Preservation Magazine, Summer 2020

The Front Doors of James Madison's Montpelier Show Their True Colors

The front doors of Montpelier.

Ever since Jennifer Wilkoski Glass worked on the restoration of James Madison’s Montpelier more than a decade ago, she had wondered why the main house’s faded yellow front doors didn’t match the vibrant yellows of its interior doors. That mystery has now been put to rest, following a six-week repair and refinishing project.

James Dinsmore, who helped oversee Madison’s expansion of Montpelier, built and installed the front doors in 1809. They were initially painted a bold yellow ocher to indicate their significance; brightly colored paints were expensive at the time. As the property changed hands over the centuries, the doors were stripped or repainted on at least five occasions.

The mid-2000s restoration identified a lighter, plywood-like yellow color as original. But after more recent analysis, Glass and conservator Susan Buck discovered that the paint sample used for the restoration had degraded over time. They realized that the interior and exterior doors did match originally. Glass removed the three sets of doors one at a time, cleaned their hardware, and covered them in the closest commercially available match to their historical shade of yellow. The project was completed in February of 2020.

“We get lots of compliments on the doors now,” says Glass, director of architecture and historic preservation at Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site in Orange County, Virginia. “It’s fascinating to look carefully at the craftsmanship of the doors and the other woodwork.”

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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