News from Montpelier and Belle Grove in Virginia

Last Friday I was in Virginia and thought I’d share what’s been happening at James Madison’s Montpelier and Belle Grove, two historic sites that I’ve been associated with for more than a decade.  


The day started with a meeting of the Interiors and Interpretation Committee at James Madison’s Montpelier to see the most recently restored rooms at the mansion, advise them on the next phase of work, and to meet Kat Imhoff, the new president of the Montpelier Foundation.  The committee hasn’t met for a couple years so I was particularly anxious to see what’s been happening at this nationally significant site.  The drawing room, dining room, new library, and James Madison’s office are furnished (or nearly so) and with revisions to the tour, it’s a dramatically different visitor experience.  If you haven’t been there in a couple years, it’s well worth another visit.  I enjoy participating as a committee member because Montpelier gives me the unique privilege of staying overnight on site (not in the mansion, alas, but in a nicely updated house in the Constitutional Village).  Even better are the people I work with when I visit–passionate and enthusiastic colleagues who are among the best in their fields.  This meeting included Conny Graft, Betty Monkman, Gail Serfaty, David Mattern, and Robert Leath and to give you a glimpse of their fervor, one of the committee members brought an undiscovered Madison letter that descended through her family and we stayed up until midnight (at least that’s when I went to bed) to discuss and analyze it.  

In the evening, I stopped by Belle Grove in Middletown on the way home to congratulate Elizabeth McClung on her retirement.  Their board of trustees hosted a well deserved celebratory party with lots of speeches, food, and wine.  Elizabeth has served for 17 years at the helm of this historic site, making tremendous strides in preservation and interpretation to make it a major point of pride in the community.  She helped create the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, launched new research initiatives on African American and women’s history, acquired extremely important family portraits and adjacent land parcels, fought bloody preservation battles in the Shenandoah Valley, revised the website, authentically restored the parlor and dining room, and raised LOTS of money (those are just the things I’m aware of from my distant view!).  Her last major project was the rehabilitation of an early 20th century barn for educational activities and while funds still need to be raised for the exhibits, 4274 Design Workshop unveiled a new model of Belle Grove as it appeared in 1820.

It was an incredibly full and fun day visiting these two historic sites, and because I was mostly traveling the Virginia countryside, a great day of driving on a beautiful day as well.

3 thoughts on “News from Montpelier and Belle Grove in Virginia

  1. Kristin Gallas

    Max – My last visit to Montpelier was 5 years ago, so I’m happy to hear more of the restoration work is complete. I was wondering if you would comment on the presence (or absence) of Montpelier’s enslaved population in the reinstallation/reinterpretation. When I toured all those years ago there was an alarming absence of enslaved people from the story told inside the house. It looks like they’ve “peopled” the dining room, but I can’t tell from your photo if there’s an image of an enslaved person in the room.
    Thanks, Kristin


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      I am pleased to tell you that Montpelier has made tremendous accomplishments in interpreting slavery and the enslaved community, and it’s light years ahead of where it was when I began advising them on the interpretation seven years ago. Despite assumptions that nothing is known about enslaved people, Montpelier uncovered lots of information through archival and archaeological research, which is incorporated regularly in tours, events, and exhibits. For example, the Dining Room exhibit includes an enslaved man standing near the table carrying a food, but he’s not visible in this photo (in a future post I’ll discuss this exhibit technique and include more images). The tour discusses Paul Jennings, the enslaved household servant to James Madison and the subject of a new book, A Slave in the White House by Elizabeth (Beth) Taylor, the former director of education at Montpelier. There’s lots more work to be done, nevertheless, it’s a model for researching and interpreting African American history at historic sites.


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