Furnishing the Madison Dining Room
Gathered at the Table
Designing one of the most social rooms at Montpelier was the result of a large inter-departmental collaboration between Curatorial & Collections, Research, Archaeology & Landscape Restoration, and Architecture & Historic Preservation. Each department’s expertise was employed to recreate this gathering space central to the Madisons’ social platform, where guests from France to Fredricksburg dined and shared ideas that molded our country.
From investigating floorboards and nail holes to researching textile and wallpaper patterns to uncovering transferware shards and installing the matching dining set, the room now enjoyed by visitors to Montpelier results from nearly a decade of work. Discover the techniques used and the research behind recreating the Madison’s Dining Room in this Project Page, Furnishing the Madison’s Dining Room.
This Project Page and related Blogs include research from former staff members Teresa Teixeira, Lauren Kraut, Rebecca Hagen, Megan Kennedy, Grant Quertermous, and Lynne Dakin Hastings.
Wallpaper & Textiles
In 2010, a committee of Montpelier curatorial staff and experts in the fields of historic furnishings and wall coverings selected the wallpaper pattern “Virchaux Drapery,” for the Madison Dining Room. The reproduction wallpaper was block printed by Adelphi Paper Hangings, specializing in historically accurate patterns, methods, and materials, and hung by Patrick Shields, a professional in wallpaper and mural installations. The “Virchaux Drapery” pattern was chosen for its French style and for being designed and produced in Philadelphia in 1815, the same time James and Dolley Madison were considering and purchasing paper.
A year later, a Brussels weave carpet featuring typical period neoclassical geometric patterning was installed in the dining room. Handwoven on 18th-century looms in Kidderminster, England, by The Living Looms Project, the carpet’s interlocking geometric pattern complements the contemporary swags featured in the “Virchaux Drapery” wallpaper.
Upon James Madison’s death, an inventory of the estate ensued. These inventories are crucial for the accurate furnishing and interpretation of the rooms at Montpelier. The 1836 Dining Room inventory provided the Curatorial & Collections Department a blueprint of what items were in the room and, in turn, how the space was used.
The rich mahogany furnishings of the dining room emanate the quiet power and dignity of America’s Fourth President. They include two sideboards, a drop-leaf table, and the dining table, all of purported Madison provenance. Visitors to Montpelier recalled a table “long enough to accommodate a dozen persons, & full of all that a fine Va farm could supply”.
As Dolley’s radiant and congenial personality complemented her husband’s introspective and observant character, so too do the delicate ceramics among the handsome mahogany furniture.
Blue and white Bamboo & Peony transferware dessert plates are set for guests on the dining table among small dishes filled with sweets. The table is arranged symmetrically, as was the ideal—if not common—practice for service á la française (in the French manner). In this style, the dishes for a particular course were set in the center of the table prior to the course beginning, creating a feast for the eyes and advertising the hosts’ wealth, taste and style.
On one of two sideboards in the room sits an eye-catching orange, white and gold Nast porcelain tureen. The Nast Dinner service was acquired for Madison in France in 1806 by Fulwar Skipwith, the American Consul General. Madison was Secretary of State at the time of the purchase, so although not an official “Presidential dinner service,” it may have been used by the Madisons after the White House fire. This Nast pattern was made in limited production and was an uncommon-market design.
Creating the Space
As one of the most social spaces in the Madison’s home, the dining room had to be functional, comfortable and visually engaging. It was in this space that James and Dolley entertained prominent people such as “America’s favorite fighting Frenchmen,” Marquis de Lafayette, author and political commentator, Margaret Bayard Smith, and their close friend, Thomas Jefferson.
Unique to the interpretation of the dining room at Montpelier is the inclusion of life-sized cutouts seated at the table for a dinner party. James and Dolley, Jefferson, and Dolley’s sister, Anna Payne Cutts, are among those gathered at the table. These figures help to interpret what would have been one of the most active rooms of the Madisons’ home.
 “List of articles in Dining Room at Montpellier” and “Engravings in dining room,” July 1, 1836, box 1, folder 1831–1836, Papers of Dolley Madison, MS 18940, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
 Meikleham, “Quiet Home Life of Mr. and Mrs. Madison;” Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
 Chew, Elizabeth; Teixeira, Teresa. “Dessert Installation in the Dining Room,” August 2017.
 Quertermous, Grant. “Nast Porcelain Offered for sale to Montpelier.” September 15, 2009.
 Account of Lafayette’s Visit to Montpelier, [15–19 November 1824],” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-03-02-0426. [Original source: The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, vol. 3, 1 March 1823 – 24 February 1826, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, and Katherine E. Harbury. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016, pp. 430–433.]
 Gaillard Hunt (editor) and Margaret Bayard Smith, Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), MRD- S 121
 Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, June 21, 1808, Unlocated, MRD-S 38823