“Let it be red.” Those are the words of Dolley Madison, when asked how she wanted the parlor of Montpelier decorated. Oh and what a red it is. The walls are covered in a soft, velvety red fabric wallpaper, and the chairs are upholstered in the same rich red fabric. Even the parlor curtains are red! I wanted to touch the wallpaper, sit in the chairs, and run my fingers through the fabric of the curtains. Unfortunately, touching is strictly verboten, and indoor photography is forbidden as well, so hopefully my description will convey the rich feel of the red room, or “art room” at Montpelier.
Although Montpelier was made famous by the hospitality of James and Dolley Madison, the mansion and grounds were originally acquired by James Madison’s Grandfather, Ambrose Madison in 1723. Ambrose died at an early age, and the land passed to James Madison Sr., father of the 4th president of the United States, James Madison. I don’t usually write about a jaunt the same day, but today’s trip was exceptional in several ways, and I wanted to record my impressions while they are still fresh. Like Monticello, the inside of Montpelier can be seen only by a guided tour that lasts about 45 minutes. At the end of the tour you can wander the underground cellars, garden, and grounds. All the rooms were interesting, especially the study where James Madison passed away, but the “art room,” or the “red room” at the beginning of the tour was the most memorable. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with works of art and portraits of the first six presidents. I couldn’t help but to draw comparisons to Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet of curiosities at Monticello. While Jefferson’s entrance is large and open, cool, and filled with artifacts, the Madison’s entrance was warm and intimate, lined with soft red fabric, and filled with portraits of their closest friends. It was the one room in the house, where I felt like I could actually get to know James and Dolley Madison.
After the tour, I went outside for a walk. It was pouring rain, but that wasn’t going to stop me, so I cinched up my rain jacket and headed out. The great part about visiting Montpelier in the rain was that I practically had the place all to myself. Perhaps it sounds a little selfish, but when I visit a site like Montpelier, I want to feel like I am really there without running into crowds. The only way to do that is to visit when it is cold, raining, or first thing in the morning. Fortunately, six years in the Army made me indifferent to cold, rain, and getting up early!
After taking some great rainy pictures outside, I walked back to my car and was headed home. However, at the last minute the rain cleared, so I went back out for a more thorough tour of the grounds. I’m glad I went back because I almost missed the gardens and the archaeology lab, which was the best part of the visit. I was intrigued by the sign to the archaeology lab, so I walked about 10 minutes down the hill, past Madison’s Temple to the lab. I was thrilled to be the only one at the lab. I was greeted by a very friendly and very helpful intern working a flotation area, sorting out charred wood. I couldn’t believe it, but she invited me into the lab and gave me a personal tour. She even pointed out several drawers of artifacts available for public browsing. Out of all of my visits to archaeological sites, this is the first one where I was invited to browse the artifacts. The drawers contained everything from pottery to civil war artifacts, nails to jewelry! I also found out that Montpelier has an outstanding public archaeology program. Volunteers can work a day or weeks, indoors in the lab, or outdoors in the trench. There is even a program where children can come and participate, and learn about archaeology! It is rare to see this level of education and access available at a historic site, and I can’t wait until I can go back and spend a week or two there digging up history. If you want to visit Montpelier, it is open from 09:00 – 05:30 and the first tour starts at 10:00. It is located on Route 20 in Orange, Virginia, about 25 minutes north of Charlottesville, Virginia, and two hours south of Washington, D.C.