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The Pink House

What is the Pink House?

Nope, I am not talking about Barbie’s dream house, even though it may look similar. I am actually talking about the Montpelier house prior to the restoration. If you ask many people in the local community about Montpelier, they might recall the pink house. This was the large pink county house that the duPonts lived in for almost 100 years before the restoration happened. Many people in the community worked for the duPonts, lived near the property, and/or attended the Montpelier races every year. As a result, the pink house was a vibrant landmark in the memories of the local community. The house got this pale pink color from a layer of stucco that had been applied over the brick to create a smooth surface that was then painted pink. The pink stucco had been on the house so long that no one could recall a time when the house was not pink, leading to one of the biggest investigations during the restoration.

What is Stucco?

 

Image showing Tudar Place in Washington D.C. built in 1816 using stucco on the exterior walls. Photo taken by Ron Cogswell

Stucco, a plaster-like material composed of lime, sand, and water, is widely utilized for exterior coatings in construction worldwide. Its popularity in the United States emerged during the 19th century with the rise of the Federalist and Greek Revival architectural styles. Compared to other building materials, stucco offered cost-effectiveness, superior waterproofing, and enhanced insulation. Additionally, it served as a protective layer over brick and stone structures. As the 20th century unfolded, Portland Cement emerged as a primary ingredient in stucco production, resulting in a harder, more durable material with a slightly different color compared to the older lime-based stucco. [1]

Did Madison Add the Pink Stucco?

1818 Painting by Baroness Hyde de Neuville, Courtesy of Musée Franco-Américain du Château de Blérancourt, France

At the beginning of the restoration process, one of the primary inquiries the team faced was determining when the house was stuccoed pink. For decades, the pink house had been synonymous with James Madison’s residence; however, the team was uncertain about the timeline for the application of the pink stucco. A painting by the Baroness Hyde de Neuville in 1818 depicted the house’s exterior in a smooth salmon color. This led to the belief that Madison had stuccoed the house pink during his ownership. However, as the restoration progressed, the team discovered that the Baroness had taken artistic liberties in her portrayal. Physical evidence examined during the restoration revealed that she had omitted or added elements to her depiction of the house. Consequently, the team concluded that the pink appearance of the structure in this painting was insufficient evidence, and further investigation of the topic was necessary.

This required extensive research into archival records and the physical structure to determine the original date of the pink stucco. The team initially examined letters written by Madison to Jefferson before his final renovations began in 1812. In these letters, Madison sought Jefferson’s advice on plastering brick to shield it from the weather. These correspondences suggest that both the house and the portico columns remained unplastered in 1800.

Now, the team needed to eliminate the possibility that Madison had followed Jefferson’s advice and opted to stucco the entire house in 1812. Researchers uncovered a description from George Shattuck in 1816, noting the house’s appearance as “brick of a dark red color. This suggested that the house had not yet been stuccoed, and the bricks were still visible at that time. Considering that Madison did not undertake any major renovations before his death in 1836, the stucco application must have occurred after his passing. Following Madison’s death, Dolley spent most of her time in D.C. This, along with her financial constraints, suggests that she likely did not carry out any renovations to the Montpelier house. Therefore, it is probable that the house remained unstuccoed until after she sold the property in 1844. [2]

Hooked rug from 1852 depicting the house covered in white stucco, Image courtesy of James Madison’s Montpelier

In fact, the earliest documentary reference that the team could find for the stucco was in 1863 when a Civil War soldier stationed in the area mentions the stuccoed appearance of the house. He remembered the house to be “a fine stuccoed building in good repair.” [3]

Now, the team knew that the house had to have been stuccoed between the years 1844 and 1862, but they wanted to narrow it down even further. To accomplish this, they turned to the physical evidence. The first clue was discovered during the removal of the duPont second-floor addition on the wings. Once the masonry on the main block of the Madison house was revealed, the team noticed the outline of a low hipped roof. Above the outline, evidence of stucco was present, but below the line, there was none. This indicated that the exterior was stuccoed after the hip roof was added. The team determined that the Madison-era flat wing roofs were replaced during the Benjamin Thornton era, narrowing the time frame to 1848-1854.

As the investigation progressed, a significant piece of evidence emerged from beneath the front porch. Here, the team uncovered a notable detail, the stucco seemed to cease abruptly beneath the front door. This small patch of exposed brick led the team to infer that an architectural feature must have been present here during the stucco application and had prevented this section from being covered. It was known that the porch had undergone multiple alterations since the property was sold by the Madison family. When Benjamin Thornton acquired the property in 1848, he removed the large portico deck and constructed a smaller porch beneath the front door. The team reasoned that the stucco application likely coincided with these changes, thus explaining why a small portion remained unstuccoed. There would have been no purpose in stuccoing the masonry beneath the porch as it was not visible. Furthermore, the team observed that the stucco appeared to have been applied across the entire house all at once, including over the north elevation filled-in windows, suggesting that this stucco application occurred after those alterations. However, the question remained: how long after?[4]

Image of the house from 1890 with a stuccoed exterior, Image courtesy of James Madison’s Montpelier

After examining the infill used to close up the windows, the team determined that the stucco was applied soon afterward. This conclusion was drawn from the observation that the masons made no effort to match the brickwork or clean the mortar joints. Therefore, the team theorized that the infill was laid in preparation for the stucco to be applied over it. This timeline suggests that the stucco was applied around 1849/1850, coinciding with Thornton’s renovation of the house after acquiring the property.” [5] This would correlate with the publication of The Architecture of County Houses by Andrew Jackson Downing in 1850, which advocated for the use of stucco as a decorative element, stating “stucco was superior in many respects to plain brick or stone because it was cheaper, warmer and dryer, and could be “agreeably” tinted.”[6] Perhaps Thornton decided to stucco the house after reading this design book.

Stucco or Granite

We know that the stucco was applied around 1850, but now the team wanted to determine its appearance. Clues came from descriptions of the house by Civil War soldiers in 1862.

 

“yesterday I visited James Madison’s old residence and grave. It is by far the most beautiful place I ever saw . . .it is situated upon an eminence commanding a fine view of the Blue Ridge about 10 miles distance. There is 20 acres of land in the yard thickly set with shrubbery of all kinds while over them waive the tall white walnut trees under whose branches the old statesman of a better age reposes. His monument [house] is about 30 feet high composed of fine granite. A gentleman by the name of Carson now lives there, a brother of whom lives in Baltimore of some Eminence.” –William McClellan [7]

Another soldier recalled the property writing

 

“The [Montpelier] dwelling is situated on a beautiful eminence and commands a grand view of the mountains and the country scenery around.  It has been erected more than a hundred years and is built of pure granite.  It is a very large house and has about 20 rooms in all.” – Marion Hill Fitzpatrick [8]

Microscopic image of a stucco sample showing a layer of grayish stucco to create the appearance of granite, Image taken by Dr. Susan Buck

Why would these soldiers claim that the house was made of granite? The team theorized that the only plausible explanation would be that the initial layer of stucco was colored and tooled to resemble blocks of granite. [9] It was not uncommon to use a cheaper material to mimic the appearance of a more expensive stone. A similar technique is observed at Mount Vernon, where wood siding is cut and sanded to simulate blocks of stone in a process called rustication. [10] While the house was never constructed of granite, the stucco was applied in a manner intended to deceive visitors into believing it was granite.

Image showing the original grey stucco that had been tooled to look like granite revealed behind the raised grade under the protico, photo taken by Matt Reeves

Removal of the Pink Stucco

It remains unclear exactly when the stucco was first painted pink, but microscopic analysis of the stucco indicates that a few layers of the pink paint date back to the duPont occupation. The team discovered an early image of the duPont house where the exterior appears to be a pale-yellow color. This suggests that the house was not painted pink until later in the duPont ownership, possibly to recreate the salmon color seen in the Baroness Hyde de Neuville painting. At this point, the team had discovered sufficient evidence to confirm that the pink stucco was not a feature from the Madison era. Consequently, the Architectural Review Board decided to remove the stucco from the exterior elevations of the house.

Image of the pink stucco being removed from the south elevation, image courtesy of James Madison’s Montpelier

The removal of the stucco was a significant undertaking that had to be executed very carefully, so as not to damage the original Madison-era brickwork underneath. Ray Canetti, one of the many skilled masons working on the restoration, was perfectly suited for the job. For weeks, he slowly chiseled away the pink stucco, revealing the masonry below. While the team was initially concerned about the condition of the original Madison-era bricks once uncovered, they were relieved to find the majority of them in excellent condition. Although some areas of masonry required repair, overall, the stucco had acted as a protective covering for the brickwork.

Stucco Removal March 2004

Click the link to see video footage of Ray Canetti removing the pink stucco from the front of the house

The pink stucco might not be an original Madison-era element, but it is a feature that is tied to the history of the house and is highly recognizable. For decades, it created a visual contrast between the duPont house and the Madison house while also protecting the Madison brickwork from the elements. Without the time spent during the investigation to understand the evolution of the stucco, the restored house could have looked much different. The expertise and dedication of the restoration team ensured the accurate restoration of the Madison-era exterior appearance of the house.

What the Montpelier house could have looked like if the pink stucco had not been removed, image courtesy of James Madison’s Montpelier

References

[1] Grimmer, Anne. “Preservation Brief 22: The Preservation and Repair of Historic Stucco.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1990, home1.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/22-stucco.htm, p.1-4

[2] Wenger, Mark, “The Stucco,” James Madison’s Montpelier Architecture and Historic Preservation Department, October 28, 2008.

[3] Diary of Watkins Kearns, May 17, 1863 to February 29, 1864, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia.

[4]-[5] Wenger, “The Stucco.”