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Beneath the Surface at Montpelier

An inside look at the restoration of a house that made history

Montpelier, the home of President James Madison, has undergone several makeovers. The foursquare Georgian residence built in 1760 was first expanded by newlyweds James and Dolley Madison in 1797. A dozen years later, Madison, then president, remodeled and expanded the house in the Palladian style often associated with Thomas Jefferson. In fact, Jefferson's master builder, James Dinsmore, spearheaded the work at Montpelier not long after completing Monticello. Almost a century later, in 1901, industrialist William DuPont converted Montpelier into a sprawling neoclassical mansion.

The current restoration team, including our company, Mustard Seed, was asked to perform a radical reversal of the DuPont alterations, restoring Montpelier to its condition circa 1825. That meant demolishing several thousand square feet of additions and stripping the original building down to bare bones. Deconstruction of the Madison-era portions of the house has proceeded with painstaking care to preserve original fabric. Teams of archaeologists and archivists scurry behind workmen to glean subtle clues about life at Montpelier 200 years ago. Because most of the bricks and timber will soon be covered by restoration finishes, there has been an intensive effort to learn as much as possible before plaster and paint are reapplied. Photography, CAD drawings, paint analysis, dendrochronology, and a host of related processes have been used to exploit this unique window of opportunity.

Materials tell the story

View photos to learn more about how the restoration team uses brick, wood beams, and lath and plaster to recreate the original appearance of the house—both inside and out.   
To read even more about Montpelier, visit James Madison's home is almost finished—again, from Fine Homebuilding Issue #192 (Dec 2007/Jan 2008), pp.20-22. And to learn about the techniques Scott McBride and his crew are using to restore the home's first-floor windows, read Modern techniques restore a historic house, from the same issue.
November 6, 2007