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December 6, 2007 Rebirth Begins at Monroe Birthplace


Free-Lance Star

After decades of fits and starts to honor the birthplace of James Monroe, a new visitors center is rising in the Westmoreland County woods where the fifth president of the United States roamed as a boy centuries ago.

Built of modern materials such as steel, glass, insulated roof panels and concrete siding, the 1,000-square-foot center will look like an 18th-century tobacco barn. It will contain exhibits about Monroe and bathroom facilities for visitors.

Milton Martin, a planning consultant for Westmoreland County, said the center on State Route 205 near Colonial Beach will be completed next year in time for Monroe's 250th birthday celebration.

"Visitors to the new center will be able to learn a lot more about it and Monroe than they could by just stopping on the road," Martin said. "It will offer a different perspective on how Westmoreland County was in the 18th century."

The center, plus its driveway and new entrances, cost the county about $300,000. Another $200,000 came from federal grants, Martin said.

Near the new visitor center, a replica of the modest house where Monroe was born in 1758 may begin to rise next year upon the buried foundations of the original house, said G. William Thomas Jr., president of the James Monroe Memorial Foundation.

Historically minded residents of Westmoreland County have been trying for 70 years to develop a Monroe memorial at the site.

The James Monroe Foundation joined forces in 2005 with Westmoreland County. The foundation leased 10 acres of the site for 99 years. In addition to rebuilding the house and staffing the visitor center, the foundation hopes to create an 18th-century farm on the 75-acre, county-owned site.

An important decision for its future may come today in Richmond when two state historic-preservation boards consider revising the landmark status of the birthplace site.

Although Westmoreland residents always seemed to know the site was the birthplace, it was not until 1976 that archaeologists discovered the foundations of the house where he was born. This discovery caused about four acres of the site to be declared a National Historic Landmark in 1979.

The new nomination would add 10 additional acres based on archaeological discoveries made last year. If approved by the boards, the expanded designation would also allow for the construction of the replica house on the old foundations, Thomas said.

Thomas said that the College of William and Mary, which Monroe began attending at age 16, and Colonial Williamsburg architectural historian Carl Lounsbury are both helping plan the house reconstruction.

The Jessie Ball duPont Foundation has funded $97,651 in archaeological work at the site. Thomas' foundation also received a $25,000 donation from Dominion Power. He expects contributions to increase as the reconstruction project takes shape.

"It's premature to guess at the actual cost," Thomas said, "but we're looking at close to $1 million, including an endowment to take care of the property."

"We feel that we're moving in a very thorough and correct manner. We've waited all these years. What's a few more months?" Thomas said.

An 1839 etching of Monroe's home will provide the basis for the reconstruction, along with a 1780 advertisement that Monroe placed in a Williamsburg newspaper to sell the property.

Over time, the farm's outbuildings, fences, tobacco fields and peach and apple orchards might replace some of the present forest.

"Who knows where any of this might lead?" Thomas said.