While in Charlottesville to pick up my son Chris, we decided to visit Montpelier, the one-time home of James & Dolly Madison. James Madison was, of course, the fourth President of the United States and Father of the U.S. Constitution. His wife, Dolly Madison, was the first First Lady.
Their house, Montpelier, is described variously as an example of Classical Revival, Neo-Classical or Federal style architecture. All of these terms refer to similar styles of architecture popular in the early American republic, inspired by Greco-Roman architecture.
The red brick house features a grand portico with columns on the front, and a wing on either side. The design of the house was influenced by James Madison’s friend, Thomas Jefferson.
Before the wings were added, the main house was configured as a duplex, shared by James Jr. & Dolly on the North (left) side and parents James Sr. & Nellie on the South (right) side. From a distance, the grandeur and bold geometric lines make the house look huge. In fact, it is not especially big. Without the wings, the footprint of the main house is 86 by 33 feet. The wings are even more narrow than the main house.
From the front of the house, there is a striking vista with the Blue Ridge visible on the western horizon.
The back of the house features a smaller portico with colonnade.
Behind the house is the James Madison Landmark Forest, 200 acres originally set aside by James Madison. The forest is considered one of the best examples of old growth forest in the Eastern United States, perhaps the only one in Virginia.
The version of the Montpelier house we see today is the way it appeared around 1812, after several additions and modifications. The house was initially built in 1764 by James Madison Sr.. Before expansion and remodeling however, Montpelier started as a simple Georgian colonial style house – typical of the period.
Although the Neo-Classical/Federal styled Montpelier is far more grand, it shares the same symmetry and elegant simplicity of the original Georgian structure. It’s a pleasure to see places like Montpelier, lovingly designed, built and preserved. While I have no plans for adding a Tuscan Portico to my house, places like Montpelier – and the people who created them – are a great source of inspiration.