The Montgomery House


Another chapter in the 169-year-old history of the spacious Montgomery House property in downtown Madison is being written as a city park and botanical garden take shape, part of the historic city center that will include planned residential and commercial developments, a big vision of Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler’s for decades.

The landmark property started out as a small pioneer structure in 1852 in the then-sparsely settled region, but by 1898 had been transformed into a charming country cottage.

The city of Madison owns the house and spacious grounds now. “There is something about this place,” Hawkins-Butler said recently at the groundbreaking for what will become the Madison Station Botanical Garden. “These grounds are very special.” 

Not a lot is known about the early days of the property, but tucked away along a winding drive on a small hill with a spacious yard across from Madison United Methodist Church on Main Street, the Montgomery House can go unnoticed.

The forerunner of the magnificent white country cottage was a simple two-room, dogtrot dwelling. 

Incidentally, the unknown builder wasn’t the first in the area. Just down the way and closer to Main Street is a larger house built circa 1840 by Irish immigrant John Curran. That house is the oldest surviving structure in Madison and is listed as the Curran House on the National Register of Historic Places.

Less than a quarter-mile east, the early settlers no doubt watched construction of the Illinois Central Railroad that brought big changes to the area in the way of commerce at what would become Madison Station. The tracks were finished in 1856 when trains started stopping in the area. The railroad signaled progress as more settlers and businesses quickly followed that same year. Strawberries were a big commodity.  

The first known owner of the Montgomery House wasn’t even a Montgomery. He was Thomas Nicholson Jones, a prominent businessman. Jones, born in 1855, and his wife, Hugh Lena Jones, born in 1865, were married in 1883. 

Thomas Nicholson Jones was one of the first three aldermen of the newly chartered town of Madison in 1898 and was the first president of the new Bank of Madison in 1901. 

Jones is the reason the picturesque one-story frame house looks the way it does today. The house has had no major structural changes since 1898 when Jones finished the additions and enhancements more than 100 years ago. 

The much grander house that resulted is historically significant as one of the few remaining examples of late vernacular Goth architecture from the Gothic Revival Movement in Madison County. The house is considered a visible and valuable link in the state’s history of architecture of that period.

The architecture reflects the prosperity in Madison Station at the time. The Madison Station area was one of the richest farming sections of the entire state, making the community in the late 1800s a railroad shipping center that brought prosperity. A new style of architecture, Gothic Revival, was admired by the wealthy landowners such as Jones who were influenced by a popular book “The Architecture of Country Houses” written in 1850 by A.J. Downing, one of the country’s premier landscape architects.

An impressive façade, inspired by the book, was attached to the front of the initial structure, doubling the size of the house to four large rooms on either side of an enclosed center hall. The overall plan of the house, built with natural materials of heart pine and cypress, is one of simplicity and symmetry. The entrance is set off by one of Downing’s trademarks, a wide gallery extending across the front. 

In 1910, both Jones and his wife died, and the house was inherited by their relatives in the Montgomery family, in whose possession it remained until the city purchased the property in 2019. Additions were made on the back of the house in the 1900s without destroying the dignity of the historic property.

The significance of the architecture is the reason the home is listed on the National Register. Hugh C. Montgomery and his wife Faye, the last residents of the house, were the driving force behind that nomination for the national distinction.

Hugh Montgomery grew up in the house with his father Hugh C. Montgomery Sr. and his mother Mattie. Montgomery Sr. died in 1958 and Mattie Montgomery died in 1977. Faye and Hugh Montgomery married in 1966 but didn’t move to the Madison property until about 1995. 

“I always wanted to move up here. I loved it here but Hugh grew up here and he did not want to go back to a house where you had to build a fire for warmth,” she said.

When they did move in, Faye Montgomery said she worked to make the house reflect its history. “You need to let something be true to itself and find the beauty there,” she said. “This started life as a grand house. The folklore that’s been repeated is that it was built for a bride. It had the finest wallpapers, hand-grained woodwork. It had to be breath-taking when it was new.”

Hugh died in 2018 and Faye decided to sell the house to the city because of the mayor’s commitment to preserving the house and its history. “The main thing was to know it would be saved, and that appealed to me,” she said.

At the groundbreaking for the botanical garden, Hawkins-Butler said the property is “one of the best things to happen in Madison. This house is part of the very heartbeat of Madison.”

The Montgomery House, in the years before the city purchased it, played a role in Madison’s history. 

The city hosted events and special functions there. It was the location of the first city festival. The city seal was unveiled there. U.S. senators and Miss Americas have been entertained at Montgomery House.

The property is expected be filled with the beauty and the fragrances of roses, azaleas, hydrangeas, gardenias, daffodils, lilies and much more. A walking trail will meander through various small gardens bursting with colors and textures on the front lawn. Roses will fill one of the gardens around a gazebo. Dogwoods and camellias will be featured in another, and ornamentals and hollies in another.

“Can you imagine when you come down Main Street and see that it’s preserved?” asked Mayor Hawkins-Butler.