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Madison's Montpelier to receive major restoration

MONTPELIER STATION, Va. -- President James Madison's ancestral home was always a bit frustrating for history buffs.

Families who took over Montpelier after Dolley Madison sold it in 1844 built dozens of new rooms, rearranged the staircases, and pounded new doorways and windows into the wall. The library where Madison planned for the Constitutional Convention is now gone. Dolley's bedroom became a kitchen.

But the confusion will soon end. In a massive renovation, the nonprofit group that supervises the property will spend $20 million to strip away two centuries of additions, removing about 60 percent of the house and returning the insides to their appearance when the nation's fourth president roamed the halls.

"Some practitioners in the preservation field feel that you should not remove later additions without a very good reason -- houses change over time, that's history," Montpelier Foundation President Michael Quinn said.

"But this house is kind of an exception. There is one period that's more important," Quinn said.

The five-year project was the dying wish of Montpelier's last resident, Marion duPont Scott, who turned the property over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983. The estate of the late philanthropist Paul Mellon agreed to finance the project in 2002. Montpelier sits along a quiet country road about 25 miles from Thomas Jefferson's hilltop estate at Monticello.

"Madison often spoke of the pleasure of being home," said historian Ralph Ketcham. "He was comfortable there."

When Madison moved into the home with his family at the age of 9, the house was a mere eight rooms. He spent his entire life there, building on his own quarters after marrying Dolley.

For the past two years, researchers have been working on an 1820s-era blueprint of the house. They scraped back the plaster in hundreds of places, uncovering old wallpaper, doorways, and fireplaces. Historians scoured journals of Madison's visitors to find out what kind of furniture the family used and where it sat. Archeologists brushed back the soil outside to look for pathways and landscaping. Quinn said crews will begin removing rooms, brick by brick, at the end of this year.

When complete, the house should look as it did in the 1820s. Outside, the mango-colored plaster will be stripped off, revealing the original red brick exterior.

Ann Thornton, a Madison descendant and president of a 700-member family organization, is lending Montpelier china and a walnut bookcase that once belonged to Madison. Other descendants are also looking for heirlooms for the house.

"We want to see it stand alongside the other great presidential homes," Thornton said.

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