CLASSICAL AMERICAN HOMES PRESERVATION TRUST
– Richard H. Jenrette
Some of America’s finest homes were built in classical Greek or Roman style in the early 19th Century. Our early Presidents were in the forefront of popularizing the classical style in their own homes: witness George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, James Monroe’s Oak Hill, and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. To that list, one can add the White House, itself. All feature massive colonnades in the classical manner across their front facades. Greek Revival mania soon swept the nation, lasting until the mid-19th century and recurring periodically in the 20th century.
My own interest in classical architecture reached a fever pitch in the late 1960s when I acquired not one but two spectacular examples of classical residential architecture in America – Edgewater in New York and Roper House in South Carolina. These two acquisitions set the tone and direction for what was to become a fascinating lifetime hobby – collecting and restoring old houses and antiques of the period.
Forty-five years have passed since I acquired the first two classical homes. During this time I have bought and restored a dozen old houses, all in the classical American architectural style that so captivated me. Some were sold or given away, but I retain six of the best. These houses are filled with antique furniture, paintings and other decorative arts, much of it original to the houses.
During a long career on Wall Street, I was involved in bringing many companies “public,” including our own firm, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, which became the first NYSE member firm to sell its shares to the public. So now, at age 85, it’s time to go public with all these houses and their related collections. That is why, in 1993, I formed Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, a not-for-profit foundation that will eventually own all of these houses and open them to the public. Three of the houses are already owned by the Trust, and the others will be given to the Foundation as my personal circumstances dictate. Meanwhile, the houses that I still own are also open for special group tours by museums, garden clubs, and various preservation organizations. All proceeds from these tours are donated to either the sponsoring organization or the Trust, as are the proceeds from the sale of our publications such as my book Adventures with Old Houses, which describes my 45-year odyssey in collecting and restoring old houses and antiques.
There are quite a few things that are different or contrarian about Classical American Homes Preservation Trust vis-à-vis other preservation organizations, which I would like you to know about before you consider participating in our activities. Unlike many museums or preservation groups, we are not trying to be “all things to all people.” Our collection of old houses and decorative arts is tightly focused – first half of the 19th Century, residential, classical, and American. When it comes to antique furniture we are even more focused. Exceptions to the Americana rule are imported luxury items, used but not made in the U.S. at the time.
Another distinguishing feature is that the collection is very “personal” – not just to me, but to the previous owners of the houses. The houses and their contents obviously are very personal since they have been “home” to me for many years. But a strange thing happened along the way – the longer I lived in the houses, the more I became aware of the families who had preceded me, either in building or owning the houses. Many of the original furnishings, including family portraits, porcelain, silverware, etc. began to show up almost miraculously. Once the process of seemingly returning the house to the original owners started, I happily joined the search. While the houses were home to me, I never felt that I was anything more than a custodian, and now these houses have become far more interesting, not only to me, but to visitors, because so many of the original furnishings have returned to their home. The houses tell a fascinating tale of changing life in America over hundreds of years.
Majestic Millford Plantation (1841) is considered by many to be the finest example of Greek Revival residential architecture in America. The grandeur of the estate, located in such a remote section of South Carolina, seems to come as a surprise to first-time visitors, who drive over miles of rural roads and through moss-draped forests to reach the property. Suddenly Millford appears out of nowhere, in all its classical glory – six massive fluted Corinthian columns, 16-foot ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, a domed rotunda enclosing a spectacular circular staircase – all the features that are inherent in Greek Revival architecture. Surrounded by live oaks, magnolias and green lawns, Millford seems as though it might be part of a dream.
Millford is open to the public the first Saturday of every month. Come spend an afternoon at this idyllic historic site – visit the house, explore the gardens, and have a picnic on the grounds. Our mission at Classical American Homes Preservation Trust is to preserve, protect and open to the public examples of classical American architecture, surrounding landscapes and scenic trails, as well as fine and decorative arts of the first half of the 19th Century.