FACETIME- Madison man: Quinn restores 4th prez's home-- and rep

Michael Quinn

Somewhat presciently, the head of the Montpelier Foundation went to school just down the Constitution Highway from the fourth president's Orange County home. But the proximity of Stony Point Elementary to Montpelier wasn't what sent Michael Quinn on a path to the most radical restoration ever unleashed on an American president's home. 

Instead, he points in the opposite direction: To Mr. Jefferson's U and an expert on Jefferson's architecture, Frederick Doveton Nichols, the person who spearheaded the 1976 gutting and restoration of the UVA Rotunda.

"I got interested in history and architecture from Freddy Nichols," recalls Quinn. "It's amazing how many people he influenced. That kind of set me on the path."

Quinn's interest in historic preservation persisted after grad school at Yale when he returned to Virginia as deputy director at Mount Vernon. When he took the job as head of Montpelier in 1999, he was faced with a presidential home that had been as obscured as the president who inhabited it.

Nearly a century earlier, the once-modest house had been expanded by a member of the duPont family into a mega-mansion coated in pink stucco. Quinn had first toured James and Dolley Madison's home shortly after it opened to the public in 1987.

"I was terribly disappointed," he recalls. "I came three times as a visitor, and frankly, every visit was disappointing. I couldn't find Madison."

Quinn, 55, saw a rare opportunity.

"I was motivated by the fact that Montpelier was still being formed," he says. "It was the only home of a founding father that was not defined."

Part of the Montpelier job's appeal was a two-year investigation into removing the duPont alterations.

"In the preservation community, there is a school of thought that houses change with history," explains Quinn. But he also points out, "No founder's home had been so altered."

Armed with a $24-million budget, largely from the Mellon Foundation, the most accomplished craftsmen they could find, and a forensic approach to the work, Montpelier just may be Madison's house again.

"The restoration of Montpelier has been spectacular," says Dan Jordan, director of Monticello. "It was done with great care and a high degree of professionalism." 

(Jordan dispels any notion of a battle of the presidential homes. "It's a case of rising tides that lift all boats," says Jordan. "What's good for Montpelier is good for Monticello.")

Quinn faced another hurdle that Jordan didn't. While Madison wrote the documents that formed the very soul of American government and law– the Constitution and the Bill of Rights–  the diminutive president– he stood 5'4"– was largely overshadowed by early leaders who have their faces on money like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. (Even non-prez Ben Franklin got his mug on a bill.)

Another reason Quinn believes Madison has been taken for granted is that his blueprint for democracy works so well. Now, visitors to Madison's library can gaze at the same Blue Ridge views upon which this framer gazed as he wrote the Constitution.

"We want people to leave wanting to know more about the Constitution," says Quinn.

Given the major makeover to the formerly second-rate historical home, that seems entirely likely. But yet another challenge awaits: Now that Madison's house is restored, it needs to be furnished.