Landscaping the Front Yard (1801-1817)

Research & Collections

Archaeological investigations revealed that the front lawn of the mansion of the Madison retirement years was quite different from that present in the 20th century. Archaeologists found exquisitely well-preserved evidence for a front fence and gate system that was built in the 1810s. A key feature of this front lawn was a fence that ran from the Temple, past the front of the house and down towards today's visitor center. This landscape was changed in the 1840s when the mansion was stuccoed and a new carraige road was installed to the front steps of the mansion.

Just as with the landscaping of the Rear Lawn, the symmetric landscape of the Front Yard was the creation of slave labor coupled with the landscape design of the French gardener, Bizet.  This involved the symmetric “tongue” of land extended from the main axis of the house to Willow Gate, the two curving swales that parallel the later-19th-century road, and the raised areas to the west and east.  In addition to the movement of significant quantities of earth, the Picturesque landscape also involved a change front fence line, carriage siding, and a serpentine entrance road that capitalized on the beautiful view sheds of Montpelier with the surrounding forests as a backdrop.

All of this served the aesthetic order of Montpelier.  For the visitor arriving at Willow Gate, their view would have been drawn towards the symmetric mansion by means of plantings on either side of the mansion (Pine Allee towards the temple, and silver aspens in the area of the well house).  For the visitor standing on the portico it would have been different—the open landscape pointing and diminishing towards Willow Gate and, then, the view gripped by the site of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The various plantings around the mansion served to enhance the view shed for visitors, while simultaneously obscuring the work activities that occurred in the North Kitchen and the South Yard with such landscape features as the Pine Allée and South Grove near the well house.

Pictured here are the results of the 2006 archaeological excavations that revealed the front fence, carriage road and siding, gate, and path towards the house.  These excavations uncovered the arc of fencepost holes that allowed the fence pattern shown in several period paintings in its exact location on the landscape.  In addition, a cobbled siding was located that allowed guests to disembark from carriages without stepping into the orange clay of Montpelier.

The restored fence line takes into account a variety of different types of evidence.  While the height of the fence posts was estimated from an historic watercolor, the thickness of the posts was identified from the archaeological excavations.  Here we are looking into one of these post holes to see the charred 4”×4” remains of the post.  The fence posts were charred at the base to harden the posts from insect infestation.  Analysis of charred wood found in these posts indicate that the posts were cut from a mix of black walnut and black locust.

Here an archaeologist points to the ruts of the last carriage wheels to traverse the Madison-era road before it was buried in the mid-19th century by Benjamin Thornton’s workers, one of Montpelier’s owners after the property was sold in 1844.