Madison's Golden Key?


Does the number 1.618 mean anything to you? Perhaps not, but it is a number of importance to many mathematicians, architects, art history scholars, and maybe to our very own James Madison. In fact, it is the latest clue in the Presidential Detective Story.

1.618, known as phi (φ in Greek), is the number used in the calculation of “Golden Ratio” proportions. Although the golden rule of proportion can be applied to almost any shape, the Golden Rectangle is perhaps the most typical manifestation of this concept. The ratio of the Golden Rectangle’s sides is always 1 to 1.618 and is considered to produce proportions that are well-balanced and pleasing to the human eye. This mathematical construct is alternately known as the Divine Proportion or the Golden Mean, and has been noted by historians in the design of numerous ancient monuments such as the Parthenon (447 BC) and the Great Pyramid of Giza (2550 BC). The concept is also frequently linked to the works of Leonardo da Vinci and other noteworthy artists.

Rather astonishingly, the Golden Ratio is seemingly present in several of the design elements of the Montpelier house and landscape. It may seem like some fanciful notion from the latest Dan Brown novel or National Treasure film, but please keep reading; this is no “illuminati” conspiracy theory. Potential examples of the Golden Ratio at Montpelier can be noted in the mansion’s proportions, the dimensions and arrangement of outbuildings, and even in the location of Madison’s Temple. Other instances have been noted in the results of archaeological investigations, such as the location of the formal grounds front gate, the design of the fence-line arc, and the placement of the carriage road.

Indeed, the initial observation of phi was noted in a somewhat obscure landscape element: a short-lived (ca. 1797-1808) cobble-paved carriage sweep that extended from the carriage road to the steps of the portico. The archaeological remnants of this pavement apparently conform to the dimensions of a “Golden” ellipse.

The most immediately recognizable instances of phi may be present in the mansion’s proportions. The original 1763 Georgian mansion of James Sr. and Nelly Madison adheres to the form of a Golden Rectangle. In 1797, the original home was converted to a duplex to accommodate the new household of James and Dolley. It was lengthened and a front portico was added; the dimensions of the portico are documented to have been specifically designed by the future President Madison. As compared to the original house length, the length of the extension conforms to golden ratio proportions (the two lengths approximate the 1 to 1.618 ratio).

Furthermore, the new width of the house with the portico is in Golden balance with the new length. The mansion wings were added in 1808; each approximates the Golden Rectangle proportions. The proportions of the wings’ width as compared to that of the main body of the house, also seem to pay respect to the phi ratio (i.e. the width of the wings to the width of the house is in a ratio of 1 to 1.618).

On the landscape, the location of the Temple, the length of the fence-line arc, and the arrangement of the South Yard domiciles may have some phi associations. The “Golden Angle” (always 137.5 degrees) is another derivative of the phi concept. Applying this angle to the central mansion entrance creates lines leading directly to the Temple and Grotto. It should be noted that the present-day Boxwood Grotto post-dates the Madison period but is thought to represent the former location of a Madison-era feature, such as a dovecote or other landscape folly.

The Golden Angle also applies to the length of an arc, so it is noteworthy that the dimensions of Madison’s fence-line arc meet these criteria.

In many of his traits and accomplishments, James Madison can truly be considered a product of the Enlightenment. He looked to the past for his design of the Constitution. He introduced Neoclassical elements into the design of his house and grounds.

Is it possible that he also held an appreciation for a somewhat obscure, ancient mathematical concept? At this point, we don’t know. To be absolutely clear, the potential pattern of Golden Ratio instances at Montpelier, though an enticing concept, requires further scrutiny to be truly confirmed or disconfirmed. It may be that the architects of Montpelier were completely unaware of the phi concept and any associations are coincidental. Likewise, the designs may be based off of other standardized rules of proportion that just happen to mimic the Golden ratio in some instances.

One major question concerns the acceptable margin of error to be found between a potential conceptual design and the finished product. A cursory evaluation of the measurements indicates that most fall within a 97-99 percentile range of accuracy, but the true statistical significance has not been evaluated.

Until more rigorous study is undertaken, the notion of phi being the “Golden Key” to Montpelier must be resigned to the realm of entertaining speculation. If nothing else, it’s certainly fun to consider.

The observation of phi, and all of the other exciting “detective work” at Montpelier is made possible by the continued generosity of our many Expedition members who take week-long “excavation vacations” at Montpelier. These extra hands and trowels are especially vital to Montpelier’s continued archaeological discoveries.

If you would like to join Montpelier’s archaeology team for a week, sign up for one of our ten Expeditions. This season, we will be digging in the South Yard of the mansion where enslaved members of Montpelier’s plantation community lived in duplex-style housing. This dig will be part of Montpelier’s three-year archaeological initiative to excavate and analyze three distinct homes of members of Montpelier’s enslaved community: homes of those of who worked in the Madison home, in the stables area, and in the fields. Come dig with us in 2011!


Adam Marshall--Spring 2011

Aerial view of the mansion and surrounding landscape.


The Golden Rectangle is formed when the length of a short side, as compared to a long side, is the same as the ratio of the long side to the sum of the two side lengths. This ratio is always 1 to 1.618 and is considered to produce proportions that are well-balanced and pleasing to the human eye.




Montpelier Staff