Imagine, if you will. HRH The Prince of Wales is set to come to your house for a visit. Naturally, extensive preparations are underway, when, in the midst of it all, a hurricane comes to town and blows everything to smithereens. Such was the case on the night of September 29, 1989 when Hurricane Hugo made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina just days short of the arrival of Prince Charles for a stay at Roper House, one of the most beloved of all the homes on Charleston’s High Battery. There are many tales of survival and adaptation that came out of the aftermath of that storm, but this one is a remarkable example of determination and talent that provides an especially nice picture of Southern hospitality at its maximum best.
Roper House was the first house that North Carolina native Richard Hampton Jenrette ever purchased. He eventually came to collect seven houses, but he acquired this one in 1968 for the handsome sum of $100,000. Built in 1838, it is still a magnificent sight and commands one of the best views in the entire city. Mrs. Sarah Hastie, who owned the home for many years, advised Mr. Jenrette to always give parties that coincided with the full moon, which rises over the ocean right in front of Roper House. He says today that he still knows no better place to experience moonlight on the water.
But, to the matter at hand, Hurricane Hugo was not kind to the South. The storm cut a severe path more than 200 miles inland, leaving a trail of destruction and devastation that even included my hometown in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. As it approached, the good people of Charleston (who know how to deal with hurricanes) did what they could to prepare. Under the wise supervision of Roper House caretaker Ernie Townsend, all of the first floor furniture was moved upstairs and out of harm’s way. Seen here are the famous double parlors at Roper House with their suite of Duncan Phyfe furniture, circa 1815-20. The contents having been secured, however, there was little to be done to shield the house itself from what would turn out to be a direct hit. Five feet of water came ashore and flooded the entire ground floor of the house. The beautiful formal Charleston gardens were completely washed away. It quickly became evident that once the horrific mess was cleared, a mountain of work awaited, all of which needed to be accomplished within a matter of days.
One of the earliest calls went out to another Southerner, North Carolina landscape designer Chip Callaway, who began work immediately on the redesign and reinstallation of the gardens. So intent was Chip on restoring – even improving upon – what had been in place, that he brought in mature magnolia and palm trees so large it became necessary to deliver them at 4AM in order to avoid any traffic on the road. To a Southerner, any less effort would have been unthinkable. And, as is often the case when a Southerner decides to throw a party or entertain house guests, the results were perfection. The view of those same gardens today is very close to the view that greeted His Royal Highness in the autumn of 1989.
Prince Charles later recounted the experience in his Foreward to Mr. Jenrette’s book, Adventures With Old Houses. “What neither of us realised when I accepted his invitation was that Hurricane Hugo would make a devastating visit to Charleston a few weeks prior to my arrival…Yet all was polished and serene…Neither the necessity to repaint and rewire the entire first floor and replant the gardens, nor the time constraints could deter Mr. Jenrette from extending the gracious Southern hospitality for which Charleston is famed.”
And so the show, indeed, came off without a hitch. A prince was charmed, a great city picked up her pieces and moved on with her life, and a grand old house dusted herself off and continued to preside with grace and dignity over Charleston Harbor. If you believe, as I do, that houses have souls of a sort, then it must follow that all great Southern houses are belles of the first order. And we all know that a good belle takes everything in stride – even a hurricane. Today, 25 years after the fact, she is more beautiful than ever.
As for the man who steered her through that very rough patch, Richard Jenrette has become one of my heroes. His love of remarkable and worthy old American homes grew into the founding of Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, which oversees Roper House and five of her beautiful sisters – each of them unique and wonderfully preserved for future generations, and all of them fit for a king – even on a moment’s notice.
Photographs by John M. Hall Photography and Classical American Homes Preservation Trust.