Building a legacy

A view up the stair at Millford Plantation.

PINEWOOD - One of the nation's leading preservationists has quietly created a legacy of saving and restoring two of South Carolina's grandest homes in something very much like their original splendor.

And they are gradually opening to the public.

Richard Jenrette, co-founder of the Wall Street investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, has a passion for old houses, having restored and resided in six of this nation's architecturally significant homes along the East Coast, from New York to Charleston, and a seventh on the Caribbean Island of St. Croix.

While they are all still home for him to some degree, he also has created a nonprofit, the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, to curate them and open them for tours.

His work has won him the highest honors from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Historic Charleston foundation and others.

On Thursday, he will be honored by the College of Charleston, along with Thomas Gordon Smith, a Notre Dame architecture professor and scholar.

While he has received all these accolades, he also has bumped heads with groups such as the National Trust that he hopes would do more to support house museums, particularly ones that highlight the best of the nation's architecture and decorative arts, sort of like the British National Trust, which has hundreds of sites.

"They're so concerned about being seen as elite," he said in an interview a few years ago. "A good piece of architecture is, ipso facto, elite."

While Jenrette's legacy is a national and international one, it also is rooted in Charleston.

Jenrette began this passion when he bought the Roper House at 9 East Battery in 1968.

While it's currently the third house up from White Point Garden, it was the first built after the High Battery's construction.

Since he agreed to let its former owner's mother live there for the rest of her life (which turned out to be more than two decades), he was slow to make changes to the brick mansion with five imposing Ionic columns.

The house also tied this Raleigh native closer to the city, where his preservation went far beyond his home restoration. He was the lead financier on the Mills House hotel almost five decades ago, one of the first big bets on the future of the city's downtown, and also acquired the elegant William Blacklock House at 18 Bull St. for the College of Charleston.

As Jenrette chronicled in his 2000 book, "Adventures with Old Houses," Roper House has served not only as his home while he is in the city but also as a sort of ambassador for international visitors.

"Having one of the finest houses in town also seems to ensure that I am a stopping-off point for notables visiting Charleston, including Presidents Ford and Bush with their first ladies, the Emperor and Empress of Japan, the Prince of Wales, (British Prime Minister Margaret) Lady Thatcher, General Colin Powell, Bishop (Desmond) Tutu from South Africa and assorted Rockefellers and Rothschilds," he writes.

His passion not only is the careful upkeep of the architecture but also furnishing the house with as much original furniture and artwork as can be found.

While the Roper House is only open for group tours arranged in advance, it's also a little unusual because it has relatively little of its original furnishings.

But it did lead to one that does.

After he bought the Roper House, Jenrette thought he owned South Carolina's best Greek Revival home, but then author Mills Lane told him about Millford.

Jenrette made the 75-minute trip west from Charleston to Sumter County, took a look for himself and was smitten.

"The realtor up there wisely gave me a glass of bourbon on the front porch," he said, describing how he came to own it. "So the circumstances were clouded by bourbon and a beautiful, sunny day."

"I think it's the best piece of domestic architecture in South Carolina," he said.

The artistry of the home is exemplified by its carved Corinthian capitals.

Carved from cypress but painted gray to match the granite column bases, they are the most ornate column capitals from ancient times. They're patterned after those on Athens' Choragic Monument of Lisicrates.

Millford is so over-the-top in many ways, from its monumental portico to its exquisite interior detail to its historical furnishings, that it seems too daunting to describe. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a visit here would be a book.

Just two notes: The dining room's sideboards and the sleigh bed in an upper bedroom both are among the home's earliest furnishings.

Jenrette had to arrange for their return from the South Carolina Governor's Mansion (under Gov. Carroll Campbell) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively.

This home's history also is rich, with perhaps the best story being how it managed to survive the destruction that Union troops wrought across the state at the close of the Civil War.

Union Brig. General Edward Elmer Potter arrived at Millford in 1865, and its owner, Gov. John Manning, met him at the door. Manning reportedly said, "Well, the house was built by a Potter (Nathaniel Potter, the builder), and it looks as though it will be destroyed by a Potter."

That's why Potter told Manning that the builder, in fact, was his brother and the home would be saved.

The home's out-of-the-way location -it originally was known by some as "Manning's Folly" - means that as impressive as it is, it remains a relatively unknown stop on the state's tourism trail. It had about 25 visitors last month, partly because it opens for general tours only on the first Saturday of each month.

"There's not much point in opening it every day. It's so remote," Jenrette said.

Jenrette said while he supports preservationists' efforts to curb sprawl, make older downtowns more appealing and revitalize main streets, he is dismayed that some grand properties or house museums are reverting to private hands and leaving the public domain.

"I sound like a Communist," he joked, "and I worked on Wall Street for 50 years."

The goal with Millford, Roper and his other fine old homes is not to make money, but to ensure that they're enjoyed, a source of fun for others just as they have been for Jenrette, and to inspire a new generation of architects, designers, historians and others.

So go see for yourself.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.