Jenrette became part of what has been called the "Empire Mafia," an informal circle of friends and rivals who collected American classical design. The group's ringleaders were Jones and Berry B. Tracy, curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a coauthor of Nineteenth-Century America: Furniture and Other Decorative Arts (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974) and, with William H. Gerdts, of Classical America 1815-1845 (Newark Museum, 1963).
Jenrette initially bought at auction and through dealers such as the late Fred J. Johnston, a Kingston, New York-based protégé of Henry F. du Pont, as well as through Ed Jones. "Jones was one of the biggest buyers of his era. He acquired a number of first-rate things from us, some of which went to Jenrette," says Dean Levy of the Manhattan-based Bernard and S. Dean Levy gallery. Among them was a set, attributed to Duncan Phyfe, of twelve muscular New York dining chairs. The firm, then known as Ginsburg and Levy, had reunited the group, which had been divided between Livingston heirs.
Jenrette avidly pursues pieces associated with Edgewater's nineteenth-century residents. One early discovery, on long-term loan to Edgewater from the Brooklyn Museum, was a portrait of Susan Gaston Donaldson, which came to his attention after it was illustrated in The Magazine Antiques in September 1972. Painted by George Cooke in 1832, the oil on canvas depicts Mrs. Donaldson in the couple's Manhattan town house at 15 State Street, prior to their move upstate. She is shown with her harp, which Jenrette later acquired from the Colonial Dames of New York, and one of a pair of window benches from a suite of furniture ordered by Robert Donaldson from Duncan Phyfe. Pieces from this group were given to the Brooklyn Museum in the late 1930s by Mrs. J. Amory Haskell (1864-1942), a collector who acquired them, via a dealer, from the Donaldsons' daughter Isabel Donaldson Bronson.
An important tip came from John Sanders, a fraternity brother who directed Jenrette to the last Donaldson descendant, Mary Allison, by then retired to Spain's Costa del Sol. On her death Allison donated the remaining family heirlooms to Jenrette for Edgewater. The pieces included Robert Donaldson's 1821 portrait by Charles R. Leslie and a cellaret probably by Phyfe.
Classical American Homes Preservation Trust and Jenrette are lending eight objects-including the portrait of Robert Donaldson, Susan Donaldson's harp, and a Phyfe canterbury, or music rack, from Edgewater-to the important traveling exhibition Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 6. The Brooklyn Museum is supplying the matching récamier and window seats, and Susan Donaldson's portrait.
"One of our first discoveries for this exhibition was a center table, long at Winterthur, that is documented on the original bill of sale from Phyfe to Donaldson in 1822. It had been used in H. F. du Pont's private billiard room and its provenance was unknown," says Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Peter Kenny, who organized the Phyfe show with Michael Brown of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The récamier and window seats-one of which is inscribed with the name "D. Phyfe" and dated July 4, 1826-are from a second Donaldson commission. Adds Kenny, "The Donaldson material provided the germ to understanding Phyfe in the 1820s. It forms the centerpiece of the exhibition's gallery devoted to that decade. Without Dick, we would be missing a big piece of the Phyfe story."
Jenrette has already donated Ayr Mount, Millford Plantation, and 69 East Ninety-Third Street (part of the George F. Baker complex of town houses in Manhattan) to the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. Roper House, Edgewater, Cane Garden, and the Baker house at 67 EastNinety-Third Street will become part of the trust upon his death. In anticipation of the transition, the trust has expanded its operations. In 2010 the board named Margize Howell, who joined Donaldson Lufkin and Jenrette as the firm's corporate curator in 1984, its executive director.