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To remove or not to remove?

February 5th, 2014

To remove or not to remove?

Melissa Price

Deeply ingrained within the concept of restoration is the notion of ethics. Restoration involves the removal of more recent layers to return something to a former condition. Paintings, chairs, and houses can all be restored and there can always be a debate about what or how much should be removed from an object in an attempt to return it to an earlier state.

Who decides what is important or what should be restored? How can all aspects of a building’s history be represented equally? What should be removed and what should be left in tact during a restoration project? There are no easy answers for these questions and the matter of restoration is prone to gray areas. It is important, however, to consider these questions and keep in mind some of the difficulties conservators face when dealing with such projects.

Murtagh, in Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America, defines restoration as involving the removal of later work or replacing missing earlier work. When thinking of the concept of restoration, historic buildings frequently come to mind and Murtagh appropriately warns that too much restoration borders on “creeping reconstruction,” in which the original elements of the building are slowly refurbished until the original building has practically been replaced (pg 20). Restoration, then, has the potential to be a systematic destruction of parts of a building’s history. Perhaps this is why some people believe that buildings should be left alone: all construction is a part of its history.

Sometimes, there are also subjective influences as to why some things are restored. A case study that provides an example of this is the restoration of Montpelier, the home of former president James Madison. Montpelier was built and owned by the Madison family from 1723 to 1844, when it changed ownership multiple times until the DuPont family purchased it in 1901. The DuPonts were a wealthy family in the Upper South that contributed greatly to the development of thoroughbred horse racing and even used the grounds of Montpelier to host yearly horse races. Throughout their ownership of Montpelier, extensive construction took place, which increased the 22-room Madison-era mansion to a whopping 55 rooms (Gontar, “Rediscovering James Madison’s MONTPELIER,” 122-124).


DuPont Era Montpelier: Photo from http://nookstowersandturrets.blogspot.com

Those 33 DuPont-added rooms are gone now; they have been demolished or deconstructed during the restoration of Montpelier to the original Madison-era mansion. Marion DuPont Scott, the last private owner of Montpelier, willed the mansion to the National Trust for Historic Preservation before her death and it took much discussion and consultation before the decision to restore the mansion to its earlier form was made. The National Trust, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the National Park Service, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the remaining members of the DuPont family were involved in this decision-making process (“Mansion Restoration”).

Madison-era Montpelier

Madison Era Montpelier: Photo from http://www.traditional-building.com

In the early stages of planning, there were high hopes for exhibiting both the Madison and DuPont eras of the mansion. It was hoped that the restoration would be able to display a “house within a house” (“Restoration Of Montpelier Aiming At 2 Eras”). Today, however, it is obvious that there is less DuPont and more Madison present in the mansion. While some applauded the immense amounts of tedious work that went into the restoration of the Madison era home, some remained unconvinced that deconstructing the DuPont’s work was ethical while others argued Madison’s work for the country overshadowed the DuPont additions to Montpelier (“Uncovering Montpelier’s Hidden Past”).

It is no surprise that the home of a former president is placed on a higher pedestal than that of an Upper South wealthy family; visiting the home of a former president is an easier sell to tourists (or grant providers). Less is known about daily life during the Madison’s time than daily life during the DuPont’s time and there is much information to be gained from the restoration process. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that both families were important in the history of Montpelier and in choosing to restore one part of that history, many other facets of the building’s complex life are destroyed or given up. The case of Montpelier provides just one example of how ethics are closely tied to restoration.


References Cited:

Gontar, Cybèle Trione. 2007. Rediscovering James Madison’s MONTPELIER. Magazine Antiques 171(4): p120-129.

Mansion Restoration. The Montpelier Foundation. http://www.montpelier.org/research-and-collections/mansion-restoration (accessed 01/20/14).

Murtagh, W., 1997, Chapter 1: The Language of Preservation. In: Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America, pp. 15-24.

Shea, Christopher. 2008. Uncovering Montpelier’s Hidden Past. Preservation. www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2008/september-october/montpelier.html (accessed 01/20/14).

Stevens, William K. 1986. Restoration Of Montpelier Aiming At 2 Eras. New York Times News Service. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1986-05-25/news/8602070975_1_du-ponts-madison-era-triple-hung-windows (accessed 01/20/14).

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