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The New Charleston, SC

Zubin Shroff History remembered in an antebellum portrait at Charleston's Old Slave Mart Museum

Photo: Zubin Shroff

Richard Hampton Jenrette, a well-bred boy from Raleigh, North Carolina, who went north and made good with the Wall Street investment firm of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, is enjoying the spoils of life one languid Sunday morning at Roper House, his beyond meticulous 1838 Greek Revival home on Charleston's East Battery. In a proper tweed jacket, he sips coffee at his living-room window while taking in the faux paddle-wheel steamers plying Charleston Harbor; the horse-drawn carriages with faux-Confederate guides, followed by equine-sanitation pickup trucks; and the endless parade of tourists gaping at his house as if it were the Magic Kingdom on the verge of blaring out "It's a small world after all."

"Well, I suppose we have become a bit like Disneyland," Jenrette says, "but isn't it pretty? And our tourists do tend to be more cultured people, interested in the arts and architecture—it's not as if they're here for NASCAR."

The fans of choice real estate can be just as devoted, though, especially in March and April, when the Historic Charleston Foundation mounts its annual fund-raiser, the Festival of Houses & Gardens. This year, 150 owners of historic properties in different neighborhoods around the city will open up their homes for an afternoon, and the public will pay in the vicinity of $45 a head for the right to leisurely mill around the epic spreads. The three-story Roper House (houses in Charleston are named after their original builders) is always a hot ticket. Jenrette, who owns five more historic residences in other places, takes particular pride in a suite of restored Duncan Phyfe furniture, Roper House's post–Civil War crystal chandeliers, and a Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington. His guests have included Prince Charles, Bishop Tutu, and "assorted Rockefellers and Rothschilds."

When Jenrette bought Roper House for $100,000 from Drayton Hastie in 1968, it came with a life tenancy for Hastie's mother. Sarah Calhoun Hastie occupied the piano nobile, or principal floor, with its 18-foot ceilings, for more than a decade after the sale. "She lived to be ninety, a kind of wonderful watchdog for the house," Jenrette says. "Her maid brought her a bourbon every night at cocktail hour, and she always dressed in a velvet evening gown for dinner, even if eating alone."

The "too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash" aesthetic is still part of the velvet madness in this insanely beautiful city. Many of Charleston's old guard trace their heritage to the early English colonists, who laid out a series of broad, elegant boulevards according to a British Grand Modell plan, creating a city that came to be called Little London. Here, where the first American Museum Society was organized, in 1773, most of the grand houses, built by slaves in a dizzying array of architectural styles—Colonial, Federal, Georgian, Italianate, Victorian—still stand, protected by law since the early 1930's. Over the ensuing decades, as one old-family sort notes, the houses were "preserved by poverty." The occupation by "tacky tourists" didn't begin until the late 1970's; after Hurricane Hugo hit, in 1989, insurance money fueled the first great real estate boom, and everyone got in on it.

Now Charleston, one of the most concentrated enclaves of the wealthy in the United States, is vying for the title of the South's most venerable theme park. In the neighborhood known as downtown, south of Broad and the commercial district, blocks of once decrepit but still graceful properties are now as clinically spruced up as Colonial Williamsburg, and lousy with overwrought landscaping and Rolls-Royces. For each gain there is a loss: every dinner I had with the regal social doyennes of Charleston, women whose grandparents had streets named after them, would end on a bitter note with the obligatory drive past the imposing mansion the family used to own—inevitably done to death by some vulgar Yankee.

For a time, the natives held on through creative financing—such life tenancies as Sarah Hastie's were common. Today, in a city where sharing the past is often synonymous with making a living, everyone caters to the tourist trade in one way or another. A short walk away from Roper House, Drayton Hastie's 1843 Battery Carriage House, where Sarah Calhoun Hastie was raised, is now an inn of the same name. The mood there is slightly more democratic these days: most of the guest rooms are out back in the dependency, former slave quarters that still offer a prime view of the swells in the ballroom. Jenrette's next-door neighbor Charles Duell still lives upstairs in the Greek Revival Edmondston-Alston House, which is open for public tours throughout the year. On the other side of Roper House is the 1848 Palmer Home, an 18,000-square-foot mansion known as the Pink Palace, now a quirky bed and breakfast run by Francess Palmer, who likes to point out the valances given to her mother by Dina Merrill and the imposing Hepplewhite table in the dining room. "Every day at two-thirty we had a formal family dinner in hose and heels," Palmer says. "My grandmother hid a bell under the rug so the servants would appear magically. Now, that's my job."

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