Montpelier makeover: James Madison was a wallpaper man

news-montpelier-wallpaperMontpelier's curatorial team checks out the new wallpaper. Left to right: Grant Quertermous, Cheryl Brush, Lynne Dakin Hastings.

In May, Monticello unveiled a dining room redo in eye-popping chrome yellow. This week, another presidential house, Montpelier, announces that the dining room of the Father of the Constitution will be transformed from "drab to fab" with period wallpaper–- and says the makeover has nothing to do with keeping up with the Jeffersons.

"We all admire Monticello," says Montpelier VP Lynne Hastings. "We've been working the past year and a half to restore this wallpaper. It's much more of a detective story."

On Constitution Day two years ago, Montpelier unveiled a $24-million architectural restoration that stripped away the pink stucco exterior added by a 20th-century owner and returned the house's look to what James and Dolley Madison knew.

"Now we're in the refurnishing stage," says Hastings.

Historians don't know exactly what pattern the Madisons might have chosen, but they do know the couple were "very enamored of the French taste," says Hastings. That led the restoration team to Henri Virchaux, a Philadelphia designer popular among the swell set in 1815, the year the Madisons bought wallpaper for Montpelier.

Another ah-ha moment that swung the swatch choice toward this particular pattern of floral swags across a green background: an 1836 list of the dining room furnishings of Montpelier revealing–- ta-da–- green chairs.

The reproduction wallpaper, dubbed Virchaux Drapery, has been made by historic design specialists Adelphi Paper Hangings, which will use the method Virchaux used, called blocking.

And after the paper goes up, some furnishings will be added to the formerly bare room. "We're borrowing a wonderful table from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation similar to one James and Dolley bought in 1804 when he was secretary of state," says Hastings.

Visitors can watch the new wallpaper hanging August 16 - 27.  And a new tour beginning September 1 will allow visitors to take it all in.

But wait, there's more. In October, the drawing room gets redone, and the choice Montpelier staff feels most in accord with the Francophile couple's taste: red-flocked wallpaper.

"Visitors said it was more a museum of the arts than a drawing room," says Hastings. "Their furnishings reflect a lot of sophistication and awareness of the culture and tastes of the time."

All these wallpaper plans for Montpelier stand in contrast with the painted walls of Monticello. Is this an indicator that Thomas Jefferson wasn't a wallpaper man?

While Monticello did not immediately return a phone call from the Hook, Hastings points out a tidbit about Mr. Jefferson's house. "There was wallpaper in the bedroom used by Dolley and James Madison when they visited," she says. "It was called the Madison Chamber."

Next question in the clash of the presidential homes: Can Montpelier get Michelle Obama to visit? The First Lady made her second trip to Monticello on August 12, but we haven't seen a First Lady at Montpelier since July 1998, when Hillary Clinton kicked off the restoration with a rousing speech.


FYI: Montpelier's Moderne Room, to which a couple of you have ascribed 1950s vintage, was actually created in 1936 by Charlottesville architect Milton Grigg and his associate Floyd Johnson. The "du Pont heiress" -- Marion du Pont -- was then newly married to movie star Randolph Scott, and the two wanted a bit of Hollywood nightclub atmosphere in which to entertain Scott's show biz friends.

I'm just glad that they did away with the decor in some of the rooms from the previous owner, the Du Pont heiress. That 1950s cocktail lounge look had to go.

Well, Mr. Brown, according to one of the referenced articles, you can still relive those halcyon days in the Visitors Center, where the Art Deco Red Room has been reassembled, right down to the highball glasses.

I am in agreement with Mr. Brown. I think the makeover was a huge disservice to visitors. What always made Montpelier special among the many presidential homes was the showcasing of the entire history of the house, rather than a pretentious snapshot of Madison's ownership. My students got a broader scope of history when they understood the plywood furnishings that seem tacky by modern standards were once modern and futuristic building materials in Du Pont's horse room. The stages of ownership once displayed in Montpelier helped make Madison (and history) more human and approachable. Sadly, Montpelier is now like Monticello and so many other homes: too perfect, formal, and distant to relate to student's personal experiences. The banishment of the furnishings to the visitor center only serves to segregate real life from history.

Thank God that Montpelier has not resorted (yet) to the Emperor's Clothes of the Chrome Yellow in the Dining Room at Monticello. They are so very proud of themselves that they cannot see how very hideous it, indeed, is.

The DuPonts erased any vestige of respect for historical architecture in order to make themselves comfortable and better than anyone else in the neighborhood.

The Madison homestead has been, thankfully, restored, and let us all hope that they don't re-interpret themselves to the point that they paint the dining room "chrome yellow" and then boast of it!

I’m just sad that they did away with the decor in ALL of the rooms from the previous owner, the Du Pont heiress. That 1950s cocktail lounge look was so cool. And the fact of the matter is that the Du Ponts lived in the house 5 times longer than James And Dolly

Mr. History, That must be quite some school you teach at if your students find the Du Pont's way of life so easy to relate to. No need to worry though for the loss of Montpelier as a teaching tool. Enniscorthy still stands as a fine example of what too much money and too little taste can do to a historic house. Perhaps you could ask for a tour for your students. Make a point of asking to see the barn. The kids will love it.

I understand Mr History's argument, but the only reason anyone visits the home is because James Madison lived there. If it had merely been the DuPont's home, it would still be a private residence, or might not exist anymore at all.

That said, there's probably a place for some of the Dupont's furnshings to show students how the wealthy lived when I was a boy. The focus, though should be on Madison.