Saturday, October 4, 2008

Grounds at James Madison’s Montpelier

Today Montpelier has 2,700 acres of pastures, lawns, gardens and woods at the foot of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The estate, located just outside Orange, VA, began as a working plantation, home to three generations of Madisons. It included tobacco fields, a farm complex, slave quarters, a blacksmith shop, barns and other outbuildings – everything a self-sufficient estate would have required.

The layout changed over the years, and the latest private owners, the duPonts, added a formal garden, ornamental trees and various outbuildings, including farm houses, a laundry, a greenhouse and a bowling alley. The last major addition to the landscape was the flat racing track and steeplechase race course, built in the late 1920s.

Today, visitors can stand in the neo-classical Temple where James Madison contemplated the republic, stroll the Annie duPont formal garden, hike the old-growth James Madison Landmark Forest, visit the Madison family and slave cemeteries or walk to the Civil War trail – all within Montpelier’s grounds.

President Madison added a round neo-classical Temple on the site where his father’s blacksmith shop had stood. This new structure (circa 1810) covered an ice house below. Mary Cutts, Dolly Madison's niece: "A short walk from the house was a beautiful temple. It was built over the icehouse, which made it very cool; close to it was an immense mulberry tree. This building was intended, but never used, for the President's study."

The 200 acres of trees found in the James Madison Landmark Forest have been virtually undisturbed by man. Trees include oaks, tulip trees and hickories, and understory plants include dogwoods, redbuds, spicebush, virginia creeper, honeysuckle, and grapevines. A few of the oaks, poplars, and hickories are between 200-300 years old. The soil is Davidson, among the best hardwood forest soils in Virginia. This 15-mile wide band of soil extends from Charlottesville to Culpeper. Due to the rich soil, tulip trees at 50 years can reach a height of 120 feet, and red oaks, 95 feet (nearly twice the height attained under average conditions). This forest is open to the public during regular visitor hours, with nearly two miles of self-guided trails through the forest.

President James Madison enjoyed a garden of nearly four acres, including the site of the present two-acre Annie duPont formal garden. Following the fashion of the era, the Madison garden contained a mixture of vegetables, fruit trees, flowers, and ornamental shrubs.
The garden was designed by the Madison's French gardener, Bizet, who was paid the substantial salary of $700 a year. A number of President Madison's slaves were trained as assistant gardeners. One of the slaves eventually took over as head gardener when Bizet returned home to France.
From Mary Cutts, Dolley Madison's niece: "At some distance from the house was the garden laid off in the shape of a horseshoe by an experienced French gardener, who lived many years on the place; his name was Bizet; he and his wife came to Virginia at the time of the French Revolution and left Mr. Madison shortly before his death to return to La belle France. They were great favorites with the negroes, some of whom they taught to speak French. "

Following Montpelier's acquisition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1984, the plantings of the Annie duPont formal garden were carefully identified and catalogued. Restoration of the garden began in October 1990, and was funded by The Garden Club of Virginia.

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