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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Visiting Montpelier–A Virtual Tour

I know I have said this many times before, but one of my most desired historical places to visit is Montpelier, the home of President James and First Lady Dolley Madison. I finally had the opportunity to visit on an absolutely gorgeous Virginia day in May. I couldn’t have asked for better weather and my boyfriend was a great sport through the whole thing. Below I will attempt to give you a little bit of a tour of our trip. I’m going to warn you up front that this post may take on the tendency to ramble because I’m still having trouble composing coherent thoughts about this trip even after a month of being home.
Driving up the driveway I was so excited because this is the place I had always wanted to go and the home is so beautiful and set on an amazing landscape. The views from this place can really take you breath away as you look out toward the mountains. As you enter the property you drive past a horse racetrack which I was very confused by. But apparently the Dupont’s, particularly daughter, Marion DuPont Scott, who later owned the house after the Madison family sold it, used to own racehorses. That was a kind of cool piece of trivia. Each year the Montpelier Hunt Race is held there at the property. I also found that there is a small, secluded cemetery for 3 of the DuPont’s favorite racehorses (Battleship, Annapolis, and Accra) – that you won’t find on the Montpelier map anywhere! You can learn more about the DuPont/Montpelier horse connection here.
When you arrive you first go to the Visitor Center where you can view the Madison Exhibit and the DuPont Exhibit. You can also take in a short introductory film about the Madison’s and their estate. As you exit the theatre you begin the short walk up to the home. Guided tours of the main floor of the home are scheduled to coincide with the departure of each group from the theatre. I was a little surprised by the state of the home – however I didn’t realize how much renovation it is still going through.
When the DuPont’s made their home at Montpelier they added 50 (that’s right, 50!) additional rooms on to this house. Once the historical society was granted the property they decided that they would be able to pull down all of these additional rooms and restore the home to its original state as it would be when the Madison’s lived there around the time of his presidency. Amazingly so much of the original structure was preserved and features that had been taken down had been put into storage on the property and were able to be salvaged. So while the physical construction work is complete, they are now currently undergoing a major search for the furniture and decorations that would have graced these rooms. You can read more about the exterior restoration here and the ongoing interior restoration here.
So, the inside leaves a little bit to be desired in some places. Dolley’s entertaining room is beautifully refurbished just as it would have been, even down to the placing of the paintings. It was a little weird to see cardboard cutouts of Dolley, James, Thomas Jefferson, et al at the dining table; it felt a little out of place. As you move upstairs there is still much unfurnished. They are primarily using this space for special exhibitions right now. We went at just the wrong time as there wasn’t currently an exhibition. The day before they had taken down the Dolley Madison fashion exhibit (I was SO disappointed when they said that – by one day!) and were working on setting up the bicentennial exhibition for the War of 1812.
Beyond the house there are many other fascinating stops if you have the time. Right out the back is a bronze statue of James and Dolley. You can also take a walk through the DuPont’s garden – they redesigned the original Madison gardens. Right near the entry to the garden is the Cedar of Lebanon tree that was one of the seedlings that Lafayette gave to Madison upon his return trip to the US. This tree is absolutely massive; my photos do not do it justice. You can also walk down to Madison’s Temple. Apparently beneath this temple is the icehouse. It overlooks a beautiful pond, the front grounds of Montpelier and off to the side is the aforementioned horse cemetery.
After we got our fill of the house and the immediate grounds we headed off on a walk toward the front of the property. First we encountered an active archeological dig site. There is the archaeology lab toward the rear of the property where you can look at some of the million or so artifacts that have been found on the property that belonged to the Madison’s. Most of the artifacts have come from the slave quarters or an area known as “Dolley’s Midden” or trash heap. There are five archaeological sites on the property: the mansion and yard, Mount Pleasant site (more on that in a minute), work complex, Gilmore Cabin Freedman’s Farm, and Confederate winter camp sites. They were currently working on the field slave quarters when we were there. You can keep up with the archaeological progress at their blog.
After passing the active site you come to the Mount Pleasant site. This is where the original Madison family home had been built by James’ grandfather, Ambrose. There are not any buildings above the ground, they buried over them to protect the site while they are waiting to have more of a chance for excavation. It is just nicely mown grass with a few signs right now. You can check out this aerial photograph of what the site looked like when some of it was excavated and the locations of the buildings.
The most poignant moment of the visit for me was the time we spent at the Madison cemetery. Beyond James and Dolley, his siblings and their descendants, his parents, and grandparents are buried here – although many are in unmarked graves. We were the only ones visiting the cemetery at the time at it was quiet and respectful. James’ gravestone you cannot miss – it is a giant obelisk, however it is very reserved. There is just the word, Madison, on it. Dolley’s grave, also marked by an obelisk but smaller, is directly behind James’. After we left the Madison cemetery we walked over to the slave cemetery. Located at the edge of the woods it is non-descript. The graves are only marked by infrequent head and foot field stones and the grave depressions.
That essentially rounded out our trip. It was so beautiful and enjoyable. I recommend you drop by it if you ever get the chance. You won’t be disappointed. I have linked to many of the interesting resource pages from the Montpelier website but certainly feel free to check it out yourself as there is SO much information to explore.

All the photos on this page were taken by me during our visit.

Copyright © 2012 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Heather -

    I loved your review of Montpelier and totally agree with all you said. My husband and I make a point of visiting different historical sites on our trips back and forth to South Carolina when we go to visit my son and his family. The trip to Montpelier was fascinating but we also found that it would have been helpful if there was someone available at the exhibit they had of different articles found during the dig to give us more information regarding them.

    Other than that we found the stop well worth the time and the surrounding area made it a enjoyable side trip and well worth the time.

    1. Down at the Archaeology Lab they did have a couple people there available for questions. This may have been an update since you were there.

  2. I went to Montpelier when I was really young. I really hope that I get a chance to go back as an adult!

    1. I am finding that as I visit sites again as an adult versus when I went as a kid I have a whole different experience.


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