Originally named Mount Pleasant, this 2700 acre plantation near Orange, Virginia, was first owned by President James Madison's grandfather, Ambrose Madison, who built the first house and farm buildings there in 1732. He and his wife, Frances, were some of the area's wealthiest residents. About 30 years later, James Madison Senior built the house that became known as Montpelier. It was a small, two-story brick house. James Madison Junior, the President, grew up at Montpelier with his eleven siblings. Between 1801 and 1817, Madison was occupied with his various public offices and lived in Washington, D.C. with his wife Dolley Payne Todd Madison. After Madison's second term as President of the United States ended, he and Dolley retired to Montpelier, although they remained socially and politically active and received frequent guests. Madison added two wings to the main house and built the temple (a small round dome supported by a circle of Grecian pillars) and ice house on the north side. He and Dolley were avid gardeners and spent a large part of their time working in the extensive formal gardens south of the house. President Madison died at Montpelier in 1836.
During the Madisons' tenure at Montpelier, the plantation grew tobacco and other crops. Madison owned about 100 slaves which were absolutely necessary to the success and prosperity of the plantation, although he believed that slavery was terribly wrong. After he retired, he supported the plan to send liberated slaves to colonize Liberia in west Africa. There is some evidence that when he had to sell some of his slaves, he tried to keep families together and he also tried to sell them to close neighbors so that the slaves would not have to go to a totally unfamiliar place. In addition to the field slaves, there would have been house slaves who did the cooking and cleaning, and shop slaves who performed work in the smithy, gardens, and other areas.
Dolley Madison moved back to Washington, D.C. after the death of her husband. Madison's debts and the failure of the tobacco crop forced her to sell Montpelier in 1844 to a friend from Richmond. The property passed through several other hands before being purchased in 1901 by William duPont, Senior, and his wife Annie. Their daughter, Marion duPont Scott, lived at Montpelier and raised racehorses there, eventually building a training course and a steeplechase course.1 The duPonts preserved Montpelier, while adding more rooms to the house and extending the gardens, and in 1984 Marion duPont Scott bequeathed the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Since that time, Montpelier has been the subject of much archeological inquiry. Large portions of the house, gardens, and grounds have undergone scrutiny. One room remains decorated the way Marion duPont Scott left it, while other ground floor rooms have been restored to their Madison-era appearance. Artifacts and pictures are on display throughout the house, documenting the history of the house and its most famous occupants. The walled gardens have been restored by The Garden Club of Virginia. Behind the mansion is the 200 acre James Madison Landmark Forest, an almost untouched piece of original hardwood forest.
Many members of the Madison family, including Ambrose, James, and Dolley Madison, are buried in the family cemetary about 1/3 mile from the mansion, on the original homestead site. James' and Dolley's graves are marked with tall engraved obelisks, while the older graves are only depressions in the groung. Nearby, the old slave cemetary has recently been discovered.
Today, Montpelier is open for visitors. April through October, the grounds are open between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.; the rest of the year the grounds are open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Montpelier is closed only on Thanksgiving Day, New Year's Day, and December 25. Across Route 20 from the entrance gate (the old railroad station; about 30 miles north of Charlottesville, VA or 8 miles south-west of Orange) stands the visitors' information center and museum gift shop. All of the Montpelier buildings except the mansion are painted a uniform green color. Regular adult admission is USD 9.00, and you automatically get the Acoustiguide2 audio tour. I recommend budgeting at least a couple of hours for a visit to Montpelier. A person could probably spend all day there and still not see everything.
After leaving the visitors' center, drive across the road to the main property. First you pass the race courses, which are still in regular use today. Marion duPont Scott initiated the Montpelier Hunt Races in 1929 and they are always held on the first Saturday of November. Nearer the mansion, there is a place to park your car. A 15-minute video summarizing President Madison's life is shown throughout the day inside the house and serves as a good introduction. Although human guides are present and willing to answer any questions, visitors are free to walk around and view the different parts of Montpelier in any order.
1. Two sons of Man O' War, Annapolis and Battleship (the first American-bred winner of The Grand National) as well as Annapolis' offspring Accra are buried on the property, their graves marked with marble headstones. Other champions of the duPont stables are memorialized in photographs inside the mansion.
2. I last visited Montpelier on September 29, 2002; prices and hours were accurate at that time. The Acoustiguide needs some explanation. Basically it is a long wand with a neck strap. While you are strolling around the grounds, you will see numbered signs posted in various places. By entering the number into your Acoustiguide, you can listen to a recorded message about the place. You can listen to the messages in any order and you can skip some or hear others again. You don't even need to be standing next to the numbered sign to listen to its associated message. The map in the visitors' brochure also shows the approximate position of each message sign on the property so you can visit the ones in which you are most interested.
3. Information was also gathered from the official Montpelier website at http://www.montpelier.org