by P. Gaye Tapp
Richard Hampton Jenrette’s success can be measured in many ways, but perhaps no more personally than in square feet.
A Raleigh native and co-founder of maverick Wall Street investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, he has a love of old houses that has inspired him to buy and restore historic homes in St. Croix; Charleston; Hillsborough, N.C.; Pinewood, S.C; New York City; and New York’s Hudson Valley. Today, the former lion of Wall Street can travel widely without ever leaving home, and still fondly cites the place he was born and raised for sparking his lifelong interest in historic houses.
Jenrette cut a swath through Wall Street for an extraordinary 50 years. In 1959, he co-founded the first major securities firm to be formed since the Depression; in 1970 he guided it to become the first to go public, breaking open Wall Street’s clubby culture. He eventually sold the firm to the Equitable, which he served as chairman and CEO. Even as he blazed new trails in a ruthless business, Jenrette was known as “the last gentleman on Wall Street.”
His reputation is equally impressive as an architectural preservationist, collector, and expert in 19th-century American Federal antiques.
Credited with the restoration of more than a dozen houses, Jenrette retains six of the finest, three of which are now open to the public and part of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, a nonprofit Jenrette established 20 years ago. This trust will ultimately own, preserve, and open all of Jenrette’s properties to the public.
Jenrette has always maintained his roots in Raleigh, where he was born in April 1929, grew up, and graduated from Needham Broughton High School. He worked as a sportswriter for the Raleigh Times (under boss Jesse Helms, then a city editor) and then at The News & Observer.
“The South is a magical place,” he says. “I love the South, and still say, when asked, ‘Where are you from,’ I say Raleigh.”
In his book Adventures with Old Houses, Jenrette cites Tatton Hall as a major early influence. The 1935 Georgian revival mansion on Raleigh’s Oberlin Road has long been considered one of Raleigh’s finest houses. “When I was growing up, I always loved Tatton Hall,” Jenrette says. “My mother and sister and I would take a walk after dinner…on those long summer nights, I remember seeing the sun setting through the windows, and it was inspiring.”
He grew up around the corner, in a Tudor house at 2611 Fairview Road. His father Joseph was a successful insurance salesman, and his mother Emma an avid gardener. “I rode my bike everywhere,” Jenrette says today. “Mentally, I can still do a contour map of Raleigh: the creeks, the roads…” He walked home every day from the Hayes Barton School on Glenwood Avenue, now Myrtle Underwood Elementary School.
His education took Jenrette to the University of North Carolina, where he was editor of The Daily Tar Heel and a 1951 Phi Beta Kappa graduate. He still credits his early years in the Chi Psi fraternity for honing his leadership skills and forging enduring friendships.
During his career on Wall Street, Jenrette stayed connected to the university, serving as a trustee. He also led efforts to restore the president’s house, preserve Old East and Old West dormitories, and renovate and decorate the Chi Psi fraternity house.
Today, one of Jenrette’s historic house jewels, the Federal-era Ayr Mount in nearby Hillsborough, is open to the public. Ayr Mount was built just after the War of 1812. It was the first major estate in the Piedmont to be built of brick and is considered one of the region’s finest residences. “Houses used to be built for the ages, to leave to your children,” Jenrette says. “At Ayr Mount, the Kirklands lived there 107 years.”
Today, in addition to the house, Ayr Mount’s pristine grounds, gardens, and trails are open to the public.
Jenrette originally acquired the house with the thought of returning to the area to go back to school, or to teach a class at one of the business schools. “I always thought I would buy a house in Raleigh,” he says, “that Ayr Mount would be a surrogate.”
An interview with Richard Jenrette
By P. Gaye Tapp
It was in the depths of a February cold snap that I spoke on the phone with Dick Jenrette about his love affair with houses. While he relaxed in the sun at Cane Garden, his circa 1784 home in St. Croix, Jenrette offered his regrets that I was not able to be there to chat with him in person. Rest assured I felt the same.
It strikes me that you are always travelling home. How has having homes in some of the most lovely places enriched your life?
It opened up a new frontier that I hadn’t been exposed to. It has given me a whole new dimension. Having businesses on Wall Street, the houses gave me a second front to fight on. Being able to relax and unwind at Edgewater (in the Hudson Valley’s Barrytown, N.Y.) after a full week on Wall Street opened up other avenues.
With retirement, the houses are now a full-time occupation.
What are some of the creature comforts you must have when you travel?
Well, I don’t have a private jet. There wasn’t enough money left over. I follow the geese going north and south. (From Edgewater, he heads south to Cane Garden and his other homes.) At age 85, I have a driver. I used to stay at Ayr Mount, but now that it’s a house museum, I stay over at Fearrington and break up the trip.
You refer to Cane Garden (in St. Croix) as your most livable house.
Everything is on one floor. It’s two levels, but the living areas are all on one floor. There are porches, and you can enjoy nature from sunrise to sunset. (It’s a form of) simplifying, but I’ve never made my life simple.
Where do you spend most of your time at the house?
At my desk. I have a desk that faces out to the door and the window looking out, south to the Caribbean. I can look up and see all that blue water, and not feel that I’m working. I love listening to music, old music, and going down memory lane. Classical music and choirs. Broadway musicals. The King and I, South Pacific. Life phases occur along with music. When I listen to South Pacific, I think I’m back (at Chapel Hill). When I listening to My Fair Lady, I’m back at Harvard Business School. With modern music as well as modern art, I am still a creature of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Ayr Mount is almost idyllic, but all your houses impress me as being so. If you had to part with but one, which of your houses would you choose?
I’m probably closest to Edgewater (in the Hudson Valley), but it’s so cold there in the winter. I’d probably pick the house in Charleston (at 9 East Battery). Being a Southerner, I can stand the heat, and on the Battery there, I can get decent breezes.
If you had to live in just one room of any house, which would it be?
The main room at Cane Garden with its 25-foot high tray ceiling is conducive to parties and people, and there are actually very comfortable chairs there.
Monticello, all around. It’s not so overwhelming. It’s so personal. I’ve been there many times. Once I went in after hours. All the doors were open, and the sun was streaming in, and you could see how the rooms and the house worked so beautifully together. It was one of those magical moments in life. The only thing missing was a glass of wine. Then it would have been perfection.
(Thomas Jefferson’s) own suite of rooms – his office and bedroom – were so ingenious. He happens to be my favorite politician, too.
It looks as if there is a bust of Jefferson and Washington in all of your homes. Why?
They were Renaissance leaders. Washington was a quick study with Mount Vernon. The room at Mount Vernon he added and referred to as his “new room” is beautiful… the Palladian window is gorgeous. Jefferson (loved) architecture, art, music.
All of our first presidents had beautiful homes … (including Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage).
Home was very important, and they all manifested good taste. They wanted to bring the best of Europe here. They were interested in beauty, not just politics. That’s missing in our political figures today.
Famed Greenboro interior designer Otto Zenke helped you set up your first real home in New York. What design tenet remains from his early influence?
Otto Zenke got me started in decorating. He did all the great homes in North Carolina.
His favorite word was “smooth.” He liked rooms that flowed one into the other. I can still hear him breathe out the word…(My) 57th Street apartment was done in a day from Greensboro. It was a little jewel box.
Gone with the Wind was a major influence on your love of houses. There are many layers to this movie, other than the architectural influences. What makes the movie such a great classic?
At the time it was educational. You could get out of school to go. It was the history of the South. Mother took me out of school; I was about 8 or 9…it kindled an interest in history. My sister-in-law keeps the Bible by her bed, and it’s said Dick keeps Gone with the Wind by his bed. I do. Pick it up anywhere, and you can pick up the narrative right away.
Are there particular quotations you’ve tried to live by over the years?
“Sic transit Gloria,” or “Thus passes the glory… of the world.” It has been interpreted as “Worldly things are fleeting.” I’ve had my share of glory days. In 1974, at age 45, with the sale of my New York townhouse, I felt things were going backward…as I went down those steps. The best was just beginning.
(DLJ weathered a difficult time in the mid-’70s when its business model foundered, its stock price plummeted, and the firm almost folded. It rebounded.)
What did you learn from that, how did you move forward?
I stayed in the game, and didn’t quit. All businesses have hard times. The old Scarlett O’Hara adage of “after all, tomorrow is another day” couldn’t be truer. (It’s one of his favorite quotes.)
Human relations – it’s the greatest of all business practices. Simple things like: Always say thank you, don’t criticize people in front of others – those are the keys to success.
There was very little turnover at DLJ, and its true of my houses, too. Some employees in the houses have been there 30 and 40 years.
Where are you still longing to travel?
There probably are places, but I don’t know where!
A journey to another time
Ayr Mount is a house suspended in time.
A visitor to the circa-1815, brick Federal-period plantation house in nearby Hillsborough is greeted by the same spellbinding view that welcomed visitors to its doors nearly 200 years ago.
Named for the original owner’s birthplace in Ayr, Scotland, the house has a unique brick construction that was one of the first and finest in the state. Built on a tripartite plan, including a central structure with connecting wings, Ayr Mount is a deceptively large house. Its rooms’ gracious proportions – 13-foot ceilings on the main floors, and 12-foot ceilings on the second – create a subtle elegance.
Ayr Mount was inhabited exclusively by the Kirkland family for 170 years, from 1815 – when it was built by prosperous local merchant William Kirkland – until 1985, when Richard Jenrette bought it from the last living Kirkland descendant.
Today, a visitor feels as though he has wandered through the Kirklands’ door while they’ve stepped out for a moment, marveling that such a refuge exists just beyond our frenetic 21st-century pace.
Ayr Mount’s charms are enhanced by a meticulous and painstaking restoration undertaken by Jenrette and executed by artisans with the same passion William Kirkland must have had when he envisioned this place of beauty.
The house also is home to a fine collection of art and antiques. Some were acquired by Jenrette especially for the house, including fine Federal antiques and objets’d’art; others are treasured pieces original to the Kirkland family. A rare set of 51 etchings of North Carolina landmarks by renowned American etcher Louis Orr is a highlight.
The portrait of William Kirkland by Jacob Marling has hung over the dining room mantle for almost 200 years, and the family’s Broadwood fortepiano in the west parlor music room gives the visitor a sense of the family and the lives they led.
“The house has a great feeling of antiquity and timelessness…” Jenrette noted in his book Adventures with Old Houses. “Almost lost in time, and haunted by 170 years of occupancy by the Kirkland’s descendants, many of whom rest in an adjoining family cemetery.”
Ayr Mount holds their secrets, joys, and sorrows in silent trust.
Ayr Mount is a 40-minute drive from Raleigh. It is at 376 St. Mary’s Road in Hillsborough, minutes from Hillsborough’s charming downtown. It is open to the public year-round for guided tours Wednesday-Sunday. For more information, go to classicalamericanhomes.org or call 919-732-6886.