George Washington had Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson had Monticello. The homes of the nation's founding fathers attract visitors seeking to learn more about them and their contributions to the United States. James Madison's Montpelier will soon be in a better position to tell his story. As VOA's Susan Logue reports, it is story that deserves telling.
At first glance, it may look like any construction site, with mixers, earthmovers and workers in hardhats. But workers at the stately brick mansion in the hills of Virginia aren't just building; they are restoring the house to the way it looked nearly 200 years ago.
Montpelier was home to the fourth president of the United States and is on its way to becoming "the nation's monument to James Madison," says Michael Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation.
"It's important to restore James Madison's home, because there is no other place that really tells his story," Quinn says. "He has no monument on the mall in Washington. He's not on the circulating currency of the American nation. James Madison's Montpelier is the one place where visitors from around the world will be able to encounter this individual."
Although not as well known as the first U.S. president, George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, James Madison played a very important role in the founding of the United States. Quinn says he was considered the driving force behind the document that shaped the nation's government.
"Again and again his contemporaries point to him as the man whose genius really made the Constitution a success, whose political skills ensured its adoption, and that really formed the foundation of the American union."
Madison was also the author of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 constitutional amendments, which guarantee Americans' basic rights, such as freedom of speech and religion.
Montpelier is where Madison grew up, spent most of his life and retired to in 1817, after serving two terms as president. He died here in 1836. The home, Quinn says, is an ideal place to pay tribute to him. "By the end of his life, Montpelier really reflected James Madison's identity, his sense of himself."
Madison's widow, Dolley, sold the house in 1844 to pay off debts accrued by her son, and it passed through a number of owners.
The home's last resident, Marion Dupont Scott lived here her entire life. She left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an independent non-profit organization, requesting that Montpelier be restored to the way it was when Madison lived here.
The Dupont family, which bought Montpelier in 1901, greatly enlarged the house, so by the time Marion Dupont Scott died in 1983, it was twice as big as it had been when Madison died.
Restoration work began in 2003 by tearing down their additions. As work continues, John Jeanes, Director of Restoration says great attention is being paid to even the smallest details to ensure everything is historically accurate.
"Montpelier is a unique case," Jeanes says. "You would not be as aggressive in removing modern features as we have here, but our criteria has always been would Madison recognize his home if he were to return."
More than 30 specialized craftsmen, trained in restoring old homes, have worked on Montpelier. Carpenter Keith Forry says this has been the highlight of his 40-plus years in the business.
"There is something about being able to work on a house of this historical value that takes it into a whole different realm," says Forry. "There are no corners cut here, and I've seen everybody rise to the opportunity."
Throughout most of the restoration, visitors have been able to tour the house and see a work in progress. But soon the privately funded, $24 million project will be complete. A special celebration to mark the end of five years of work on the house will be held at Montpelier on September 17, the 221st anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, to which James Madison made the greatest contribution.