Thursday, October 18, 2012

Charleston Social Diary, Fall 2012

Villa Margarita's soon-to-be-restored Corinthian columns.
Can’t You Just Leave?
by Ned Brown

DPC forwarded the following letter from a Charleston reader regarding a previous Charleston Social Diary column I had written.

I'm a (Charleston) ‘local’ since 1955. My grandfather started a business here in 1885. This is a happy article. I disagree that Charleston was stagnant before all the ‘offs’ (what you are if you weren’t born here) came in. It used to be a small town, everyone knew one another and it was a great place to be raised. It has become overcrowded, ridiculously overpriced, and run by ‘off’ that consider themselves locals. You can say what you want about adopting Charleston as your second home or retirement hometown. The people that have moved here from ‘up north’ or the South of France have really ruined it for those of us who grew up here. It is not the same town, and not an improved edition, because the highly cultured outsiders came in and spent money and taught us poor little culturally deprived locals how to be.

Thomas Bennett.
All I can say is that I invited said reader to my house for coffee to discuss her observations, and am still waiting for her reply. Unfortunately for this person, and others who share her sentiments, more Yankees are on their way. JetBlue just announced new non-stop direct service from New York JFK and Boston.

I called Thomas Bennett, the leading real estate broker in Charleston with Carriage Properties, to solicit his thoughts. Tommy is from an old Charleston family, and was born and raised here. “When I was growing-up, Charleston was like the town that time had forgotten, says Bennett. It has always been beautiful architecturally, but it was getting run down. It is the new people that came here to invest and brought a fresh perspective. I couldn’t make a living here, and neither could hundreds of others who support the housing business in Charleston, without the new people coming in with money. Bennett continued, and they bring new ideas, contributing time, money and expertise to just about every charitable board.”

I was reminded of a conversation earlier in the summer with an old friend. Wendy Chamberlin wrote a beautiful book a few years back, True East: Farming Ancestral Lands on Long Island’s East End, that should be in every Hamptons home.

Charles Foster, Sagaponack, 1965.
Chamberlin details the lives and history of four farming families, several of which have been on Long Island since 1628, and continue to farm the land today. In our conversation she said, “Life for these families continues to be challenging, but they try to adapt as best they can. The Fosters (who still own substantial farmlands in Sagaponack) tell me that the weekenders constantly honk at their tractors to get off the road, because they are in a hurry.

"The Fosters lose a couple of pea hens and chickens each summer, who roam free across Sagg Main Road, and get hit by the speeding Ferraris and Porsches. There is a constant friction between those who want to preserve the lands versus those who want to develop.”

All of this brings me to news from Charleston over this past summer. Like Manhattan, the Hamptons and Palm Beach, Charleston, with its stately historical homes downtown, is real estate driven. As reported earlier, Carolyne Roehm has decided to make the Holy City her winter home, buying the Chisolm-Alston-DuPont house on southern Tradd Street.

The previous owners were the late Cliff Robertson’s daughter, Stephanie Saunders, who is married to a local doctor, and they wanted to downsize. The 5,800 sq/ft house has four bedrooms, four and a half baths, a stunning flying staircase and a swimming pool — the latter sure to get Carolyne ample local friends during the summer heat wanting to use her pool.
The Chisolm-Alston-DuPont house on southern Tradd Street.
My understanding is that she is going to make some significant and tasteful changes to the exterior of this stately historical house. One, is that she is going to replace the “mini-porch” on the second floor above the front door with a traditional Charleston piazza (balcony) extending the length of the house. The rear of the property has enough paved surface to park eight cars. Knowing Carolyne’s love of gardening, I suspect that a good portion of the concrete is coming out. A little known architectural fact about the Chisolm-Alston-DuPont house is that it sat on the southeastern tip of Charleston on the Ashley River at one time. There was even an occasion when a Confederate torpedo boat ran aground directly in front of the house. Today, the marsh in front of the house has been filled-in, homes were built in the 1950s, and it is hard to envision that this stately home once anchored an important spot on the Charleston waterfront.
Civil War torpedo boat beached in front of the Chisolm- Alston House, 1865.
The even bigger news in Charleston real estate news was the sale of the historic Villa Margherita on the South Battery in September. The “Villa” has been an enigma in recent years even to local Charlestonians. Nobody can recall having been in the house in over thirty years, while it was owned by the same family since the early 1950s. As you can see from recent photographs the crumbling structure and overgrown grounds have made it somewhat the Grey Gardens of Charleston.
Villa Margarita today.
Villa Margarita entrance.
The house has a significant and storied past. it was originally built in the mid-1890s by Andrew Simonds, founder and President of the First National Bank of South Carolina, who gave the house to his wife Cornelia “Daisy” Breaux of New Orleans as a wedding gift. The Beaux Arts/Renaissance Revival house with (now crumbling) Corinthian columns overlooks the Battery, or more formerly known as White Point Garden. Daisy Breaux Simonds married a couple more times adding Gummer (an old Princeton, NJ family) and Calhoun (a descendant of John C.) to her list of names.
L. to r.: On the porch of Villa Margherita: Cornelia “Daisy” Breaux Simonds with the estate manager's wife, Helen Jennings and son Royce Lee Jennings, 1948 (Courtesy of Lee Jennings); Daisy, famed social leader.
Eventually, Villa Margherita became a nationally famous high-end boarding house under the supervision of Miss Ina Liese Dawson. Notable visitors of the house included: Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, Barbara Hutton, Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Clare Boothe and Henry Luce on their honeymoon. It became known as the White House of the South, and Miss Leize was known for her hospitality and beautifully trained staff.

The new owners are Stephen and Mary Hammond, who recently sold their Manhattan apartment, and are now making Charleston their full-time home. The Hammonds, recently married, plan an extensive renovation of Villa Margherita to its glory days. They have hired Scott Salvator of New York, whose firm recently handled the complete renovation of Café Carlyle. Stephen Hammond is an executive in the family hospitality p.r. business. Mary recently left her New York magazine publishing job to become the Marketing Director at Garden & Gun magazine. All of Charleston is waiting for a “look-see” inside Villa Margherita after the Hammonds take possession in December.
Villa Margarita postcard.
When I returned to Charleston in late August from a heat and humidity respite in more temperate Michigan and Rockport, Massachusetts, the local Charleston Mercury newspaper, and its editor Charles Waring III, were atwitter about a potential Bravo television pilot being filmed here on the lifestyle of affluent Southern gentlemen.

Actually, I had gotten wind of this show when I dropped-in for a visit with Dick Jenrette at his spectacular Hudson River home, Edgewater, when I was making my way from Michigan to Cape Ann, Mass. As an aside, Dick graciously gave me a tour of the house, which he acquired from Gore Vidal in 1969, and the octagonal library, where Vidal used to write, is now Jenrette’s office; his desk has a panoramic view of the Hudson. Jenrette’s summer home is equally as exquisite as his Charleston home, Roper House, overlooking the Cooper River on the East Battery.
Edgewater facade.
Christina Baxter getting the tour of Edgewater with Dick Jenrette.
The courtyard at Edgewater entrance.
Jenrette's study overlooking the Hudson.
A view of the north lawn from Jenrette's study.
Hills behind Edgewater descending to the Hudson shoreline.
View of Edgewater from the guest house.
Oliver and Spicey checking out the Jenrette guest house accommodations.
Time for a little Hudson swim.
View from the guest house where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likes to stay.
Back to the Bravo pilot ... The director/producer is Whitney Sudler-Smith, who directed Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, which was featured at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The film was recently sold to Showtime. Sudler-Smith is also the son of Richmond, Virginia native-via New York transplant, Patricia Altschul, who has done a magnificent job of renovating and redecorating (under the guidance of Mario Buatta) a historically significant Italianate house in Charleston.

Sudler-Smith is trying to profile a handful of modern day southern gentlemen and their lifestyles. When I spoke with Sudler-Smith from his home in L.A., he said, “All the shows about the South are either about hillbilly hand-fishing or Honey Boo Boo (the TLC show). I want to show another side of the South, one that’s a celebration of Charleston lifestyle and puts it in a positive light.”
Sons and mothers: Whitney Sudler-Smith with his mother Pat Althchul and Thomas Ravenel with his mother Louise.
I then asked Sudler-Smith about an alleged incident whereby a few old Charlestonians contend that he and his film crew attempted to enter and film the venerable Carolina Yacht Club in the company of one of the show’s subjects, Thomas Ravenel, an old family Charleston scion. Sudler-Smith that it was not the case, and they were only there to get a libation in the (men only) taproom. Stay tuned for more on this story.

Anyway, while things have wound-down in the Hamptons, and not yet started in Palm Beach, the fall activities are revving-up in Charleston. Charleston’s legendary cotillion season is just around the corner. This is our time over the next eight weeks of moderate days, cool nights, low humidity and no bugs. The parties and hunting season are beginning. Life is never slow here — especially now that all the Yankees or “ferners” from the South of France have discovered Charleston, and keep arriving like locusts (with bags of money, of course).

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