Jenrette, who subtitled his business memoirs The Contrarian Manager, takes an independent view of most things, including philanthropy. Classical American Homes Preservation Trust does not write grants or have members. It organizes few benefits and instead hosts events to thank its supporters. In 2010 the foundation, which supports only the properties that it owns outright, reported assets of nearly $28 million and income of $2 million, including $1.6 million in contributions. Major donors in 2009 ranged from interior designer Michael S. Smith, who serves with Jenrette on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, to Blackstone Group cofounder Stephen A. Schwarzman.
"I really admire what Dick has done. Many people have collected American furniture and objects of the various neoclassical styles, but Dick is unique. But for his interest and diligence, there is no certainty that these very important buildings would have been saved and in such a grand manner," says Stuart P. Feld, president of Hirschl and Adler Galleries in New York.
With foundation expenses of nearly $1.7 million in 2010, maintaining the houses and operating the trust in perpetuity will require effort. Nearly 6,000 people toured the houses last year; 182,000 people have visited since 1993. Most visitors come in groups. The foundation expects to add more open days, which will allow individuals to tour the properties without appointments. Ayr Mount in Hillsborough, North Carolina, already has regular public hours and Millford Plantation in Pinewood, South Carolina, is open the first Saturday of every month.
"We will never operate heavily visited sites like Mount Vernon," says Howell, noting that the trust's goal is to create a $5 million endowment for each house to supplement income from admissions and other fundraising activities. Other goals include the creation of friends groups and an outreach program that would provide technical and financial support to kindred institutions.
Jenrette has long argued in favor of a broader network of historic houses, privately owned but open to the public, and safeguarded by easements and other controls that would guarantee their preservation. A central organization such as the National Trust might market the properties to visitors. "I see some of these old houses becoming an endangered species if the economy doesn't improve. The National Trust, for instance, was originally set up to save these elite properties but now seems to feel it has to renounce elitism. Some preservation groups are interested in saving post World War II and modern architecture, but I'm not sure this category is really endangered," he says.
Jenrette wants people to enjoy his houses without excessive interpretation or heavily scripted tours, exploring history, architecture, objects, or gardens as passion and whim dictate. He generally dislikes orientation centers and, contrarily, believes that the natural audience for historic houses is aging baby boomers, not school children. "House museums have better years ahead of them demographically. People are more interested in history and roots as they get older and have more free time," he insists.
It would be folly to bet against Jenrette, whose instincts have so often proved correct. He was the first to take a securities firm public, the first to demutualize a mutual society and take it public, and one of the first to bank on downtown Charleston's commercial revival when he and two friends reopened the historic Mills House Hotel in 1970. Through his houses, Jenrette is the first, really, to draw back the curtain on the life of a contemporary Maecenas, himself.
Will the contrarian do what it takes to make historic house museums popular again?
Perhaps he already has.
1 Richard Hampton Jenrette, Adventures with Old Houses (Wyrick and Company, Charleston, S. C., 2000), pp. 96-97. 2 Ibid., p. 81. 3 Susan Donaldson, quoted in Jean Bradley Anderson, Carolinian on the Hudson: The Life of Robert Donaldson (Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina, Raleigh, 1996), p. 162. See also William Nathaniel Banks, "Living with antiques: Edgewater on the Hudson River," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 121, no. 6 (June 1982), pp. 1400-1410. 4 Anderson, Carolinian on the Hudson, pp. 232-233. 5 Quoted in Lorna I. Skaaren, "Barrytown, New York: A Brief Social and Commercial History," Vassar College senior thesis, 1983, p. 19, as cited in Anderson, Carolinian on the Hudson, p. 243. Thomas Jayne, The Finest Rooms in America (Monacelli Press, New York, 2010). 6 Quoted in Anderson, Carolinian on the Hudson, pp. 156-157. 7 Information about Vidal's life at Edgewater is from his Palimpsest: A Memoir (Random House, New York, 1995). 8 Ibid., pp. 244-245. 9 All quotations are ibid., pp. 260-263. 10 Ibid., p. 243.