Hudson River Classics: Edgewater and Richard Hampton Jenrette
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
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.
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.
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.