Getting back to Madison

Michael Quinn (Art History ’74) leads a $29 million restoration of Montpelier that is setting a new standard for accuracy and authenticity.

By Linda J. Kobert

Photo by Jack Mellott.

More than two decades after her death, Marion duPont Scott is getting her wish. Scott was the last private owner of Montpelier, the Orange County estate of President James Madison. In bequeathing the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Scott expressed her desire that the two-story Georgian mansion, which had been expanded to a mind-boggling extent by both Madison and the duPonts, be restored to the home James and Dolley would have recognized in the 1820s.

“The question was does enough of the Madison home survive, or evidence of the home, that we can, in fact, put it back the way it was,” explained Michael Quinn (Art History ’74).

Quinn is president and CEO of The Montpelier Foundation, which, through an arrangement with the National Trust, acts as steward for the property. Quinn is leading the $29 million restoration that has literally stripped away the vestiges of other occupants so visitors can engage directly with James Madison and his legacy. In the process, the project is setting a new standard for accuracy and authenticity for historic site restoration.

“The real reason we’re restoring the house,” Quinn said, “is so we don’t have to talk about the house.”

While honoring the historical position of the William duPont family — a museum is planned to house duPont artifacts — it was clear to Foundation officials that the Madison legacy transcends all later occupants and that removing the changes was necessary. With the juxtaposition of lives and confusion over what walls were where during the Madison era, it was easy to lose sight of the historical significance of the occupant known, even in his own lifetime, as the father of the American Constitution.

“What we need to do is get back to Madison,” Quinn declared, “so when you walk in you feel like you are engaging James Madison, so we can talk about the history, the ideas, the person — not the walls and the bricks and the windows.”

Quinn’s respect for Madison, his ideas and his role in shaping the most successful democracy in the history of the world is palpable. As he toured the second-floor room that once served as Madison’s library, now with the lath and beams exposed and the skeleton of scaffolding supporting the ceiling, Quinn described it as the most moving room in the house. It’s the sanctuary to which Madison withdrew to immerse himself in the study of past democracies, to learn from their mistakes and to consider the possibilities for the new nation.

“This is where the outline of the American Constitution was really formulated,” Quinn explained.

The radically original framework Madison worked out in preparation for the Constitutional Convention envisioned a state in which citizens, rather than a monarch or deity, are the source of governmental authority. In this new form of governance, “the definition of a citizen had nothing to do with who your parents were, your language, your religion, or your race,” Quinn explained. “All it had to deal with was your understanding and allegiance to the ideals in the Constitution.”

As windows and doors are returned to their original locations, plaster and paper applied to the walls, and authentic furnishings placed to complete this ambitious project by 2007, Quinn is most excited about the educational potential exposed by the restoration.

“The goal is not just to say James Madison was a cool guy and this is where he lived,” Quinn said. “You can’t look at a newspaper today without seeing constitutional issues. Democracy is a very powerful idea, but it is only an idea, which means it must be taught to keep it alive, to keep it current, and to keep it intact. We want people to have a sense of connection, not only with Madison, but with the power of his ideas and what that means in American society today.”