Throughout the Madisons’ retirement years (1817-1836), visitors to Montpelier were often surprised “at seeing [Madison's] negroes go to church [on] Sunday. They were gaily dressed, the women in bright-coloured calicoes; and, when a sprinkling of rain came, up went a dozen umbrellas.”1 This past Sunday, visitors to Montpelier also donned their much-needed umbrellas to pay homage to the generations of enslaved African Americans who lived and labored at Montpelier.
The summer has flown by and in the archaeology department we have made much progress in our excavations in the South Yard. We have completely uncovered the two southernmost slave quarters in the South Yard and have redefined our understanding of these buildings.
The seating furniture that populated Montpelier during James and Dolley Madison’s retirement varied from high-style French chairs in the Drawing Room and painted fancy chairs in the Dining Room to the furniture of D. C. cabinetmaker William Worthington that Madison retained after his second presidential term.
In “Mr. Livingston, I presume?” Montpelier’s curatorial team described the most recent additions to the Madisons’ prized Montpelier interior—the initial installation of statuary in the Drawing Room and Library, including six life-sized busts and two reductions. According to expert sculpture consultant and art historian, Dr. Pamela Potter-Hennessey, the proper display of these sculptures is often as critical as the artwork itself.
The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Central Virginia and many parts of the Eastern United States on August 23, 2011 was not the first of its kind to tremble the area. James and Dolley Madison’s historic Montpelier home lies squarely within the Central Virginia Seismic Zone, and while noticeable earthquakes are highly irregular, they are not uncommon.
As we reported in an earlier post, the construction crew delayed building the second smokehouse to allow our archaeologists time to confirm its precise location. The archaeology team sprang into action and found the evidence to confirm where the original smokehouse stood.
“The statuary and painting at Montpelier exceeded anything my youthful imagination had ever conceived.”1 This account of Anne Mercer Slaughter’s 1825 visit to the Madisons is representative of the awe visitors recalled following their time in Orange.
By now you have probably seen the mysterious Facebook photos of the cutouts at the Madisons’ Dining Room Table. In addition to James and Dolley, the dinner guests include presidents (Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson), a Revolutionary War hero (the Marquis de Lafayette), a writer and Washington friend of the Madisons (Margaret Bayard Smith), and Dolley’s sister (Anna Payne Cutts).
The next time you walk into the Montpelier Dining Room, take a close look at the faces around the table. You will see figures of the Madisons and several of their notable dinner guests, enjoying one of Dolley’s sumptuous feasts. This scene is one of the new mansion exhibits that help visitors experience Montpelier’s famous people and events.
The last couple of days have been busy! The construction crew completed the first smokehouse frame in the South Yard, where enslaved domestic workers and craftsmen lived during James and Dolley Madison’s time.