Wall Street financier Dick Jenrette had a passion for old homes, renovating some of the finest residential works of architecture from the Caribbean to New York's Hudson River and receiving national recognition for his historic preservation.
He died in April, but his seven meticulously restored homes — including two in South Carolina: the William Roper House at 5 East Battery in Charleston and Millford Plantation in Pineville — live on as house museums run by the nonprofit he created, the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust.
His nephew, Dr. Joseph "Buddy" Jenrette, a doctor in Charleston, has taken the reins of the trust's board and is moving forward.
At this point, the trust has more questions than answers, including how their public access might evolve.
"There are a lot of things still being settled," Jenrette said, including the transfer of the Roper house and a few others from his uncle's estate to the nonprofit trust. "But first of all, the party goes on. A lot of it is just continuing as is."
But looking ahead, the trust will juggle the preservation of the houses with public access that keeps them relevant in the public's mind. While the trust has a solid financial foundation, support from the larger community ultimately will be needed, too.
"The houses, if they lose relevance to people today or to people 50 years from now, the dream dies," he said. "I think the houses have something for everybody, but not everything is for everybody."
What's at stake
Dick Jenrette began his obsession in Charleston, ultimately purchasing and restoring the Roper House, one of the grandest homes along the city's iconic High Battery.
He later purchased three more in New York, including Edgewater along the Hudson River. He bought Ary Mount in North Carolina and the Estate Cane Gardens in St. Croix, Virgin Islands.
Joseph Jenrette said the trust eventually could add more properties, but it also could whittle down its portfolio.
"The one in the Caribbean is the hardest to know what to do with because it's beyond the easy supply lines," he said. "Dick didn't put any mandates on us. We could sell all the houses if we wanted to and give the money away."
In the same vein, the trust could add to or reduce the vast collections of antiques inside these houses, including one of the nation's foremost collections of furniture made by early American cabinet maker, Duncan Phyfe.
The trust earned $5.3 million in income last year, while its expenses were only $3.4 million, according to the trust's 2017 annual report. Its balance sheet showed total assets at $42.9 million, including $17.6 million in cash and securities, and no debt.
The Classical American Home Preservation Trust's board will meet next on Dec. 6.
At that point, it's expected to get an overview of the ongoing inventory of the houses, their furnishings and conditions and future maintenance needs. They also will begin discussing next steps.
Charles Duell, who helped preserve Middleton Place as a nationally significant historical site, was a friend of Jenrette's and is a member of the board. He said he has his own thoughts about the future of the Roper House and other properties but wants to wait until the board meets before publicly sharing them.
"Of course, obviously, one of the big questions will be whether they’re all open as house museums to the general public or restricted to group visitations," Duell said. "Right now, things are kind of on hold."
"We don't have plans at this point to open it up on a regular basis," Jenrette said of the Roper House, which has been open only to groups by appointment. "But the plans are fluid right now."
Millford Plantation in Pinewood currently opens to the public on the first Saturday of each month and has opened every Saturday each April.
These house museums are rare in the sense that their visitation is limited. There are no velvet ropes, interpretive placards or gift shops. They still feel like homes, not institutions.
"He called it Classical American Homes, not palaces," Jenrette said. Their relative lack of commercialism is part of their appeal.
Meanwhile, the trust will have to tend to many other details not necessary before, such as committees for possible future acquisitions, long-range planning and policies for conduct and conflict of interest. It also will have to approve its first budget.
Jenrette noted the board includes relatives and friends of his uncle, and Duell agreed.
"I think basically we can say that Dick was a great steward of all these properties," Duell added, "and we certainly respect what he’s established and what we believe his wishes were for these houses, which is all based on historic preservation and the interpretation of history.”
"I'm a full-time physician, and I've taken on another full-time job," Jenrette said with a smile. "But I feel well prepared. I feel he's whispering in my ear all the time."