Capstone in Montpelier Restoration Achieved with Refurnishing of Mr. Madison's Library

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On Presidents’ Day, February 17, 2014, The Montpelier Foundation will unveil James Madison’s refurnished library, marking the culmination of another chapter of Montpelier’s “Presidential Detective Story.” The event will be accompanied by a book signing at the James Madison’s Montpelier Visitor Center from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. with Dr. Myron Magnet, author of The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817. Mansion tours will be offered on the half-hour from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Special tours about the Constitution and Madison as “Father of the Constitution” will be offered at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of Presidents’ Day Weekend.

Looming at more than 4,000 volumes, James Madison’s library was widely recognized as one of the most significant in America and represented a lifetime dedicated to knowledge. Madison’s library included a diverse collection of books about history, philosophy, law, religion, science, architecture, language, agriculture, and politics. “The variety in subject matter reflects Madison’s education and adamant conviction that freedom of thought was integral of a true democracy,” says Meg Kennedy, Director of Museum Services. Having identified nearly 1,800 titles of the original collection, Montpelier’s curatorial team has installed the furnishings in a manner that represents the interior design of Madison’s retirement years (1817-1836).

Near the end of his life, Madison planned for the dispersal of his personal collection of books to friends, family, and institutions, including a gift of what ultimately numbered 431 books to the University of Virginia’s growing library, where Madison served as rector for eight years. Following his death in 1836, Dolley Madison selected volumes from her husband’s shelves, taking care not to duplicate titles that were already in the University’s collection. Sadly, the University’s collection of Madison’s books was destroyed during the catastrophic Rotunda fire on October 27, 1895. In June 1854, the remaining volumes in Madison’s collection were sold on the steps of the Orange County Court House to satisfy stepson John Payne Todd’s outstanding debts. Now in 2014, The Montpelier Foundation is rediscovering a library lost 160 years ago.

“James Madison’s library is one of the most historically significant rooms in the nation - where a 35-year old Madison took it upon himself to find a way to save the great American experiment,” remarks Christian Cotz, Director of Education and Visitor Engagement. “The work he began here in 1786 culminated in the creation of the Virginia Plan, which at the Federal Convention in Philadelphia became the foundation of the Constitution we know today.”

The architectural restoration of Montpelier was completed in 2008, and during the last five years, Montpelier’s curatorial team has been advancing the “Presidential Detective Story,” an extensive research undertaking with the goal of relocating and acquiring objects that help visitors envision the context in which the Madisons lived. From carpet tacks to wallpaper fragments, undated receipts, and requests for goods abroad, Montpelier researchers are carefully tracking and analyzing all available physical and historical data to paint a more complete picture of life at Montpelier, ensuring that all visitors have an opportunity to better understand the life and character of the Father of the Constitution and the nation’s defining First Lady.

 

Caroline Godfrey