Open Daily, 9:00 am – 4:00 pm – Tickets Are Available Online.

Conservation, Preservation, Tourism

How Montpelier President & CEO, Kat Imhoff, makes the most of 2,650 acres

From a young age, Montpelier President & CEO Kat Imhoff has had a genuine interest in the natural world. With a background in environmental planning that has led her to some of the most expansive parts of our country, including the Nature Conservancy in Montana, Imhoff reflects that early in her professional career it was “always about the wild places and wild things.” She could never shake, however, another one of her lifelong interests: history. She often found herself “fascinated by man’s impact on the landscape and the traces that people have left,” so much so that her father affectionately called her “the woman who cried over old things.” 
At Montpelier, Imhoff has merged her two great interests to make the 2,600-acre plantation a place where visitors can experience history and the unencumbered natural world, simultaneously. “I was always interested in freedom of religion, and knew of [Madison’s] thinking around that. But I had no concept of Madison as a farmer, with Jefferson even calling him the ‘best farmer in America.’ This other part of him never existed until I got to Montpelier. He was, in his own right, a very early thinker in what we would now call the conservation movement.”

For Imhoff, “conservation” and “preservation,” though different, are two sides of the same coin. “These terms are hard to separate, and are often confused,” she says. “Typically conservation has been used more exclusively for land and wild things, and preservation has been man’s traces and man’s creations on the landscape.”

James Madison’s Montpelier represents the “best of both.” The 2,600-acre plantation is home to structures spanning hundreds of years, and over 8 miles of natural trails, matching Imhoff’s interest in Madison and history, with her expertise in land conservation. “Nowadays you’re finding that if you just try to save wild places for wild things alone that doesn’t always resonate in people’s minds,” Imhoff explains, “but when you’re saving places because it defines us as human beings and the reason we want to save these places is our story and our place in them, it has a bigger resonance.”

Montpelier Aerial. Photo by Aaron Watson. Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation

The story of conserving the grounds of James Madison’s Montpelier is one that spans centuries, beginning with Madison himself looking at his plantation and trying to figure out how make it affordable. He bemoaned man’s frivolous destruction of trees in particular, favoring, as was his nature, a much more pragmatic approach, stating that “of all the errors in our rural economy, none is perhaps, so much to be regretted, because none so difficult to be repaired, as the injudicious and excessive destruction of timber and firewood.” This ethic has been carried forward by Imhoff with a unique “urgency because I just have a more of a land conservation background.” At present, there are over 700 acres currently protected under 4 permanent conservation easements, each with a specific purpose. 

Map of Montpelier, Highlighting Easements

Montpelier has also employed “adaptive reuse” for many buildings on-site, transforming and updating existing structures for modern-day uses. What was once a dog kennel is now a comfortable public bathroom. duPont-era employee housing has been transformed into residential spaces for Montpelier guests. The old carriage house is now Lewis Hall, the home of Montpelier’s executive offices, a classroom, and a dining room.

Though the work of conservation and preservation started before Imhoff arrived as the head of Montpelier, she has continued to build on the momentum, and innovate with an eye towards the future. In the fall of 2016, Montpelier hosted the Montpelier Design Congress: a 2-day workshop of leading architects, biologists, and environmentalists, including Andrea Wulf, bestselling author of Founding Gardeners, and Drew Lanham, widely-acclaimed author and wildlife ecologist. 

Kat Imhoff and Andrea Wulf (right). Photo by Eduardo Montes-Bradley. Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation

The experts, along with Montpelier employees, discussed the future of the property and how Montpelier can continue to be more environmentally-conscious while capitalizing on what the 2,600 acres has to offer. “The Design Congress and the conversations about the property itself have further highlighted how unique and special it is, and has put a higher burden on us to anytime we do development, whether it’s expanding the Center for the Constitution village or adding additional tourism amenities, to be very thoughtful and to the extent we can, remain within the existing built environment footprint,” says Imhoff. “The congress sharpened our awareness of the special opportunities on the property.” 

Montpelier Design Congress

These special opportunities are ones that Imhoff wants to share with the public. In an era of technological proliferation, she is a firm believer in the power of the natural world. “I think that people really do seek that opportunity to be out in nature, and everything you read is how important it is to take yourself outside to walk in the woods and experience that connection to nature,” she says. “The truth is it’s getting harder and harder to find those places where you can go and I believe it’s part of our service to the public to maintain this site in a very usable and environmentally-friendly way.”

Though not always easy, and sometimes at odds with what “cultural institutions have to do to serve the board and the public today,” Montpelier’s forward-thinking philosophy in unwavering. Yes it’s about history, and Madison, and the Constitution, but “we also want to make sure we don’t make any decisions that preclude as being really proud of our work one hundred or two hundred years from now,” reminds Imhoff.  “For me, we also have a responsibility for the care of the land itself and for the creatures who reside there and for thinking about a hundred years from now what do we want to be sure we did do on the property what we didn’t.”

Montpelier Trails. Photo by Ethan Hickerson, Mobelux. Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation

As she has been her entire career, Imhoff is confidently setting an example, with other similar sites following suit, using Montpelier as an example of the importance of conserving and utilizing the power of place. “I think some of these larger Virginia cultural institutions with land holdings have been, as part of their kind of ethic and their assessment of what the next hundred years is going to bring, are beginning to have to think about the land conservation not just the preservation of the old historic buildings but that the context that the buildings are in is becoming more and more important.” 
As she contemplates the future, she sees a Montpelier that will work to “establish more Virginia warm grasses and wildflowers, and continue to build stable habitat for all of the flora and fauna that live on the site.” More than simply a museum, Imhoff strives to ensure that Montpelier is “the place you can walk and run and bird watch and experience nature. You can learn about Madison and history but we have a variety of stories and one of them is this nature story.” 
Imhoff remains committed to the accurate and honest interpretation of history, and has led the charge in transforming what was once a typical “house museum” into a dynamic and modern cultural institution, through innovative and brave interpretation and programming. But she can’t hold back a chuckle as she explains that “one of the things that might be most important about our work is the land conservation and stewardship that we’re doing at Montpelier.”


As the lifelong home of James Madison, Father of the Constitution and Architect of the Bill of Rights, Montpelier's mission is to communicate Madison's role in creating our modern, democratic government.