Extending the Madison-era Fence Line: The Fence Line Grotto and Fence Line South Excavations

Abstract: In 2001 The Montpelier Foundation initiated an architectural, archaeological and documentary investigation into the Montpelier home and landscape to establish the feasibility of returning it to a configuration consistent with the ownership of Madison, Jr. during the retirement years (Gree, et al. 2007; Reeves 2007b). Over the 18-month investigation it was determined that sufficient evidence survived to make such a restoration possible and, with the aid of a generous donation by the Paul Mellon estate and the blessing of numerous federal and public historic preservation organizations, the restoration was initiated in October 2003.

As part of the overall architectural restoration, the importance of the restoration of the garden landscape that immediately surrounded the mansion was also established (Reeves 2007b). Just as landscaping undertaken by the modern householder reflect the aesthetics and preferences of the owner as much as any overarching concepts such as market improvements, so too are architectural and garden landscape spaces related in the 18th and 19th centuries. Similar trends can be seen in Europe, for example, with the transition from the formal Georgian landscapes immediately surrounding aristocratic mansions to a more organic, bucolic style that included custom-built ruins of structures such as monasteries.

Although not present in the modern landscape, historic documentation revealed that the 19th-century landscape of the Madisons was bounded by a formal fence and thereby forming the mansion’s formal yard area. As such, the fence line would have served as a boundary not just physical, but also one in the social and ideological order of the wealthy elite of 19th-century America. Restoring the fence line to the landscape would therefore serve two purposes: (1) to accurately restore the 19th-century landscape within which the mansion would have sat; and (2) improve the verisimilitude of the visitor experience by introducing them to boundaries in the landscape.

The original identification of the front fence line was undertaken in the Front Yard project (2005-2007) wherein the front gate, fence line, carriage siding and road were identified (Marshall [2011]-b). Plans for visitor access to the mansion, however, involved the redirection of current access routes—a duPont path that joined the mansion to the swimming pool and facilities, now the site of the new Visitors Center—to reflect the 19th-century road to the craft complex and part of the original carriage road that extended from Willow Gate (Trickett 2010g; see Figure 1). To maintain the accuracy and verisimilitude of this experience, the excavations of the Front Yard were extended into two related project areas: “Fence line South” and “Fence line Grotto.”

As with the Front Yard excavation project, the purpose of these two related excavations was to identify the location and nature of the post-holes of the early-19th-century fence line, and establish its relationship to the 19th-century road and any other landscape features. With this information, a new visitors path could be established the echoed the original 19th-century road and therefore the steps of visitors and slave-workers during Madison’s retirement at Montpelier.