Reinterpreting James Madison’s Montpelier

Back in October, I visited James Madison’s Montpelier with Bob Weyeneth, who was my graduate advisor at the University of South Carolina. Bob was co-director of USC’s Public History Program and is still a professor of history there. He was in Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia’s symposium on Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape. Several years ago, students in his graduate-level Historic Site Interpretation class created a website, “Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801-1865,” and even identified a surviving slave quarters building on the campus. Since then, Bob has been involved in efforts to interpret the role of slavery on university campuses across the country. But that’s a story for another post.

So, I met him in Charlottesville and we drove to Montpelier for the day. We were most interested in two aspects of the house: 1. The 2003 “restoration” of the house to its appearance when James Madison lived there after leaving the presidency and 2. the new interpretive exhibits on the role of slavery during Madison’s ownership of the house.

James Madison’s Montpelier

A Brief History of Montpelier
The oldest section of Montpelier was completed in 1764 by James Madison’s father. Madison expanded the house in 1797 when he and his wife, Dolley, moved back to the Piedmont after his term in the U.S. House of Representatives ended. While he was president, Madison expanded the central section of the house again and added two one-story wings on either side. In 1817, when he left the presidency, James and Dolley took up permanent residence at Montpelier.

James died in 1836 and Dolley sold Montpelier in 1844. The plantation changed hands another six times before being purchased by William and Annie Rogers duPont in 1901. The duPonts added even larger wings that nearly doubled the size of the house and stuccoed the exterior, along with other interior renovations. Marion duPont Scott inherited Montpelier from her father in 1928 and bequeathed the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation on her death in 1983.

“Restoration” of the House
Twenty years later, the National Trust embarked upon a highly controversial restoration of the mansion to its 1820 appearance which included removing the duPont-era additions, restoring the interior decor, and removing the stucco from the exterior to expose the original brick. While Bob and I agreed that being the home of a U.S. President gives Montpelier a “pass” on emphasizing Madison in the interpretation of the house, its later history shouldn’t be completely ignored. During our guided tour of the house, the docent did not mention the duPonts at all, until Bob specifically asked her about them and their ownership of the house. While I understand that it is hard to cover 250 years of history in a one-hour tour, Montpelier probably wouldn’t have survived intact had the duPonts not purchased it. It is all too easy to imagine the property as the “Montpelier Estates,” cut up into 1 and 2 acre lots.

View of Montpelier’s front lawn from the house portico

The interior of one room, the music room which Marion duPont Scott renovated in the Art Deco style, was preserved and recreated in a wing of the visitor center. Sadly, Bob and I were unable to visit the room because the wing was closed the day we visited in preparation for a special event that night. There was a nice plaque at the entrance to the wing that described the duPonts’ ownership of the house. However, as this wing is located on the far side of the cafe from the main section of the visitor center, it is unlikely that many visitors actually see it.

Interpreting Slavery at Montpelier
In contrast to our disappointment with the lack of interpretation of Montpelier’s history after Madison, we were mostly impressed with how slavery is being interpreted there. First, there are excellent exhibits in the house’s cellars entitled “The Mere Distinction of Colour.” One of the challenges of interpreting the lives of enslaved people is the lack of first-person primary source material. For the most part, exhibits rely on letters and diaries of the slaveholders as well as court records, wills, newspaper articles and advertisements, and archaeological findings. There are a few first-person accounts, autobiographies mostly written many years later, but piecing together the everyday lives of individual enslaved persons is difficult. The exhibits at Montpelier do as fine a job as I have seen. What is unique – and exceptional – about the Montpelier exhibit is how the reality of the lives of the enslaved is contrasted with the ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution, written was largely written by James Madison.

Secondly, the Montpelier Foundation is reconstructing a number of outbuildings where enslaved people would have worked and lived at the plantation, based on archaeological evidence. More exhibits that are part of “The Mere Distinction of Colour” are on display inside these buildings. This work is still underway, with at least two more buildings planned, and I look forward to revisiting when the reconstruction are complete.

Reconstructed buildings in the South Yard

Finally, Montpelier offers a special “Montpelier’s Enslaved Community” guided tour of the plantation (not the mansion), included with the price of the house tour. Bob and I both applaud the guide’s efforts to tell stories of individuals, rather than a dry recitation of dates and facts. However, the tour started with more general information about the institution of slavery in the United States. We assumed this information was included to provide basic background information for those less well-versed in subject of slavery, but the location of this stop on the tour – the middle of the parking lot – was questionable and we felt it could have been skipped altogether. We dropped out of the tour about halfway through, so perhaps we missed the best part.

In conclusion, I think Montpelier is setting the standard for interpreting slavery at historic sites that in the past have been silent on the subject. Notably, they are working to incorporate slavery into all interpretative elements of the site, not just “The Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibits. The house tour docent talked quite a bit about the role of enslaved people in the house, Paul Jennings who was Madison’s manservant.  Montpelier has even extended their interpretation into Reconstruction and even the Jim Crow era, with the Gilmore Cabin and the Montpelier Train Station, but I’ll save those for another post. I just wish they did more to acknowledge that the mansion has a history beyond when Madison lived there.

How I Became an Historic Preservation Activist

It began with a newspaper article.

Although I have a master’s degree in Public History, I only worked professionally as an historic preservationist for a brief time, as the Main Street Program Manager for the City of Lancaster, Texas. When that program was defunded, I moved into another job in local government. Over the years, one job led to another, but never back to historic preservation. By 2009, my family and I lived in Berryville, the county seat of Clarke County. We had been in Berryville for five years, the longest time I had lived any one place (at that time) since I was 10 years old. For the first time in my life, I felt that I had a vested interest in my community.

In early 2009, I read an article in the local newspaper about Georgetown University’s plans to build a retreat center on top of the Blue Ridge. Georgetown University had purchased a parcel on the Clarke County side of the mountain’s ridge line with sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley. The property included a 1894 Gothic Revival farmhouse known as Hohenheim (“High Home” in German).

Hohenheim, in March 2009, before restoration

The area around Hohenheim, including Hohenheim, had been recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Bear’s Den Rural Historic District. The district is characterized by large, secluded homes built by wealthy Washingtonians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as summer retreats from the heat of the city.

Georgetown University submitted a special use permit application to build a “contemplative center” on the Hohenheim site for their overnight student retreat program. Georgetown’s plans, according to the newspaper article, included demolishing Hohenheim. The application had gone to a public hearing before the Planning Commission and several people spoke out in opposition to the demolition, including the chair of the Clarke County Historic Preservation Commission (CCHPC), but no action had been taken. I wasn’t worried. Surely, I thought, the Planning Commission will make saving the house a condition of approval for the special use. I was wrong.

A few weeks later, there was a second newspaper article. The Planning Commission had recommended approval of the application and staff had not opposed the demolition of the house. Reading the article, I was stunned. How could Clarke County allow a contributing structure in a brand new historic district to be demolished? Someone should do something, I thought! Then I realized that I was someone and I should do something. And so I did.

I reached out to other local historic preservationists, starting with the newly-formed local branch of Preservation Virginia, the statewide historic preservation advocacy non-profit and met its then-president, Bob Stieg. By the time the Clarke County Board of Supervisors held their public hearing on the Georgetown application, we were prepared and organized. And we saved the house.

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as speaking at that one meeting, but it started there. The Board of Supervisors took no action that night, giving us the opportunity to meet with representatives of Georgetown University to discuss alternatives to demolishing the house. Final approval of Georgetown’s application took another year and the university agreed to save the house.

After that first meeting, the chair of the CCHPC approached me and asked if I would be interested in serving on the commission. There was a vacancy.

A few months later, I was appointed to the commission and have served on it ever since. I am currently the chair. I also volunteered to be the secretary for the fledgling Northern Shenandoah Valley Branch of Preservation Virginia. When the branch was spun off from Preservation Virginia as an independent organization about 18 months later, I served as its vice president and then president.

In October 2013, Bob Stieg and I attended the dedication of Georgetown University’s Calcagnini Contemplative Center. The university moved the house in order to improve the view of the valley from the new dining hall, but it was beautifully restored.

Me, at Georgetown University’s Calganini Contemplative Center dedication in October 2013, with Hohenheim in the background, restored.

And it all began with a newspaper article.

A Visit to Staunton

Because Clarke County is a Certified Local Government (CLG), members of the Historic Preservation Commission are required to receive training once a year. Each year, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, in partnership with Preservation Virginia, holds a series of one-day workshops around the state. This year, the closest one to me was in Staunton.

Beverly Street, downtown Staunton

Staunton is a city of about 24,000 in the upper Shenandoah Valley. Founded in 1747, Staunton is best known as the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson, the location of Mary Baldwin University, and the home of the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse, the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater. It is also a Virginia Main Street community with a well-preserved downtown. Although founded in 1747, most of the downtown buildings date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Our training session was held at the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art. The center occupies the former Eakleton Hotel, a lovely 1894 Second Empire style building on New Street, and houses the offices of the Historic Staunton Foundation, the Augusta County Historical Society and the Staunton Augusta Arts Center. Many of the building’s interior features have been preserved, including tile floors and the main staircase to the upper levels.

Farmhouse Kitchen & Wares

Wisely, the training organizers did not provide lunch for the group, instead giving us a list of restaurants within walking distance of the Smith Center. How smart is that? How many times have you been to a conference or meeting in another city and didn’t see anything other than the conference center? A group of us ended up at the Farmhouse Kitchen & Wares on Beverly Street. We happened to be there on their 1st anniversary, so they gave every one a small glass of Champagne to celebrate.

Marquis Building (1895, Romanesque Revival)

After the training ended, I took the opportunity to do a little “market research” (I went shopping!). I strolled down Beverly Street, from New Street to Lewis Street. My finds included Black Swan Books and Music, where I found a 1945 edition of The Art of German Cooking and Baking, by Mrs. Lina Meier. Most used book stores are crowded and haphazardly arranged, but Black Swan is open, airy and well organized. My final stop was Latitudes, a fair trade store, where I picked up a number of birthday gifts as well as some jewelry for myself.

After being actively involved and observing downtown revitalization efforts for a couple of decades now, I have a few thoughts on Staunton’s success. First, the downtown has anchors to attract visitors, notably the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center and the Blackfriars Playhouse. Secondly, the city invested in attractive parking solutions. The parking garage that faces New Street has a street-level storefront spaces that houses the visitors center and the upper facade of the garage looks like other buildings on the street. I definitely want to go back, especially to see a play or two at the Blackfriars.