Madison's Montpelier hits mark with makeover


MONTPELIER, Va. -- Montpelier, the home of James Madison, features new attractions, tours and exhibits along with other improvements to make the 2,700-acre estate more accessible for visitors.

All of this was unveiled earlier this year in conjunction with the commemoration of the 250th birthday of the fourth U.S. president. A yearlong Madison celebration is planned.

Events nationwide range from university symposiums and a special Madison exhibit at the Library of Congress to commemorations in small towns named Madison.

Festivities at Montpelier, set in the horse country of Virginia's Orange County, included ceremonies at the newly restored Madison family cemetery.

Visitors can now drive to a tree-shaded parking area close to the home after buying tickets at the Montpelier visitor center on Route 20.

Before, visitors had to be checked in at the visitor center and then were shuttled to the estate for tours.

At their leisure, guests can view an orientation video; take the 20-minute tour or the new, more in-depth tours, or wander through the home or the grounds.

Montpelier, home of James Madison.Attractions opened last year include walking trails through a 200-acre forest, a formal garden, family and slave cemeteries as well as excavation sites.

The new exhibits are:

  • A permanent exhibit of period furniture and artwork collected by Madison and his wife, Dolley.
  • A room that recreates a dinner honoring the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824, on view through Feb. 28, 2002.
  • New guided tours are:

  • A 45-minute, behind-the-scenes tour of the home, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily through Oct. 31.
  • A 90-minute walking tour of the estate, held at 2 p.m. on Saturdays through Oct. 27.
  • "We're trying to provide maximum flexibility to attract visitors and to provide a better experience," explained Randy Huwa, Montpelier's marketing director.

    "We hope this anniversary year will bring about a greater appreciation of Madison and what he did, and will increase interest in his home," he added.

    The changes make sense for Montpelier -- the last home of a founding father to open to the public -- which is trying to catch up.

    "We're the new kid on the block," Huwa said.

    The National Trust for Historic Preservation opened Montpelier in 1987 after acquiring it in 1984.

    Montpelier had six previous owners after its first sale following Madison's death, and little remained from the Madison era.

    Work, from excavating original rooms to acquiring Madison artifacts, started from scratch.

    A milestone was reached in July 1998, when Hilary Rodham Clinton opened exhibits in four rooms.

    Montpelier gets 80,000 visitors a year, small numbers compared with the 500,000 per year who visit Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate at Charlottesville, 25 miles to the south.

    Huwa said that many feel the shy and low-profile Madison, the author of the Constitution who held a divided nation together during the War of 1812, has yet to take his rightful place in history.

    Last December, President Clinton signed into law legislation creating the James Madison Commemoration Commission.

    The commission will publish Madison writings and organize events to provide "a better understanding of James Madison's contribution to political culture."

    This year, Montpelier will issue a guidebook, create a traveling exhibit, begin the preservation of a cabin built around 1870 by a former slave and commence the restoration of Dolley's private chambers.

    It also will continue excavations at the site of Madison's original boyhood home, built by his grandfather, who settled in Montpelier in 1726.

    His father built the core of the present home in 1760, nine years after Madison was born.

    Madison expanded the property, but following his death in 1836, Dolley moved to Washington. The estate was sold in 1844.

    Estate's background goes beyond Madison

    MONTPELIER, Va. -- Montpelier contains another side for visitors to experience.

    The estate's last owner was the duPont family. William duPont, who bought the estate in 1900, doubled its size to more than 50 rooms.

    In 1910, he built for his own use the Montpelier railway station, across from the general store and gas station that he also erected on Route 20, which now serve as the visitor center and gift shop.

    His daughter Marion took over Montpelier in 1928, and one of her rooms, the art deco-styled Red Room, is preserved for visitors.

    Marion duPont Scott -- married at one time to actor Randolph Scott -- bred horses and started the races held at Montpelier each November.

    Plans call for converting the unused railway station into a second visitor center over the next three years.

    Except certain holidays, Montpelier is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily from April through November, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily from December through March.

    Admission is $7.50 adults; $3.50 for ages 6 to 11; 5 and under enter free.

    For further information, including special events throughout the year, call Montpelier at (540) 672-2728 or visit its Web site at

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