Though you might think it would be. Like Mt. Vernon and Monticello, Montpelier is a beautiful estate. And Dolley Madison was certainly one of our more colorful first ladies so you’d think the house she lived in would give you a feel for that personality.
James Madison inherited the home from his parents in 1809 – but he and Dolley had actually lived in it earlier. His father built it in 1760. Dolley, of course, was a great entertainer and Montpelier was the site of the first icebox in Virginia. (Dolley was also the first to serve ice cream at the White House.)
Madison, in fact, thought that someday his home might be a tourist attraction and actually built on to it with future tourists in mind. However (and this is where the problem arises) after he died, Dolley sold Montepelier and the furniture was also sold or given away. For the next fifty years, the estate was owned by six different owners until 1901 when William du Pont Sr. bought it. He added a second floor, more than doubling the square footage. Besides the structure looking different from the original, the brick was covered with yellow stucco. The house stayed in the du Pont family until 1983 when the National Trust for Historic Preservation purchased it.
And as the National Trust for Historic Preservation is historically preserving it, they’re paying as much attention to the du Pont history as they are to the Madisons’. Therefore, there just isn’t a lot of original Madison furniture (though there are replicas of furniture from the time period). So, it’s not the same color, it’s not the same size and there isn’t very much inside that James and Dolley sat on, slept on or ate on. I did not come out of there feeling as if I better knew the Madisons.
One part that is an original is the garden temple – although the temple is a piece of Roman civic architecture in the midst of a beautiful garden – it is actually covering the two story-deep ice well which allowed the Madisons to have ice cream and cool drinks all summer. A rarity in the 1800s.
We visited Montpelier a month after 9/11. Ken and I, Kelli and her oldest (and at that time only) munchkin and my mom took a roundabout route to a conference I was doing in Lynchburg. Indeed, the pictures in my scrapbook on the page before these photos are of the damaged Pentagon.
James and Dolley lived at Montpelier until 1836. He was the last living survivor of the Continental Congress an honor which inspired him to say …
Having outlived so many of my contemporaries, I shouldn’t forget that I may be thought to have outlived myself.