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A daytrip to James Madison's House

Monday, August 14, 2006 at 06:59AM
Posted by Registered CommenterPolitical Mammal

It was a beautiful-weather Sunday. Family went to a pancake place in Bethesda for breakfast, where I read an interesting article in the paper about James Madison’s House (Montpelier) in Orange, Virginia. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is returning the house -- in painstaking fashion -- from a 55 room mansion built over it by the Dupont family to the smaller house in which James and Dolley lived.

Connie seemed like she could use some time to herself, so, on the spur of the moment, I suggested that I take our daughter on a drive to see Mr. Madison’s place as another in our continuing series of visiting American historic sites that are unlikely to be fully appreciated by a four-year-old. I like seeing things mid-renovation, I like rural Virginia, I enjoy American political history, and I also wanted to collect another lefty photo for the company website. (Also, I thought the trip would provide a good contrast to Saturday’s visits to a water-park and the Carter Barron amphitheater for a dance performance).

So we drove out route 66, down route 29, and route 15, to route 20 and onto Dolley Madison Road. A pretty long haul, but the little girl slept all but the last 20 minutes of the trip there and I listened to music and decompressed. The country around Orange is scenic and I like to get out of the city.

The estate is 2700 acres, so there is a lot of space. After a requested pause to snack outside the car in the parking lot we walked over to the enormous front lawn and looked at the house. I shot a few photos with lefty stuck in the bark on the side of a lone cedar tree on the right side of the lawn. From afar, other than the gigantic space with its view of the Blue Ridge mountains, Madison’s house does not look a heck of a lot different than numerous modern Colonial mansions that are going up all over the place these days.

We walked over to a shack-like trailer to the side of the house from which the tours start. A very competent and practiced middle-aged woman with a slide presentation gave us an orientation which I found pretty interesting. (Daughter ate grapes and tortilla chips.) Then we headed for the house. When you look at it more closely, the house’s age makes it more noteworthy. For example, its imperfect old bricks are laid much more haphazardly than today’s. And I like the hand-made old windows, old glass and mouldings. The outside appears nearly done, but the inside has a long way to go – it is all exposed studs, lath, rafters and such.

It is hard to wrap the mind around the difference between 1776-1826 and 2006. I was examining the innards of the home of a very wealthy and accomplished man, a father of our country, and a slaveholder whose grandfather was killed by three slaves. And here is his carved and nicked up mantel—not currently attached to the wall – being carefully repositioned. (They even found a rat’s nest in the wall with parts of a letter in his handwriting talking about his mother.) Do I revere this guy for the Federalist papers, ruminate about his privileged position and on whose back it was earned, pay attention to architectural ghosts of long-lost staircases, or ponder the incredible changes that have been wrought in this country since he lived in Montpelier?

As it turned out, I did not have much time for deep thoughts. I was half father, half-student for about twenty minutes, until the four-year-old who was with me needed my full attention. I had to stop listening to 18th century history. I tried a few tricks – seeking to interest her in people’s hats and shoes and the strange walls and ceilings, but ultimately I had to cut my losses. We waved goodbye to the others in mid-tour and headed back outside.

On the grass outside we found a beautiful bluebird feather which we kept as a memento of our short stay. And we made it back just in time to join a picnic with some friends in Vienna, Virginia at a playground with other little ones. Also a nice activity, but this time, after a while, I was the one who was ready to return home.

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