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Montpelier helping teach Constitution

February 14, 2010 12:36 am


Montpelier is spending millions to restore and reuse some of the barns on the Orange County estate. lo0214constitution1.jpg

The Center for the Constitution is restoring and 'repurposing' some of the barns at Montpelier to expand the center's capacity. lo0214constitution2.jpg

Lewis Hall is one example of a repurposed former barn at Montpelier. lo0214constitution3.jpg

The schooling barn will become a large meeting space for future use by the Center for the Constitution.

THE HIGH-POWERED journalists and academics spent two days on the topic "The Madisonian System in Modern America: Is It Broken?" At one point they discussed whether Congress is broken and how to fix it.

But when participants in the seminar at Montpelier's Center for the Constitution took a short walk from their classroom to the home of James and Dolley Madison, even seasoned pundits and academics were awestruck.

It was when they visited a study in the Orange County mansion where Madison once sat, looked at the mountains in the distance and worked out ideas that would become the foundation for our nation's new government.

"This is where it all began," said one participant, referring to Madison's work in drafting the Constitution. "What he drew up here guides how we live today."

Sean O'Brien, executive director of the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier, said that's the intangible that has helped bring 3,000 people to programs it has offered, on site and off, in its eight years of operation.

The majority of those people have been teachers, who have traveled to the 2,700-acre complex from all over the country for introductory or graduate-level seminars aimed at helping them teach the Constitution.

The program hosts educators on the Montpelier grounds for sessions lasting several days, underwrites their cost and provides teachers with recertification hours and teaching materials.

O'Brien noted that while providing classes to teachers will continue to be a major focus--to date, they've come from all 50 states--expanding programs for other key role-players in the U.S. and beyond is a big part of the center's future.

"We've had programs for judges, lawyers, members of the General Assembly, police chiefs and officers, journalists and different sorts of groups from around the world," O'Brien said. "The thinking is that we help give information to integral members of society that can impact others with that knowledge."

He added, "We even recently hosted Gov. [Bob] McDonnell and his staff for a short retreat before he took office," he said.

Having gone from 20 people in their first year to 850 or so last year, Montpelier and the center are planning to expand what they refer to as their "Constitutional Village" just down the hill from the home.

Michael C. Quinn, president of The Montpelier Foundation, noted that the revitalization of the 20th-century William duPont Farm Complex that houses the Village and other departments began in 2002.

So far, 11 important buildings in the complex--seven residences, a schoolhouse, a brick carriage house and the large schooling barn--have been renovated and preserved at a cost of more than $3.5 million.

In early December, Montpelier announced more dramatic plans to restore and revitalize several other large barns in the complex, using them for an expanded teaching facility for the center.

Quinn noted that the plan will restore two structurally sound barns, and that work is now starting to save everything reusable from other barns that need to be taken down because of their poor condition.

"In all, it's a great way to reuse and restore these pieces of Montpelier's history," said Quinn.

O'Brien said plans call for the the restored barns to hold 32 new bedrooms, to add to the two dozen or so rooms now available in restored houses in the Village.

Plans also include four large classroom spaces, a complete cooking and dining facility, and staff offices.

"Right now, we can only hold one session at a time, and are fairly limited in the size of the group," said O'Brien.

With the new facility, which has an expected price tag of about $25 million for construction, an endowment and other costs, two sessions could be held simultaneously, with a larger number of participants.

The project and fundraising are expected to take several years, although preliminary planning on the new buildings has started and contracts to stabilize and salvage the barns are in place.

"We have sessions for teachers blocked out all summer, and groups from Asia and elsewhere coming in the spring," O'Brien said. "Our hope is to really become the premier Constitutional training facility in the country."

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

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