Saturday, December 3, 2011

Montpelier and Monticello

Montpelier, Madison's Home
Nine US Presidents were born in ol’ Virginnie. So it seemed fitting that if I were to visit Mount Vernon, I ought to go west to see Montpelier and Monticello too, after all they are only thirty miles apart.

Back in colonial times, thirty miles was a long day’s travel, so I doubt Madison and Jefferson regularly ran into each other on the street.

Jefferson by far had the nicest home, but not the best view. Madison had a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains that is simply spectacular, and hasn’t changed a bit since he was alive.

Montpelier was quite interesting from several standpoints. It was a duplex. James Madison’s parents were still alive when he added on to accommodate his new family, creating the double residency. His mother lived into her nineties. She had her own staff, kitchen, and schedule for ‘dinner’. Dolly Madison was quite the hostess and much more modern. Her family ate breakfast and had dinner a couple hours later than her mother-in-law. It seemed they all got along well, and the elder Mrs. Madison was well respected and liked by all who visited.

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains

There are some formal gardens laid out by a French couple, hired by Madison. While they worked there, several of the slaves learned to speak French. The gardens are quite nice and symmetrical, with matching lion sculptures and even hedges all round. To the east a hill rises. It was then, and is still, a forest, though quite a different one than existed two hundred years ago. Apparently there are almost no hickory trees in the older forests, they were wiped out by a disease, and the forest is thicker since there haven’t been as many fires allowed to sweep through in the last century. Today most of Madison’s land is devoted to breeding horses for racing. The house overlooks a racetrack.

Montpelier's Formal Garden
Under the house there were rooms for storage and off to the side (also underground) were the kitchens, a design that was intended to reduce the possibility of fire.  It must have worked!

It’s not clear how much influence Jefferson had on Madison’s remodeling of Montpelier. They have many features in common. The underground kitchen is one element. Both have beautiful large outdoor spaces for entertaining and exquisite views. The road up to Monticello is circular as it sits on an actual hilltop, whereas Montpelier sits up on the side of a hill with a long dramatic road leading up to it.  

Both Presidents are buried on their respective holdings along with their families. A slave cemetery is near the President’s grave at Montpelier. While no headstones exist, the wooden caskets caved in and there are depressions quite visible under the plant-cover.

The Nickel's view of Monticello
Both Presidents died bankrupt or nearly so. Their respective estates were sold. In the case of Monticello, the new owners kept it in as pristine condition as possible. However, Montpelier ended up in the hands of the DuPont family and was expanded threefold. When it was returned to the public, the restoration back to the original house cost many millions of dollars. At the visitor’s center, a couple of the DuPont rooms have been reassembled with original furnishings and they are impressive. 

While both men had extensive libraries, only Jefferson’s original books are still in place. Monticello is filled with many of Jefferson’s furnishings, scientific instruments, his interesting bed in a see-through nook (where he also died), and many of the collections he put together of native crafts, maps, and artifacts. There is a dumb-waiter hidden in the side of the fireplace designed specifically to bring up wine bottles from the wine cellar below. Double doors open and close together thanks to a system of chains hidden under the floor. It works so well, the chains have never had to be repaired or replaced. There’s also an impressive clock that runs by means of weights. One weight moves down to mark the days of the week that are printed on the wall. However, there wasn’t enough room on the wall of the entry hall, so there’s a hole in the floor for the weight to pass through. Saturday is in the basement.  

Both homes are impressive, but Monticello is better known and more frequently visited for good reason. It is a masterpiece of colonial architecture, full of innovations, the product of a true multifaceted genius.  While Montpelier is subdued and was the perfect environment for an introverted intellectual like Madison.  The country was lucky to have them both at a time when critical, creative, and rational thinking was needed the most.

James and Dolly Madison


Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson's experimental gardens where he liked to try
new plants to see how they might fare in
Virginia's climate. Now used to keep old varieties
of plants producing seeds for the future.

One of four "necessaries" in the underground work areas
of Monticello. All were connected to a 'tube' that
emptied out onto the hillside. 

Inside one of the below ground kitchens.
Taken at Monticello but Montpelier's kitchens
were almost the same.

Some of the nice countryside near
Montpelier. The area around Monticello is
fairly built up as the University of Virginia
is in the town below, Jefferson was most proud
of his role in starting that University.