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A passion for beauty

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Adventures With Old Houses is not the kind of book The Independent ordinarily reviews: It's a big handsome coffee-table book replete with color photographs of Richard Jenrette's historic houses and their swank interiors, everything indicating serious money. But underneath the glossy crust of wealth and privilege simmers the meat of historic preservation, swimming in a rich gravy of pungent remarks. Some of those only serve to re-instruct us in the ways the rich are different from you and me, but others are inspiring.

Jenrette, who has won all the big awards in historic preservation, has bought, preserved, renovated and furbished into gleaming glory numerous wonderful houses that might otherwise have fallen to ruin or been mauled by less sensitive hands, including Ayr Mount in Hillsborough (look for a feature on Ayr Mount in the Oct. 25 issue). This is not housing, such as the Independent advocates for, but houses as art and furnishings as history. Anyone who cares about preserving America's heritage of fine domestic architecture, furniture and decorative arts will enjoy Jenrette's story of his lifelong passion.

Richard Jenrette was born in 1929 in Raleigh, where his father was an insurance salesman. He grew up there, evidencing an interest in houses even as a small child. He preferred the ones with big white columns, even before repeated viewings of Gone With the Wind. This comes up in the book's first paragraph: "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. The past seemed better than the present." Better for whom? And his family's present couldn't have been that bad, if his parents were buying a house in the midst of the Depression. (This would have been at the same time my father, his parents, grandparents and aunts, were being evicted because they couldn't pay the rent on the tiny house they shared.) The book's one real flaw is this kind of comment, which makes one cringe. In another place, Jenrette talks, without a trace of discomfort, about feeling the "presence of the Old South" in his grand house on Charleston's Battery, and he never mentions the slave labor that made lovely buildings like this one or his upstate South Carolina plantation house possible.

After attending Broughton High School (people thought he'd become an architect, as he was always drawing houses), he went to Carolina, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and then it was on to Harvard Business School. Before founding the investment firm of Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette with two B-school friends, Jenrette worked for Brown Brothers Harriman, a private bank, and roomed with another man whose mother was a collector of art and antiques. It was she who got him started collecting and showed him the path to the kind of beauty he'd always craved around him.

Jenrette has a passion for beauty, and that makes me willing to forgive him quite a bit. He must have beauty, and if more people felt that way, we'd all be better off. Jenrette's taste has led him to concentrate on houses and furnishings from the first half of the 19th century, but the lessons of his adventures apply to any house of any period.

In a recent telephone interview, Jenrette (who insists that he's not really wealthy, "not by Bill Gates standards") said that the same principles he has used in his grand houses apply to any older house, whether a bungalow, mill cottage or farm house and can be followed by those of us who are struggling to save those modest bits of our material history. "Respect the integrity of the original house," he says. "It is very rare that an addition to a house enhances it. Take it back to its original form. Give it a proper coat of paint. Let the house speak for itself. Don't clutter it up. Don't try to make it something that it isn't."

This sound advice goes against the grain of current practice by many preservationists who believe in preserving "the continuum." In the same politely forthright manner that made him a Wall Street power, Jenrette takes exception to this. "I think sometimes that preservation has become too elitist and too precious--saving every little particle. I'm an advocate of using common sense."

He's an even bigger advocate of beauty and taste. "I'm just appalled at the taste levels in America," he says. "There doesn't seem to be much love of beauty. We haven't done much against visual pollution. People have allowed companies to get away with murder--such as taking public views by putting power lines through them."

When I suggested that ugliness would run rampant in this country as long as business and private property "rights" were more valued than the public good, Jenrette really got going.

"I believe untrammeled capitalism leads to its own destruction," he says firmly. "You need to take some of the hard edges off capitalism. The view that if you own something you can do anything with it--I don't agree with that. You shouldn't be able to destroy. I believe in zoning and public parks and planning. The trick is to steer between government planning everything and every little idiot doing any ugly thing he pleases. I wish a candidate would one time have a platform to make America more beautiful."

Jenrette is certainly doing his part. In 1994 he started the Classic American Homes Foundation. He's already given Ayr Mount to the Foundation, and says that eventually most of his historic properties will go to it. "My vision," he says, "is that my foundation would own the houses and make deals with local preservation groups to operate them." Like Ayr Mount, they will be open to the public, for, as he says, "the house itself teaches" about the importance of preservation, history and beauty. Despite occasional lapses in social consciousness, so do Jenrette's Adventures. EndBlock

Richard Jenrette will give a slide lecture and booksigning to benefit the Historic Preservation Society of Durham on Oct. 4. For ticket information or to order books, call HPSD at 682-3036.

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