Hudson River Classics: Edgewater and Richard Hampton Jenrette

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2012 |

People don't like hocus-pocus," Richard Hamp­ton Jenrette tells me. A fit eighty-two, the former lion of Wall Street seems a model of sanity in an insane world. Take his views on finance: "Wall Street has been high-jacked by speculators." Or industry: "We are foolish to have outsourced our manufacturing."

Jenrette-who in 1993 established the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust to promote six historic properties between New York and Saint Croix that he restored and opened to the public-even has a commonsense answer to anemic attendance figures at many house museums. Make historic houses human again, necessary accoutrements to civilized life. Restore them to their original function: to comfort, flatter, and delight. Make them objects of inspired contemplation, places to withdraw to and celebrate with.

Bathed in fall's golden light, the sneaker-clad pres­ervationist stands before me on the imposing veranda of Edgewater, his circa 1825 house that looks west over the Hudson River, about ninety miles north of Manhattan and forty-plus miles south of Albany. He has been an unwavering apologist for classical design for nearly half a century. Even his watch, acquired in Tokyo decades ago when he was regularly circling the globe as chairman of the Equitable Companies, flaunts Roman numerals.

Becomingly modest and easily amused, Jenrette speaks in a round languid way that betrays his upbring­ing in the "Old North State." William J. Gaston (1778-1844), Jenrette's fellow North Carolinian and the father of Edgewater's second mistress, Susan Gaston Donaldson (see Fig. 7), wrote the state song of the same name. Jenrette's life is littered with such coincidences, which brings us to the "hocus-pocus."

"It all seemed a bit eerie and almost preordained when I later discovered these ties, as well as the strange way I had found the house. It rather seemed like the house had found me," Jenrette wrote of Edgewater in Adventures with Old Houses,1 his entertaining account of his architectural collecting spree, begun in 1968 with his purchase of the 1838 Robert William Roper House in Charleston, South Caro­lina, and ended, or so he insists, in 1996 with his reacquisition of a 1920s Delano and Aldrich town house in Manhattan.

It is enough to make one wonder if the possessor is possessed. "Edgewater has been the great love of my life, architecturally speak­ing, since I first laid eyes on it," he wrote.2 Educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jenrette, the son of an insurance agent and his wife whose forebears settled in the Carolinas in the early eighteenth century, joined the old-money private bank­ing firm Brown Brothers Harriman in 1957. Two years later, with fellow Harvard Business School alumni Dan Lufkin and Bill Donaldson, he started Donaldson Lufkin and Jenrette. It was the first new securities firm on Wall Street since the Great Depression.

"We hit a gusher," confesses the entrepreneur, who retired from business in 1996. A former high-school sports reporter and a college editor of UNC's Daily Tar Heel, Jenrette and his partners pioneered in-depth in­dependent research on small growth companies, aim­ing their recommendations at institutional investors who by the early 1960s were adding more common stocks to their portfolios. Credit Suisse acquired DLJ in 2000, taking with it a corporate art collection that included portraits of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington by John Trumbull and Gilbert Stuart.

Armed with Harold D. Eberlein and Cortlandt van Dyke Hubbard's Historic Houses of the Hudson Valley, Jenrette and his longtime friend William L. Thompson, who serves on the board of Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, were out for a weekend ramble in the fall of 1969 when they came upon what may be the valley's most arresting villa.

Perched on the river, Edgewater was designed to be seen by ships navigating the Hudson. It was probably saved by the railroad, which effectively severed the property from the mainland when it first roared through in 1851, halting further development along the shore and infuriating Edgewater's first owner, Margaretta Livingston Brown, who promptly moved to London.

An endearingly small, perfectly proportioned temple-form villa, Edgewater is Grecian in style, with six monumental Doric columns fronting a two-story por­tico, and a long downward sloping lawn romantically cloaked in weeping specimens of willow, birch, beech, and hemlock, along with locust, the shaggy-barked favorite of the reigning local gentry, the Livingstons. 

"Edgewater is grand but always human. Its propor­tions are what I call gemütlich. From the dining room looking through to the library, it offers one of the most beautiful parades of rooms in America," says Dick Button, the Olympian and a fellow collector of neoclas­sical American design. "Of all of Dick's houses, Edge­water is the most inviting. There is hardly a spot where you can't relax and have a drink," agrees Ralph Harvard, a designer specializing in historic interiors.

"The girls need not apprehend its being solitary for we are quite in a pleasant neighborhood," Susan Don­aldson wrote her father in 1836, soon after she and her husband, Robert Donaldson Jr. moved to Blithewood, now part of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson.3 North Carolinians both, the Donald­sons relocated a mile and a half south to Edgewater, as they renamed the property, in 1853, buying the house from Marga­retta Brown, who had been widowed the previous year. 

"I was smitten," writes Jenrette, who says Edgewater reminded him of Gone with the Wind, his shorthand term for all things romantically southern in feeling. There was a reason for that. Margaretta's husband, Charleston native Lowndes Brown (1792-1852), was almost certainly familiar with Charleston architect Robert Mills (1781-1855), who studied with Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) and is most famous for having designed the Washington Monument. Though no documentation survives to prove it, Jenrette believes that Mills designed Edgewater, or at least provided the Browns with a sketch. As Jean Bradley Anderson wrote in Carolinian on the Hudson: The Life of Robert Don­aldson, Edgewater's Doric order, arched first floor windows facing west, tripartite windows facing south, and the originally exposed arcaded piers supporting its portico call to mind other Mills commissions.4

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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