The full Montpelier: Madison’s mansion gets its day in the sun

Photo: Jennifer Glass Photo: Jennifer Glass

It’s 4pm on a Friday, and Matt Reeves hasn’t eaten lunch yet. But the salt-and-pepper-haired director of Montpelier’s archaeology department is bouncing off the walls of his rustic office on the southeast side of the 2,650 acre estate nestled in the rolling fields of Orange County.

Reeves is ecstatic because his team of 11 full-time archaeologists and 17 students from James Madison University has been excavating the foundation of an 18th century brick building a stone’s throw away from the palatial columned mansion that most of us think of when we imagine Montpelier.

No doubt, the wall in the front yard is a striking find in its own right, but something even more unexpected occurred around 2:30pm the previous day as the archaeologists dug out a layer of Virginia dirt to reveal the structure. Instead of taking a 90-degree turn as they had predicted—and which would have been typical of a structural foundation—the wall turned at a 45-degree angle.

“It’s totally different than anything else. It’s not square, and we have no idea what it is,” said Reeves. “It’s going to be cool, that’s all we know.” And so, they keep digging.

Montpelier is no stranger to novelty and surprise these days, which can be both exhilarating and nerve-racking with the weight of responsibility it carries for its roughly 100 employees. But it’s not just the archaeological and preservation realms that are breaking new ground. The entire multimillion-dollar non-profit operation of the Montpelier Foundation is pioneering uncharted territory in the former plantation’s nearly three centuries of existence.

Compared to Monticello—our town’s beloved claim to fame that nabs nearly every tourist who passes through—or Mount Vernon or Williamsburg or Jamestown, Montpelier, 23 miles north of Charlottesville, gets a fraction of the visitors.

That’s partly because the current incarnation of James Madison’s former home is a mere baby in one of the most extensively historically preserved states in the nation. Many other estates have been in the preservation and tourism game for at least a century, but Montpelier just got started 14 years ago. And truth be told, they’re barely scratching the surface.

Leading the charge

Dressed in a navy blue skirt suit, Kat Imhoff zooms through the back roads of Montpelier on a golf cart. It’s a loaner she’s using while she allows the family of Carolina wrens to finish nesting in her own.

The future of Montpelier and the reach of Madison’s legacy lie squarely in the 55-year-old Imhoff’s hands as well. Having devoted her entire adult life to preserving natural and historic spaces, Imhoff took the helm of Montpelier early last year and wears the charge with confidence and pride.

“There’s this feeling that Madison is the Robin to Jefferson’s Batman, but it’s so not true,” said Imhoff. Creating consensus hasn’t always been sexy, she said, “but I think it’s starting to be. I think it’s beginning to be Madison’s time.”

It was at Montpelier that James Madison sat in his library—which was restored earlier this year—and wrote the Virginia Plan in 1787. It became the template for the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers into three branches, including the split of Congress into a Senate and a House based on population. Madison is also considered to be the premier author of the Bill of Rights.

But after Madison and his wife Dolley died, Montpelier and most of their possessions were sold off in 1844 to clear debts. Since then, the plantation and mansion have passed through eight owners. It wasn’t until 1984 that Montpelier’s last private owner, Marion Scott duPont of the millionaire mogul duPont family, left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in her will. But before she died, the duPonts changed the mansion in significant and not historically accurate ways, adding a third story and more than 20,000 square feet of living space, and covering the original brick with a coat of pink stucco.

Michael Quinn, the former president of the Montpelier Foundation, oversaw the five-year, $25 million restoration of the mansion to what it would have looked like when the Madisons lived there. When that was completed in 2008, Quinn decided to move on to head up the American Revolution Center in Philadelphia.

“I felt like I had really accomplished what I had set out to do,” said Quinn. “Of course there’s always more to do, which is why I recommended Kat for the job.”

Imhoff spent five years leading The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Montana, facilitating a massive land preservation by joining with the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to purchase more than 300,000 acres for $500 million.

“She brings a lot of energy to the work,” recalled Bebe Crouse, the director of communications for TNC in Montana who worked closely with Imhoff. “She has a great attention to detail and has always been very interested in historic preservation.”

Now Imhoff has launched the next stage of Montpelier’s restoration and growth, filling out the inside of the Madisons’ former mansion and erecting replica structures of the former slave quarters, all while initiating dozens of camps and week-long educational programs targeted at everyone from elementary school children to college students to state and local judges, politicians, and police officers.

It’s a daunting task. Madison’s belongings have been scattered across the world over the last 170 years, more than 100 descendants of slaves are pushing for more to be done to tell the hard story of slavery at the plantation, and the Center for the Constitution is rapidly outgrowing its physical space to hold classes and host the high-profile guest speakers Montpelier needs to compete with other heavyweight historical sites.

Of course, all of this takes money, which is in short supply these days.

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