Tumbling down: DuPont wings ripped from Montpelier

James Madison's ancestral home looks like it was struck by a tornado.

The south wing has crumbled onto the lawn in peach-colored heaps of brick and wood. The floors are peeled away, and the opulent mint-green wallpaper is exposed to the sun.

This is no disaster. The mess in Madison's back yard is part of a $30 million home improvement project that will remove two centuries of additions and return the 244-year-old Montpelier to the way it looked when the fourth president lived there.

"We want to bring his presence back,'' Montpelier Foundation President Michael Quinn says. "We want you to walk in the house and think he's still living there.''

Although visitors will have limited access to the mansion's interior until this summer, the estate will remain open daily throughout the restoration. Furnishings will be on display in a nearby education center; the gardens, old-growth forest, slave quarters and other sites on the estate will be fully accessible, and special tours will offer an inside look at the restoration progress and plans.

The restoration was begun partly because Madison's home, built on 2,700 acres of grassy hills and horse tracks, bears little resemblance to the way it looked when Dolley Madison sold it in 1844.

William duPont, a businessman who bought the house in 1901, buried many of the original features as he converted Montpelier into the kind of country house popular at the time in wealthy neighborhoods along the East Coast.

The exterior walls were covered with plaster and mango paint. The library where Madison once pondered the Constitution was turned into a bedroom. The duPonts reused just about everything: Madison's doors and windows were pulled off their hinges and pounded into other rooms as the mansion more than doubled in size.

The result has left Montpelier in a poor state for historians, and it has long played second fiddle to Thomas Jefferson's carefully preserved Monticello.

Montpelier officials have talked about restoring the home for years. It was the dying wish of its last resident, Marion duPont Scott, who turned the property over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983.

More than a decade after public tours began in 1987, researchers started to examine whether it was possible to restore the home even though no original blueprints were thought to have been made. Supported by grants from the estate of philanthropist Paul Mellon, they peeled back wallpaper and plaster in hundreds of places, locating lost doorways and windows through changes in the brick pattern and grooves left in the wall.

"It takes a certain kind of sickness to want to do this,'' chuckles Mark Wenger, an architectural historian who's putting together an 1820s-era blueprint of the house.

Even as earth movers started knocking down walls of the first duPont rooms in late March, staff historians were making new discoveries.

In the dusty chamber that was once Madison's dining room, Quinn gasped with excitement as archaeologist Alfredo Maul showed him strips of wood taken from another room that were once part of an unknown staircase. Placed side-by-side, chocolate-colored paint marked the steps.

"Oh my, you can actually see where the stairs were,'' Quinn said.

"Some of the original nails are still there, see?'' Maul replied.

Outside, men in hardhats were busy picking away at the house with chisels, power saws, and hammers. One worker peeked out of a third-story window before returning with a wheelbarrow and dumping a load of debris over the edge. Another waded through the piles of discarded bricks, tapping them with a steel ax to remove the mortar.

By mid-June, the demolition crew will have removed about 60 percent of the house, including elaborate drawing rooms with silk-paneled walls and bronze chandeliers where the duPonts had drinks and entertained friends around their Steinway piano.

Montpelier workers will then start renovating the interior, returning windows to the right location and repairing the brick.

Artifacts from the duPont era will be saved and stored, Maul says, and eventually displayed in a museum exhibit at Montpelier.

Historic buildings regularly undergo some kind of renovation. But it's rare to see historic buildings demolished on this scale, says William Beiswanger, Monticello's restoration director, who was initially skeptical that Montpelier's plan would improve the house.

"Generally, the notion is that you don't rip off additions to buildings,'' Beiswanger says.

But Beiswanger changed his opinion when Montpelier researchers gathered enough data to turn an awkward country mansion into an accurate representation of Madison's estate.

When the renovation is finished in 2007, Montpelier officials hope to use the house as a final piece in transforming the estate into a center for studies on the Constitution. Montpelier began holding educational retreats for middle and high school teachers last year.

"We're mixing these very intellectually intense lectures and discussions with a hands-on exploration of Montpelier,'' Quinn says. "You can actually go to the library where Madison thought up the Constitution.''

Montpelier on April 26

Montpelier on April 29