Immortal words: At Montpelier, a place for ‘We, the people’ to learn—and record

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Montpelier's new Claude Moore Hall visually connects to its environment, but some contemporary details help it stand out for a modern era. Photo: Stephen Barling Montpelier’s new Claude Moore Hall visually connects to its environment, but some contemporary details help it stand out for a modern era. Photo: Stephen Barling

It’s a special opportunity to hear a luminary speak in person, but for Kat Imhoff, president of James Madison’s Montpelier, it’s a shame to hear those words evaporate without being captured in a recording. Like, say, when Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice, spoke to a group of young female leaders at Montpelier’s Center for the Constitution.

“To not be able to sit her down in a recording studio and capture her comments for a podcast or our website was such a tragedy,” says Imhoff. Moments like those were a driving force behind the creation of a new building to house the center, which exists to educate citizens about the Constitution.

Richmond-based architecture firm Bartzen + Ball has completed a number of projects at Montpelier, including the renovation of the carriage barn where the center had been housed until now. Imhoff and her colleagues asked for a new facility where they could “record and distribute video and audio materials,” explains architect Maynard Ball.

What they got is a smart, modern structure that answers that need while also connecting functionally and visually with the carriage barn, known as Lewis Hall. The new Claude Moore Hall sits right next door to the former barn, and the two structures form a courtyard overlooking a pond that once supplied Madison and his family with drinking water and ice.

“One of the things I think is so graceful about this building is how it sits in the natural environment,” says Imhoff. “Maynard was able to slide it in next to the existing building.”

Board-and-batten siding and a barnlike main volume allow Claude Moore Hall to echo its surroundings. “When you look across the pond, you see a series of agricultural buildings, and this building is in that vocabulary,” says Imhoff.

Yet it’s clearly a brand-new structure, with contemporary detailing and lots of glass facing the pond. Painting the hall dark gray, says Ball, makes it “recede into the woodland environment” and differentiates it from the signature green applied to many Montpelier buildings by the duPont family, who owned the property for decades.

At 7,000 square feet, Claude Moore Hall provides classroom space, a reception area, offices and a kitchenette, plus the “cherry on the sundae,” says Imhoff: a recording booth. Reclaimed barn wood from the site is used for wainscoting in the upstairs offices, while the public spaces downstairs use beech paneling to strike a modern note.

One special challenge was the fact that at Montpelier, a construction crew can’t just dig into the ground willy-nilly—that could result in the loss of artifacts that might someday be valuable to archaeologists looking for information about the Madison era. Ball was able to site Claude Moore Hall on the footprint of a former power plant built by the duPonts, on ground that had already been disturbed a century ago.

The new facility will host a variety of events for professionals and the public. It opened in late November.

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