were altering a historic residence.

Montpelier (Orange, Va.)
9:30-5:30 pm daily Apr-Oct; until 4:30 Nov-Mar
$14 entry fee.

Take Rt. 15 south from Culpeper. At Orange, take a right at the second stoplight onto Route 20 south. Go 4 miles to the Montpelier entrance on the left.

The four portico columns, crafted of brick, are shown here during restoration with a coating of stucco, which was later painted white to give the appearance of painted wood. Compare to the photo at top of post, showing original color green shutters reinstalled.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Zachary Taylor: 12th President

Known as a great military leader, "Old Rough and Ready" Zachary Taylor was born in a dependency (a log cabin which no longer exists) on Montebello Plantation near Barboursville, Virginia, on November 24, 1784, into a distinguished Virginia family. His father, who had served with George Washington during the American Revolution, had sold the family plantation, Hare Forest, located between Rapidan and Orange, and was thus looking for a new estate. Unfortunately, measels broke out among the traveling party, which included his plantation slaves, so they were fortunate to be able to find lodging in dependencies on Montebello Plantation. Zachary Taylor lived in Virginia only a short time, being raised from infancy on the Kentucky frontier, where he received little formal education, and most of that from private tutors.

However, his lineage was extraordinary: James Madison was a second cousin, and Robert E. Lee was a third cousin once removed. Taylor was a descendant of King Edward I of England, as well as Mayflower passengers Isaac Allerton and Wm. Brewster.

Taylor joined the army in 1808 and was promoted to Colonel in 1832. He spent most of his military career policing the frontiers against Indians. In the Mexican-American War he won major victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista.

Although he was apolitical and had never voted, he was recruited by the Whig Party to be their presidential candidate in the 1848 election. Taylor was decidedly not a puppet of their political platform, remaining fiercely independent of mind on most issues. He became the second U.S. president, after Washington, never to hold any prior office.

He was a bit of an anomaly, a southern slave owner who was a nationalist, not a secessionist. He was the triumphant military conqueror of Mexico who saw little need for Manifest Destiny as a foreign policy. He was an army general who shied away from war as an instrument of state. He was a stern military commander who avoided decisive actions as president.

The slavery issue dominated Taylor's short term. Although he owned slaves, he took a moderate stance on the territorial expansion of slavery, angering fellow Southerners. He told them that if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army. Persons "taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang ... with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico." He never wavered from this stance.

His term as president lasted only 16 months; he died on July 9, 1850, after participating in ceremonies at the Washington Monument on a blistering July 4. Taylor fell ill immediately thereafter, and within five days he was dead. There was suspicion of poisoning as the cause of death, and his remains were exhumed and tested, but the final analysis was that his death was caused by severe gastroenteritis, brought on by norovirus. He is buried in Louisville, Kentucky.

His death brought about the ascent of his vice-president, Millard Fillmore, to the presidency.


His second daughter was married to Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Taylor refused to pay postage due on an envelope once, the very one that contained his nomination to the Presidency.
Among things in common with George Washington, Taylor was an Episcopalian, an adept military leader, had no higher education, had never held political office before serving as president and owned slaves.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Barboursville: Zachary Taylor & Gov. Barbour

Barboursville is the birthplace of renowned American military commander and U.S. President Zachary Taylor (1849-1850), who was born in 1783 in a log cabin on the Montebello estate just outside the village (in the direction of Gordonsville). It is also famous for the location of Barboursville Plantation, the home of James Barbour, 19th Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, after whom the community is named. The brick ruins of his home, designed by Thomas Jefferson, are on land now owned by Barboursville Vineyards.

Governor Barbour’s Plantation House
Approximately 8 miles southwest of Montpelier and 20 miles northeast of Monticello, Barboursville Plantation was settled as a substantial estate by Thomas Barbour in the mid-1700s, occupying somewhat more than 5 times the present 900+ acres. The career of Barbour’s fourth son, James, cemented the rapport between three leading families of the Virginia Piedmont – as gentry and political allies in the nascent Republican Party, which Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would lead into the White House, and James Barbour into the Virginia Governor’s Mansion (1812-14), the U.S. Senate (1814-25), and important Cabinet and diplomatic positions thereafter (Barbour was Secretary of War 1825-28 and Envoy to Great Britain 1828-29).

Requiring some 8 years to construct (beginning in 1814) the estate house at Barboursville Plantation was one of only 3 residences Thomas Jefferson designed for friends. The Barbour family continued to occupy this residence until it was destroyed by accidental fire on Christmas Day, 1884. They then returned to their older family dwelling, a Georgian villa next door (now the site of the 1804 Inn, as shown in the photo below).

The ruins of the Neo-Palladian style mansion were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. Thomas Jefferson's role as architect and the fineness of the design, still visible as a ruin, were the prime factors in the property's listing. On summer evenings, theatrical and musical productions are often presented at the ruin.

The ruins may be visited in conjunction with a visit to the Barboursville Vineyards (tasting room open Monday-Saturday: 10am-5pm). The octagonal room of the Barbour mansion, the focus of the main floor, gives its name to the award-winning Octagon wine, one of three wines produced by Barboursville Vineyards that were served to Queen Elizabeth during her 2007 visit to Jamestown. The wine label bears the floor plan of Gov. Barbour's home.

Directions to Barboursville: From Orange, take Route 20 directly past James Madison's Montpelier Plantation, then travel 8 more miles to Route 33. Turn left (east) on Route 33 for 1/4 mile, right (south) on Route 20, and you are in Barboursville. From Route 20 South, take the first left (Rt 678), follow the signs to the driveway of Barboursville Vineyards, less than 1 mile.