Jul 19th, 2011

Garden Day Trip: James Madison's Montpelier

by Janet Woody, Librarian, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

After reading about James Madison in Andrea Wulf’s book Founding Gardeners, I added a trip to his Montpelier to my to-do list. My husband and I recently spent a pleasant day touring his restored home and grounds, which both appear very similar to the way he left them at his death in 1836. Madison was a passionate gardener, as you would expect someone with a 4-acre vegetable garden to be. He loved trees and set aside an old forest area of 200 acres, with some trees 5 feet in diameter. His forest remains in place today, virtually undisturbed by man. We tramped the trails for a while until the heat and bugs got to us, and left it by a different way than we entered. We found ourselves next to a large stable where a number of horses were lounging along the fence near the stable, or poking their heads out of stalls to see who had come to visit. According to signage, this was the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation‘s stable. We petted the horses and then continued our tramp back to the visitor center.

The existence of the horse retirement home is part of the fascinating legacy of Marion duPont Scott, whose father, William du Pont (she and her brother merged the du with the Pont), purchased Montpelier in 1901. While Mr. du Pont built his much larger mansion on top of and around Madison’s mansion, he did it very respectfully without destroying the original structure. Through years of research and careful restoration the du Pont mansion is gone, and the Madison house looks very much as it did during James and Dolley’s retirement years. The du Ponts added a number of outbuildings, primarily stables and support structures. Mrs. du Pont created a walled 2-acre formal garden on the site of the terraced 4-acre vegetable garden. Later, Marion Scott hired Charles Gillette to help her enhance her mother’s formal garden layout, and while he was there to work on that, she had him design gardens at the Bassett House, a “kit” home built on the edge on Montpelier for her favorite jockey, Carroll Bassett. That house and the Gillette-influenced gardens are being restored separately from the Madison home and grounds, with private funds unrelated to the Montpelier restoration. We did not see the Bassett House as it is not open to the public — however, I was so fascinated by Marion duPont Scott’s 80-plus years at Montpelier that I read about all of this after returning home.  Mrs. Scott was a successful horse breeder and trainer, as well as a generous philanthropist, and she stipulated in her will that Montpelier be left to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  She also stipulated that it be restored to the way it appeared during Madison’s last years there. I believe she would be pleased by the results, as would Madison himself. He might especially enjoy seeing the Cedar of Lebanon tree he planted at the time of the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette. The tree has done very well in that spot he picked for it, next to his vegetable garden.

In my opinion, James Madison doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves for his role in creating a new nation and writing our constitution, much of which he researched at home in a book-lined study with an excellent view of the Blue Ridge mountains. Now that his home is open, I hope people will give it and “little Madison” the attention they deserve, certainly equal to that we give Jefferson and Washington and their beautiful homes.

Montpelier is located in the rolling hills of Orange County, on Route 20, about 90 minutes from Richmond.  It is well worth the $16 admission price, for which you will learn about two fascinating American families and their lifestyles.

About Janet Woody

I am the librarian at Lewis Ginter and like to talk and read about plants. I also enjoying researching Lewis Ginter and our founder Grace Arents. Visit me in the library and we'll talk about plants, or history, or some other fun topic.

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