01 Jun 2000
Long-Term Investor: Dick Jenretteby Deborah BlaggTopics:
It is ten o'clock on a mild March morning in Charleston, South Carolina. A gentle mist is falling, weighing down the yellow Lady Banksia roses in the garden outside Roper House, an impeccably restored Greek Revival mansion that overlooks Fort Sumter and the city's historic harbor. Inside the house there is a bustle of activity as the premises are readied to receive the three hundred guests who will arrive for an evening reception and book-signing party to celebrate the publication of a handsome new volume, Adventures with Old Houses.
In residence is the volume's author, Richard H. Jenrette (MBA '57). Better known as cofounder of the renowned New York investment firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ) than as a writer of books about historic homes, Jenrette is nonetheless in his element as he welcomes a visitor and graciously conducts an impromptu tour of the mansion he has owned since 1968. "Owned" is perhaps the wrong word, for Jenrette seems to be more curator than owner as he moves from room to room, pointing out the Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington above a fireplace, the suite of silk-upholstered Duncan Phyfe furniture in the double parlors, the Ionic columns that frame the bay view from the piazza, and the sizable chunk of a Civil War cannon that came to rest in the sturdy house's attic after being blown apart by the Confederates as Union troops approached.
"We get a lot of requests from preservation groups and garden clubs for tours here, and we try to honor as many of them as we can," says the gracious Jenrette, who also owns the five other historic homes described in his new book -- The George F. Baker House in Manhattan, Edgewater in upstate New York (pictured at left), Cane Garden on the island of St. Croix, Ayr Mount in his native North Carolina, and Millford Plantation in South Carolina. Settling into a comfortable couch in Roper House's third-floor living room, he observes, "I feel that a significant part of our country's heritage is tied up in these places, and it would be selfish of me if I didn't open them up to the public from time to time."
The seeds of Jenrette's passion for historic houses were planted as he grew up in Raleigh during the Depression. In his book, Jenrette recalls seeing the movie Gone with the Wind in 1939, when he was 10: "It came at a time when we were all poor in the South, and visions of the great mansions and grandeur of a former era certainly made an indelible impression." His interest in architecture piqued, the young Jenrette discovered a natural talent for drawing elegant houses and for shaping canals, bridges, and whole cities in the wet sand of his parents' driveway after rainstorms.
"My early interest in drawing and sculpting in the sand was important," says Jenrette with a smile some sixty years later, reflecting on his remarkable career at the helm of DLJ and subsequently, as chairman of The Equitable, the insurance company that bought the investment firm in 1985. "That desire to build things was useful when it came to shaping a company, moving people around, and planning new strategies."
When asked to explain the strategy behind his acquisition of so many beautiful homes, Jenrette confesses that there was none. He bought Roper House after noticing it while visiting a DLJ client's home down the street. He first spotted Edgewater, a breathtaking estate on the banks of the Hudson River, during a weekend drive in the country. Jenrette was vacationing on St. Croix when he came across an old sugarcane plantation that would become his most extensive restoration project. "They were all just impulse purchases," he says. "I like to begin things; that's my great weakness, I guess. It's always fun to start a project, but then you have to discipline yourself to finish."
If the stunning photographs in Adventures with Old Houses are any indication, Jenrette and the talented decorators and artisans who have worked on his houses must have a great deal of discipline. From painstakingly stripping layers of paint to uncover a wall's original 19th-century hue, to removing years of grime from neglected crystal chandeliers, to reconstructing portions of structures literally from the ground up, Jenrette's restorations have met the highest standards. "Most of the people associated with my projects have been working for me for twenty years or more," he notes. "They're in their businesses because they love to work with beautiful things. I really value what they do and try to thank them as often as I can."
Jenrette, who was a journalism major at the University of North Carolina, is a talented storyteller, and the pages of his book include anecdotes from his Wall Street career, descriptions of gala parties held at his various homes, and reflections on luck, fate, and fortunes lost and regained. But in person and in his writing, Jenrette is most animated when he is focused on the history of his houses and the lives of their previous owners.
In conducting some of the research that helped him to reconstruct the houses' histories and to locate and acquire their original furnishings, Jenrette has been startled to discover connections to his own life. For example, after he bought Millford Plantation, a magnificent, wisteria-draped estate in rural South Carolina, Jenrette discovered that he is distantly related to Susan Frances Hampton Manning, who built the house with her husband in 1839. In addition, he learned that in the early 1900s, the plantation had been owned by Mary Clark Thompson, who is said to have been romantically linked with George F. Baker after both were widowed. "The fact that I owned Mr. Baker's house in New York at the time I bought Millford from Mary Thompson's family was one more example of the interconnectedness of all my houses," he writes.
Now a senior advisor at DLJ and an active member of a number of boards, including Harvard University's Board of Overseers, Jenrette still finds time to enjoy his many houses, which, he says, "really do all feel home-like to me." "The grand scheme," he relates, "is to go to St. Croix right before Christmas and stay through the middle of March. Then, South Carolina until May, up to Edgewater on the Hudson through the foliage in October, the rest of the fall back here, and on to St. Croix again -- with stays in Manhattan at the Baker House for board meetings and to pay my bills."Jenrette, who is also the author of The Contrarian Manager, which contains wisdom from his forty-year career on Wall Street, hints that another book project may be in his future. He plans to become more involved with recasting the landscapes of his properties, adding to his extensive collection of early-19th-century antiques, and, to quote his friend Berry Tracy, curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "getting things ready for the next hundred years." As to whether another "impulse purchase" may also be on the horizon, he somewhat sheepishly describes a classic house outside Paris that tempted him a few weeks before and says, "Never say never."