Montpelier (Virginia) is best known as the historic home of our country’s fourth president, James Madison, the 20th century tenure of the wealthy du Pont family, and the 21st century restoration of the main house (an enormous undertaking, and one much debated by preservationists and historians). My favorite thing at Montpelier? The slightly forlorn train depot, built by William duPont Sr to serve his estate – a charming frame building with flared roof lines, large brackets, and delicate diamond tracery windows in the dormers.
The depot no longer wears an air of shabby neglect. Shortly after my visit there seven years ago, the Montpelier Foundation began restoring the depot – and much like the restoration of the main house, their decisions proved surprising and to some, controversial.
The depot was built from standard plans developed by the Southern Railway – and those plans called for separate waiting rooms for black and white passengers. The depot’s restoration included these grim reminders of the not-so-distant reality of the Jim Crow South. The Montpelier Foundation sought, with the restoration of this deceptively simple building, to continue what the restoration of the main house began – to “explore the full history of an estate owned by an architect of the Constitution, a landscape soaked in Civil War gore, in a state that embraced segregation early and clung to it to the very end.” I borrowed that last line from an excellent article in the Washington Post by Philip Kennicott about the opening of the depot in 2010.
“In the Time of Segregation,” a permanent self-guided exhibit housed in the depot, is open daily. I haven’t seen the exhibit, but I think using this building to remind visitors of the sharply divided and segregated South is an excellent idea. Making history, especially uncomfortable history, accessible in new and different ways is the only way we will learn from our past.
The depot floated in my consciousness the other day as I contemplated a completely different train of thought (sorry, I couldn’t help it) about the architecture of transportation and the linear, rectangular shapes of depots in the rural south. A rural south that historically was often an unfair, brutal, and unforgiving place. I believe in the power of place – and I am thrilled that this unassuming structure continues on the landscape, serving to educate visitors while also functioning in a not-so-static and museum like way for the local community.