Published: August 22, 2000
Confessions of a “House-aholic”
What would it be like to sit down for dinner with Richard Hampton Jenrette, the investment guru who helped found Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in 1960? To have a drink with the inspired collector of Neo-classical houses, who restored and furnished each one to period? To rub elbows with the man who rubbed elbows with the Prince of Wales? Delightful, in a word.
is Jenrette’s engaging and utterly disarming account of his rise on Wall Street and his simultaneous descent into the arguably mad world of collecting. Hunting for old houses became an obsession for Jenrette, who more than once staked his fortune on a needy old structure. Not to worry, the man with the golden portfolio seems to have turned every shaky investment into a profit. The story ends happily, as retold here with warmth and candor.
“There’s no place like home, the older the better,” writes Jenrette, who, after discovering American decorative arts of the Federal and Classical periods, never swayed from his convictions. He now owns six historic properties, most of them dating to the early Nineteenth Century. He owned and restored eight other old houses and rebuilt an antebellum hotel, and through his work with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Historic Hudson Valley, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, has been involved with scores more.
Common to all serious collectors is the willingness to make sacrifices and accept risks to build a monumental assemblage. Jenrette’s collection, which consists of houses and their contents, is perhaps unique in its dimensions. He owns thousands of antiques, many of New York origin, almost all Neo-classical in style. Among the assortment is furniture by Duncan Phyfe, paintings by Rembrandt Peale and Ralph Earl, and even four George Washington mantel clocks by the French firm DuBac. The White House and Winterthur each have only one.
Jenrette, a North Carolina native, began collecting antiques 42 years ago. After graduating from Harvard Business School, he set up his first apartment in New York with help from his roommate’s mother, Southern grande dame Martha Best Yorke. She urged him towards English antiques. His first acquisition was a burled walnut chest-on-chest.
Soon thereafter he bought an apartment at 455 East 57th Street and had it decorated by Otto Zenke, North Carolina’s leading designer. The decorator’s distinctive style combined with his ability to transform an interior overnight, talents he demonstrated in more than one Jenrette abode, earned him the nickname “Instant Otto.”
After visiting the Skidmore Owings Merrill-designed quarters of the European investment banker Baron Leon Lambert, Jenrette briefly flirted with the idea of commissioning a Modernist weekend home. Fate intervened in the form of Gore Vidal’s magnificent riverside manse, Edgewater, just 90 miles north of Manhattan. Jenrette purchased Edgewater from Vidal in 1969 and it was here that he wrote and a previous book, his memoirs, The Contrarian Manager.
A year earlier, Jenrette had acquired a stunning Greek Revival mansion overlooking the harbor in Charleston, S.C. The Robert William Roper House cost Jenrette $100,000 in 1968. It seemed like a steal to the jaded New Yorker, though flabbergasted locals assured him that the price was unprecedented.
In between buying his Hudson Valley and Charleston houses, Jenrette decided he needed a more suitable residence in Manhattan. In 1969, he acquired a Greek Revival townhouse at 27 East 11th Street. Frustrated when he couldn’t gain occupancy of the entire building – tenants on two floors were enjoying their rent-control prerogatives and refused to budge – he sold the property to acquire another, the former Cass Canfield home at 150 East 38th Street.
“One architectural ‘last hurrah’ awaited me before the onset of tight financial times in the mid-1970s temporarily stopped my ‘house-aholic’ ways,” writes Jenrette. Unable “to resist at least making a pass at what was arguably the finest townhouse in Manhattan,” Jenrette acquired One Sutton Place North, a Neo-Georgian brick edifice designed by Mott Schmidt in the 1920s for Mrs William K. Vanderbilt. Next door was its even larger Neo-Georgian mate, built for Ann Morgan, daughter of banker J.P. Morgan.
One Sutton Place North cost Jenrette $450,000 in 1972. When the bear market set in on Wall Street, he sold the property two years later to Mrs H.J. Heinz. Though Jenrette doubled his money, he regrets that he was unable to keep his beloved pile, today valued at between $12 and $15 million.
As Wall Street’s gloom lifted in the late 1970s, Jenrette began looking for another Neo-classical property in New York. He purchased 37 Charlton Street, a townhouse in lower Manhattan, for $250,000 in 1979, reselling it for $2 million nine years later.
In 1984, the Equitable Life Assurance Society purchased Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette for $440 million. “For the first time in my life, I had considerable cash in the bank,” writes Jenrette, who, like a true collector, regarded his windfall as opportunity to do more collecting.
His next purchase was Ayr Mount, an 1814 brick estate on 52 acres near Raleigh, N.C. He paid $450,000, investing another $1 million in its restoration. “It is, without a doubt, the single most professional restoration job I’ve ever done, even down to the discovery of the original colors,” he writes.
Even before work was completed on Ayr Mount, Jenrette had purchased Cane Garden, an old sugar cane plantation on 200 acres in St Croix. The tab, including restoration expenses, was $4.5 million.
After toying with the idea of retiring to the Carolinas “to teach or write or drink bourbon,” Jenrette stayed in New York to become chairman of The Equitable. In 1987, he moved back uptown, selling 37 Charlton Street for $2 million, “a large gain over my $250,000 cost.” He reinvested $4 million in a brick town house on East 93rd Street. “I now find this house, built for George F. Baker, to be my favorite residence of the many residences I have had in New York City over the past 42 years,” the collector writes. With The Equitable restored to sound health after the 1987 recession, Jenrette “rewarded” himself with Millford Plantation in South Carolina, “probably the most extraordinary of all my houses.”
Initially a collector of English furniture and accessories, Jenrette’s tastes became more eclectic after California designer Anthony Hail worked on several of his residences. He was converted to American furniture by Fred J. Johnston, the late Kingston, N.Y. dealer who operated an antiques shop near Edgewater. “Why don’t you try one American piece of the same period? You’ll find the scale is just right for the house,” Johnston had urged.
Advice also came from members of what Jenrette calls the “Empire Mafia,” a group of friends that included the Atlanta-born architect Edward Vason Jones; former skating champion and collector Dick Button; and Berry Tracy, the late Metropolitan Museum of Art curator who did much to popularize Nineteenth Century decor. Jenrette notes that, in addition to Johnston, he bought from Bernard & S. Dean Levy, Israel Sack Inc., from private collections, and at auction.
Like many collectors of classical furniture, Jenrette recoils at the untouched surfaces so loved by some Eighteenth Century furniture purists. He writes, “In recent years some revisionists among the ranks of professional conservators have argued that Ed Jones and Tracy sometimes over restored things. Having heard these arguments, I still believe that American Empire furniture…simply does not look attractive if things are left discolored and dark…Jones and Tracy brought back the glitter that restored Federal and Empire furniture to popularity.”
So, what does one man do with six houses? Will the Jenrette properties become the next SPNEA? Possibly so. “Following the purchase of Millford, I began to think that one day I might contribute all my historic houses to a foundation that would preserve them for posterity and open them to the public. To this end, I established Classical American Homes Preservation Trust…,” he writes. The collector’s first donation was Ayr Mount, the Hillsborough, N.C. property about 30 miles from his birthplace. The house is today open for public tours under the auspices of Preservation North Carolina.
The carriage house adjacent to his Manhattan home, the George F. Baker House, will “make an ideal headquarters for all my preservation activities, which stretch from New York to the Caribbean.” Jenrette envisions that one day all, or most, of his houses will be operated as historic house museums, “if that seems feasible.”
is a wonderful read, the autobiography of a collector and business legend who genuinely has something to say. The story rings true because it is true. As Jenrette insists, “I did write this book all by myself (by hand, as Maria will attest.) If you don’t like the writing, I’m sure you will love the beautiful photography by John Hall and the creative direction for the book provided by Paul Waner.” Not to worry. The book, like the houses and the man himself, could hardly be more polished.
by Richard Hampton Jenrette. Foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales. Principal photography by John M. Hall. Wyrick & Company, Charleston, S.C., 2000, pp. 223, $60 hardcover.
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