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Preservation of Monroe's Tomb

Monroe's Tomb in March, 2017The Department of General Services has announced a yearlong project to repair and preserve James Monroe's Tomb ahead of the 2016 bicentennial of his election as the nation's fifth president.

The cast iron canopy tomb, known as the "Birdcage," dates to 1859, is a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. The Gothic Revival structure rests on a bluff overlooking the James River in historic Hollywood Cemetery.

"The Commonwealth has tended to Monroe's Tomb for over 150 years, but we've reached a point where patches, fillers and paint are no longer sufficient," said Richard F. Sliwoski, P.E., director of the Department of General Services. "This project is necessary if we are to preserve this national treasure for future generations."

"The Department of General Services has been consulting with us since 2012 on a restoration and treatment plan for this important National Historic Landmark," said Julie Langan, director of the Department of Historic Resources. "Great care has been taken to carefully consider all options to ensure a sensitive and appropriate result. DGS is to be commended for its diligent and collaborative approach to this project."

Decades of repairs have left the metalwork with filler material, sheet metal patches and layers of caulking, abrasives and black paint. Original photos, including a detailed 1865 picture from the Library of Congress, show the Birdcage appears close in color to the lighter granite foundation pedestals that support the "Birdcage." Paint analysis is underway to help determine the original color so it can be restored.

The goal is to reuse as much of the original material as possible. A laser scan shows that approximately 40 percent of the cast iron will need to be recast and/or repaired, but that estimate could increase upon further inspection by the conservator. During the restoration, crews also will duplicate missing ornamentation and replace missing fasteners that either are deteriorated or were never installed during original fabrication. Conservators will thoroughly document and monitor the restoration process to preserve the original construction means and methods.

Monroe, a native Virginian, served as president from 1817-1825. His Monroe Doctrine — the declaration in 1823 that the Western Hemisphere was closed to future colonization — became a tenet of U.S. foreign policy. Monroe died on July 4, 1831, and was buried in New York City. As the centennial of his birth approached, Virginians lobbied state officials to build a monument in his home state where he could be reinterred. In 1859, his remains were relocated to where they now lie in the sarcophagus on display in Hollywood Cemetery.

"This is the most exciting thing that has happened to help promote the legacy of our fifth president on the eve of the bicentennial of his election," said G. William Thomas Jr., president of the James Monroe Memorial Foundation, which also is restoring Monroe's birthplace in Colonial Beach, Virginia. "Monroe is remembered for a number of things including the Monroe Doctrine. He's the last of our Founding Father presidents. It says so much about the Commonwealth he loved that his monument is being restored on the occasion of his service to America as he ushered in an 'Era of Good Feelings.'"

The tomb was designed by architect Albert Lybrock, who is buried in Hollywood Cemetery not far from Monroe's Tomb.

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Monroe's Tomb - 2

Preservation Overview

The Foundation has been purchasing Monroe items since 1928. Many of these items can be found at the James Monroe Museum & Memorial Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Often, other museums loan artifacts from the collection.

Principal among these has been the restoration and conservation of the Rembrandt Peale three-quarter-length portrait of James Monroe.  This is one of the most important portraits of the Federalist period.   Under the supervision of Dr. Clement E. Conger, then curator of the White House and U. S. State Department collections, the Foundation contracted with expert evaluators and conservators to clean and restore damage to the surface, and install it in an appropriate period frame purchased by the Foundation.

Other projects have included the repair and rebinding of eighteenth century leather-bound books, and, in some cases, the construction of acid-neutral slip cases for further protection, and the conservation of eighteenth century fabrics.

The Monroe "Landing of Lafayette" Platter
Platter Front Platter Back

James Monroe: His Personal "Landing of Lafayette" Platter. President James Monroe invited the Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis De Lafayette, to visit America and be the "Nation's Guest". He accepted and travelled to the United States with his son and private secretary. They arrived at Castle Garden in New York Harbor on August 16, 1824. They then went to Washington and were graciously received at the White House by President Monroe. Their visit lasted into 1825 and produced many souvenir items, including Historical Blue Staffordshire china. The most popular pattern, produced by Clews, was the "Landing of Gen. La Fayette at Castle Garden." This 15" x 11.5" meat platter in mint condition shows the event. A flag flies over Castle Garden, cannons fire salutes, people wave from the shoreline and mounted troops pass back-and-forth. The two three-masted ships in the harbor are the "Robert Fulton" and the "Chancellor Livingston".
Lafayette's visit is considered one of the signal events of the Monroe presidency. He travelled the country, drawing crowds from great distances who wished to glimpse the last living Revolutionary War hero. The fact that President Monroe himself chose to commemorate the event by acquiring this platter, and that his family carefully preserved it for generations, makes this an historic artifact indeed.

The platter can be viewed at the James Monroe Birthplace Visitors Center in Spring, 2012.

The Monroe Bowl

 Punch Bowl (circa 1822-1827)     Punch Bowl (circa 1822-1827)

This punch bowl, which dates from the period 1822 to 1827, is ornamental with eagles identical to those on the Monroe dessert service made by the Parisian manufactory of Dagoty and Honoré.  Of great significance, and contrary to every published account, the decoration of the Monroe service is executed in lithographic transfer to porcelain, as is the eagle decoration on this bowl.  It differs from the White House service, however, in one important detail.  It bears the name "W. A. Barnet, del." inscribed within the ribbon that flows outward from each eagle.

The bowl is one of the most significant discoveries from the Monroe era to enter the market in recent years.  It not only provides documentation for the designer of the Dagoty and Honoré service and insight into the furnishing of the President's House, it helps expand our understanding of the relationship between the American government and diplomatic circles abroad, and highlights the strong relationship between France and the United States in the period after the War of 1812.  The bowl also provides an important link to a large body of previously unexplored documentary material.  These documents, deposited in the archives of the State Department, have been overlooked in previous explorations of decorative arts associated with the President's House.

William Armand Barnet (b. 1795), whose name appears on this bowl, can be counted among the most talented Americans in France during the early nineteenth century.  He was the eldest son of Isaac Cox Barnet, a professional American diplomat who served in a number of posts after 1797, including early appointments as American Consul to Brest and Commercial Agent at Le Havre.

The Monroe Bed

   Monroe Bedframe (circa 1818) Monroe Bedpost (circa 1818)

This "French" or "crown" bedstead made in Washington, D.C. circa 1818 is attributed to William Worthington, one of the region's most accomplished artisans and one of the few local cabinetmakers chosen to make furniture for the Monroe White House.  With the exception of a small group of French or crown bedsteads made by Duncan Phyfe, Charles Honoré Lannuier, and artisans related to them in New York, this bedstead can be considered among the most impressive examples of its type produced in America during the second decade of the nineteenth century. 

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