doors, windows, hardware

Key Components

Ball & Ball of Exton, PA, provided authentic finishing touches to an extensive restoration of James Madison's Montpelier.

James Madison’s Montpelier was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983 and has since undergone a significant restoration, returning the house to how it looked during Madison’s lifetime. Among the companies that have contributed to the restoration are Ball & Ball of Exton, PA. All photos: BL_ANK Media

By Lynne Lavelle

Much like the structure itself, preservationists' understanding of James Madison's Montpelier has evolved gradually. The two-story house was built around 1760 for Madison's father, planter and county official James Madison Sr.; befitting the family's status, it was the largest brick building in Orange County, VA. It was expanded over the years, most significantly with a 30-ft. addition and front portico in 1797-1800, and adjoining one-story wings in 1809-1812.

Madison, the fourth president, "Father of the Constitution" and author of the Bill of Rights, grew up at Montpelier and continued to live there with his wife, Dolley, until his death in 1836. The house was then sold in 1841 and changed hands several times before it was purchased by the duPont family in 1901, who bequeathed the 2,700-acre estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983.

In the oldest section of the building, this interior door features a dead bolt with a hand-forged thumb latch. The metal was left unfinished for an aged appearance.

Prior to explorations by the Trust, little was known about Montpelier's configuration during Madison's lifetime. However, five investigations, as well as studies of visitor accounts, letters, contractor bills and other documents, culminated in a 15-volume report in 2002, revealing the three main construction periods and a greater understanding of the house and its occupants.

Thanks to an ambitious restoration project by the Trust that began in 2004, Montpelier today looks much as Madison would have recognized it – on the exterior at least. "We began a feasibility study in October of 2001 to determine if we had enough information within the house to accurately restore it," says John Jeanes, Montpelier's director of restoration. "By about 2003, we had approvals from all of the necessary agencies and plenty of documentation. In particular, we were helped by the building accounts from the master builders, James Dinsmore and James Nielsen, who came down to Montpelier after the completion of Jefferson's Monticello in 1809 and spent three years here. They gave the linear footage of all the interior trim and all the features. It is really an exact description of every room."

Central to the restoration was the belief that all architectural elements, large and small, should be exact replicas of the originals. Such exhaustive attention to detail required the work of many, among them Ball & Ball Hardware of Exton, PA. The firm was one of several commissioned in 2006 to work on Montpelier's door and shutter hardware, which dated from the three periods of construction.

This entry gate hinge and hand-forged nails were manufactured to follow the gate form.

"The preservation architect came to our facility, and we looked through our collection of antique locks together," says Bill Ball, partner. "We were looking for three very specific differences in the manufacturing techniques that would be consistent with those time periods. So the manufacturing process was determined by the original date of manufacture and the function of the door and the number of bolts." To the trained eye, the most considerable differences in the rim locks were the thickness and taper of the side plates, which were typically steeper on the earlier locks. Otherwise, the methods of construction were almost identical across the three time periods.

Ball & Ball worked on approximately 20 iron rim locks and 40 cast-iron hinges, 120 shutter hinges, 25 interior iron hinges and gate hardware. The firm was aided by the considerable historic evidence found throughout the house. All of the original doors existed, complete with original screw holes and the "ghosts" of the original hardware preserved beneath the paint. On the exterior of the main house, all of the original 1765 exterior shutter hinges remained and were restored.

This hand-forged two-bolt iron rim lock leads from a bedroom to the second floor roof of the 1809 wing; all brass knobs were provided by another manufacturer.

"They didn't lose a stick of lumber," says Ball. "It's a unique approach, but one that I would like to see more often. If you have access to original materials, the result is going to be much more accurate. And the preservation approach was that they wanted to make Montpelier exactly as it was, not almost as it was."

As investigations continued throughout the restoration, no decision could ever be regarded as final. "Part of paying attention to detail is having the ability to say, ‘Hmm, that might be a mistake.' So we did go over several things and made adjustments as necessary to make sure that everything was done correctly. The extra time did not concern us."

The architectural restoration of Montpelier is now complete, but work at the mansion is far from over. Currently, specialists are poring over visitor accounts and physical evidence in preparation for phase two, which will focus on the interior finishes. "It will be a long-term process," says Jeanes. "We have to determine the original furnishings, tables and chairs, as well as examine the architraves and the woodwork for items such as curtain hangings. Together with accounts of what people saw at Montpelier, we hope to re-create the finishes."

Wisely, the team is careful not to believe everything it reads. "Though the builders were usually incredibly accurate," says Jeanes, "James Madison would find out that he was charged for an extra foot of trim. He had a question about it, so it was reduced on the next bill. It was that exact."