Bartzen + Ball Project, James Madison's Montpelier Claude Moore Hall was featured in the Daily progress.
Local historians are working to bring Montpelier, James Madison’s 18th-century estate, into the digital age.
In November, Montpelier will open a $4 million building combining classroom and recording studio space. It will allow staff to record lectures, podcasts and radio programs that could reach a worldwide audience.
When it’s finished, the 6,300-square-foot Claude Moore Hall will be a combined lecture hall and recording space, providing an opportunity for more exposure for the estate (and the Founding Father) that is sometimes overshadowed by peer institutions.
“One thing we’re trying to do is spread knowledge about James Madison and his role in the founding of the United States,” said Sean T. O’Brien, chief operating officer of the Montpelier Foundation. “Not only the United States, but democracy worldwide.”
Madison is best known as one of the co-authors of the Federalist Papers and the man who introduced the original draft of the Bill of Rights.
Not surprisingly, Montpelier’s education and outreach programs focus on the Constitution. In 2002, the foundation established the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution, which provides multi-day, immersive classes on constitutional principles for teachers, law enforcement officers, elected officials and other “leverage points” in society, O’Brien said.
These classes are conducted in person, but staff members began to realize the importance of reaching out via podcasting, radio broadcasts and internet videos. Current offices couldn’t support these activities, so the staff has been splitting time between Richmond, Boston and the Piedmont, said C. Douglas Smith, vice president of the Montpelier Foundation.
“We’ll be able to do all of that in Claude Moore Hall,” Smith said. “That doesn’t just mean we’ll be more efficient — it means we’re going to be able to broadcast much more content.”
The new building is part of a plan to establish a “broader campus of constitutional learning,” Smith said, including two studio spaces and additional residences.
A law enforcement education program, which brings sworn officers to Montpelier’s grounds to learn about constitutional law, could benefit from the increased exposure.
Retired Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy J. Longo was instrumental in founding the program, which covers topics ranging from searches and seizures to the rights of participants in a public demonstration. The curriculum is a combination of practical advice and theoretical framework, going into the history, intended purpose and interpretations of Americans’ rights enumerated in the Constitution.
“Everything they do as law enforcement officers has its basis in the Constitution,” Longo said. “While they may not need to be constitutional scholars, they are some of the most important practitioners.”
The new facilities could allow Montpelier to spread its message to a larger audience, Longo said. Many departments screen informational videos during roll call, for example — which provides an opportunity for the Center for the Constitution.
“Once we have that capability, we’ll do more of it,” Longo said. “And I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Claude Moore Hall is being funded by philanthropic gifts, including a recently approved donation of $200,000 from the Virginia chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution to underwrite a conference room at the new center.
Montpelier is often lost in the crowded field of historical attractions in Virginia — Colonial Williamsburg, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon all receive more attention.
Part of that is the relative newness of the estate as an attraction. The duPont family purchased the property in the early 20th century. The National Trust for Historic Preservation acquired it in 1983, but not before the duPonts had made extensive alterations to the house and the property.
A restoration project completed in 2008 brought the house back to its Madison-era authenticity.
O’Brien said he sees Montpelier’s emerging status as an opportunity to try new things.
“Montpelier has been a historic home in a form people would recognize for about 10 years,” O’Brien said. “We’re really the new kids on the block, and one of the things that allows us to do is think a little outside the box.”