It’s no surprise that American Spirit, with its focus on the early American period, regularly features the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) on our pages. And it’s not surprise that editing this magazine for the DAR has really fed into my history geekiness. So, when friends invited me on a long weekend tour of three presidents’ homes in the Charlottesville, Va., area, I pretty much jumped at the nerd-cation* chance.
Our first stop was James Madison’s Montpelier, which recently unveiled the stunning results of a four-year restoration. American Spirit featured the ambitious project in a July/August 2005 article. We focused on the meticulous way the Montpelier Foundation chose to restore the home of the Father of the Constitution. Not long after Madison died in 1836, his wife, Dolley, sold the home, and it went through extensive changes by multiple owners before finally passing into the hands of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Instead of freezing the home as it was when first acquired, the National Trust decided to strip away two centuries of renovations and preserve the house as close as possible to the way it was when Madison retired from the White House.
It’s one thing to read about the restoration, but it’s another thing to see the impressive results of this project for myself. Montpelier’s Classical portico and its imposing columns have been restored to Madison’s day. And get this: The ink stains are still visible on the floor in the study where he wrote the Constitution! Guides describe finding a fragment of a letter with Madison’s handwriting in a rat’s nest and uncover other details found in the process of peeling back the home’s many layers.
Beyond the archaeological finds, the home’s setting is idyllic, offering a gorgeous vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
We finished off the day in Charlottesville’s historic downtown at night, where we added our screeds to the free speech wall and drove by the Thomas Jefferson-designed rotunda at the University of Virginia, which he founded in 1819.
The next morning we visited Jefferson’s masterpiece of design: Monticello. The almost-too-efficient tour guide whisked us through the house rather quickly, but we still managed to check out some of his one-of-a-kind inventions, from a copying machine to a compass/weather vane contraption to a wine dumbwaiter. Since American Spirit detailed Thomas Jefferson’s penchant for gardening in our “Gardening the Founding Fathers’ Way” story (March/April 2006), I was eager to see his carefully arranged rows of vegetables and learn more about his experimental crops. Jefferson’s 5,000 acres of orchards, vineyards, fields and gardens were worked by hundreds of enslaved and some free workers, and the Plantation Community Tour explained the daily life of some of those slaves.
We squeezed in a quick visit to James Monroe’s Ash Lawn–Highland where the fifth president lived from 1799 to 1823. It’s now operated by the College of William and Mary, Monroe’s alma mater. (Stay tuned for American Spirit’s upcoming story on this historic college.) The home is packed with 18th- and 19th-century furnishings, some from Napoleon’s France, where Monroe served as ambassador. Most know a little about the Monroe Doctrine and that his presidency was called the “era of good feelings,” but I was surprised to discover what a well-regarded politician (oxymoron?) he was during his lifetime.
Back in D.C. on Memorial Day, we waved hello to No. 44 at the White House and swung by a few monuments on the National Mall, including the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, where we were inspired by military nurse’s speech about her service in Vietnam, Iraq and now Germany. The weekend ended with a four-hour tour (yes, and I could have stayed longer) of the interactive Newseum, a must-see museum for current event junkies and newshounds in the shadow of the Capitol.
Next on my to-do list: Learn more about Dolley Madison. What a fab first First Lady!
*nerdcation. Pronunciation: /nərd ˈkā-shən /. Function: noun. Date: 2009: A journey offering great potential for expanding one’s vocabulary, Trivial Pursuit ability and storehouse of random knowledge and/or cocktail conversation.