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Presidential Architecture Showcased in Virginia

  • Ted Landphair

Thomas Jefferson chose Italian Renaissance as the design for his Monticello Mansion. He called his home “an essay in architecture.” (Carol M. Highsmith)

Thomas Jefferson chose Italian Renaissance as the design for his Monticello Mansion. He called his home “an essay in architecture.” (Carol M. Highsmith)

The next time you run into an American and have a moment to talk, ask him or her two quick questions. But first, set the scene:

You want that American to picture the green Virginia countryside, near the university town of Charlottesville. And there, to picture what was once the lovely home of one of the nation’s greatest presidents, a brilliant thinker and prolific writer who penned a large portion of one of the greatest documents in American history.

He was a gentleman farmer and slave-owner, and secretary of state before becoming president.

And he paid great attention to his fabulous mansion, whose name begins with the letters M-O-N-T.


Now here are the two questions:

What’s the name of that mansion? And who was that president?

We’re pretty sure your friend will answer “Monticello” and Thomas Jefferson. And that would not be wrong.

But this is the story of his dear friend, James Madison, who had his own beautiful home, Montpelier, not too far from Monticello.
James Madison’s story is often lost when the deeds of other “founding fathers” are recounted. A deep thinker and prolific writer, he wasn't much of a self-promoter. (The Montpelier Foundation)

James Madison’s story is often lost when the deeds of other “founding fathers” are recounted. A deep thinker and prolific writer, he wasn't much of a self-promoter. (The Montpelier Foundation)


Madison was overshadowed by Jefferson all his life. Yet it was Madison, not Jefferson or some other better-known patriot, who wrote most of our nation’s Constitution, as well as many of its first 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights.

Whereas Jefferson was outgoing and daring and quite a self-promoter, Madison, an aloof intellectual, was so private a person that he burned some of his own papers to keep historians from prying into them.

Madison also happened to be the shortest U.S. president, standing 163 centimeters (5 feet, four inches) tall.

Madison created a stunningly beautiful, peach-colored Georgian mansion with lush green grounds, overlooking Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Madison’s Montpelier has the look, and size, of a grand college building. (Aigrette, Flickr Creative Commons)

Madison’s Montpelier has the look, and size, of a grand college building. (Aigrette, Flickr Creative Commons)


Outside is a stately structure that looks like an ancient Greek temple. It has become Montpelier’s symbol. It’s actually a fancy cover for a brick-lined ice house.

Archaeologists have had fun exploring there and around the ruins of Madison’s blacksmith shop and slave cabins on the grounds.

Madison’s estate passed through several hands over the years. For a long time, it was owned by a member of the wealthy DuPont family of Delaware.

It is now owned by the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has restored Madison’s Montpelier and led the research into its colorful past.
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