Hudson River Classics: Edgewater and Richard Hampton Jenrette

And then there was Edgewater's library, easily "one of the most beautiful in the state," as one critic wrote in 1866, or anywhere, as the present-day taste­maker Thomas Jayne observed in 2010.5 Octagonal in form, with doors opening to river views, this most civilized of man caves was added to the north end of the house in 1854 by architect Alexander Jackson Davis at the request of Robert Donaldson, who is credited with introducing Davis to the landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) in 1838. Davis acknowledged the support of Donald­son, whom he described as "an ardent amateur of the rural arts" in his Rural Residences (1837).6

Within days, Jenrette was negotiating to buy Edgewater from Gore Vidal, who acquired the property for sixteen thousand dollars in 1950, two months before his twenty-fifth birthday.7 Vidal, whose move to Rome precipitated the sale, struggled to maintain Edgewater. He later noted that he would have had a hard time paying off his mortgage had he not begun writing for television.

Vidal brought bohemian flash to Edgewater's threadbare grandeur, furnishing the mansion-if snapshots do not lie-with a motley assortment of second-hand furniture borrowed from his friend Alice Astor, a Liv­ingston descendant whose father, John Jacob Astor IV, went down with the Titanic.

Like Jenrette, Vidal was bewitched by Edgewater. The first novel he completed there was The Judgment of Paris. In his memoir Palimpsest he wrote, "When a writer moves into the house that he most wants or needs, the result is often a sudden release of new energy. Henry James's move to Lamb House produced The Wings of the Dove, Somerset Maugham's move to Villa Mauresque resulted in his only satisfactory novel, Cakes and Ale. In my case, there was a burst of energy and imagination of a sort not accessible to me before. Overnight-the result of the octagonal library?-I jettisoned what I called ‘the na­tional manner,' the gray, slow realism of most American writing, not to mention the strict absence of wit and color, and I made a sort of bildungsroman about a young man loose in Europe after the war."8

Vidal invited the intellectual fast crowd to Edgewa­ter only to skewer his guests in his memoir. His victims included Norman and Adele Mailer ("Norman had stabbed Adele; been sent to Bellevue Hospital; now he was out. I asked them both up to Edgewater....Con­troversy raged over many a glass of gin-we were heavy drinkers in the Valley") and Eleanor Roosevelt ("known to serve the most inedible meals on the river and, later, in the White House"). Mrs. Roosevelt told Vidal, "Franklin always loved this house. It was usually empty, you know. And he would drive up from Hyde Park and sit on the porch and look at the river."9

Vidal-who couldn't resist calling Jenrette a "specu­lator"10 even after the writer netted a handsome profit from Edgewater's $125,000 sale-spared only his good

friends Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. There was a mild outcry years later when Jenrette relocated Edgewater's pool. "Don't you know that Joanne and Paul helped Gore dig that swimming hole?," Jenrette was asked.

Jenrette, who early in his career used Edgewater as a weekend getaway from Wall Street but now migrates seasonally from New York to South Carolina and the Virgin Islands, honors the spirit of his properties but is unafraid to improve them. He added a fountain court to Edgewater's east entrance, whose steps he enhanced with iron railings. Over the years he has worked with dozens of artisans to stencil floors and marbleize walls. He commissioned architect Michael Dwyer to design guest quarters and a pool house, both in the Grecian taste.

Sublime landscape is at the heart of Hudson River school art and architecture. Jenrette has enhanced and protected Edgewater's vista, adding land to the prop­erty now encompassing about fifty acres. Years ago he acquired 150 acres on the west side of the river, later resell­ing the land with an easement meant to protect the view in perpetuity. He rerouted Edgewater's original riverfront drive and was cheered when Amtrak agreed to close the nearby grade-level crossing, silencing the piercing whistle that accompanied the train's approach. 

A lover of old houses first, Jenrette cottoned to the fine and decorative arts gradually. His personal collec­tion, which has grown to two thousand works of art, will eventually join the four hundred objects now owned by the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. Living with such a high caliber collection imposes demands of its own, but Jenrette's graceful domestic routines make it look easy. Smiling, he explains, "You just have to relax with it." 

Jenrette's early mentors were the designers Otto Zenke of North Carolina and Anthony Hail of Cali­fornia, both of whom decorated with antiques. He began working with Edward Vason Jones, an Atlanta architect who advised three presidents on the White House collections, in 1977, initially hiring Jones to advise him on an 1826 town house at 37 CharltonStreet in Manhattan that he later sold.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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