The City Magazine Since 1975

The Remarkable Mr. & Mrs. Morawetz

April 2018
The Remarkable Mr. & Mrs. Morawetz

When New York philanthropists Victor and Marjorie Nott Morawetz decided to find a winter home in 1929, they had the means to move anywhere in the world. But the ultra-wealthy couple, who dined with the Vanderbilts and spent weekends at the Roosevelts, chose Charleston. It was the beginning of a mutual love story that spanned more than 30 years. And while their names are all but forgotten, their legacy of art, architecture, and natural beauty surrounds us to this day

Victor and Marjorie Nott Morawetz arrived during the Charleston Renaissance of the late 1920s. It was an exciting period when the city was alive with exceptional artists, including painters Alfred Hutty, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Anna Heyward Taylor, Edwin Harleston, Prentiss Taylor, and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, and writers Josephine Pinckney, Hervey Allen, John Bennett, Julia Peterkin, and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward. Intellectually, Charleston was experiencing a dazzling period of enlightenment; Physically, it resembled the “Catfish Row” set in Dubose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess. The city was broke, as were most of the residents. The combination of time and poverty had transformed the former antebellum grandeur into what one wit wryly termed “ramshackled elegance.” As New York artist and lithographer Prentiss Taylor wrote, “The decay is too, too divine.”

Yet paucity had not dimmed the city’s innate joie de vivre. Behind the faded shutters and peeling paint was a continued whirl of cocktails, culture, and conversation. The Morawetzes stepped effortlessly onto this stage. Victor, described as a dapper gentleman, a “rare man” of courtly manner and broad culture, and Marjorie, who had the engaging ability to be both “dignified and fun,” were immediately accepted for their brilliance, generosity, and, before long, as important members of the city’s early preservation efforts. They would become instrumental in saving some of the area’s historic buildings, most notably the legendary Pink House on Chalmers Street and Fenwick Hall (also known as “Fenwick Castle”) on John’s Island.

Having immense wealth helped, of course. Victor retired at the age of 51 after a sterling legal career. The Baltimore native had graduated early from Harvard, written his first book on contract law at age 23, and from his Wall Street law firm provided legal counsel to the great financial barons Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan. In addition, his work as chairman of the board of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway helped him amass a tidy fortune.

After the death of his first wife, Violet Westcott, in 1918, Victor met the engaging young Washington sophisticate Marjorie Nott, daughter of Chief Justice Charles C. Nott. It was a May-December relationship but an ideal pairing of intelligent personalities. Both had traveled extensively in Europe and shared a passion for the arts. They married in 1924 and moved into a home in Manhattan. Victor had just sold his 100-acre Long Island estate (complete with a 32-room mansion and sunken gardens) to his friend Andrew Mellon. The couple was now searching for a warmer climate in which to spend their winters.

They may have selected Charleston—and been accepted so easily by the town’s notoriously closed upper crust—because of their relationship with one of its most illustrious clubs, The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals. Formed in 1922 by members of the Lowcountry elite, the choral group aimed to preserve the religious songs of the former slaves and generate revenues to assist the Gullah people. Marjorie saw them perform in Boston in 1928 and was so enthralled she brought them to New York the following year to sing for the prestigious Thursday Evening Club.

The connection also may have been made through Charleston attorney Alfred Huger, who was president of the Society at the time. After graduating from Cornell, he had worked for a Wall Street law firm, marrying the socialite daughter of the firm’s principle. In addition to being business colleagues, Huger and Morawetz traveled in the same social circles. Yet it was not only due to connections that Charleston opened its doors to the couple: Put simply, they were delightful people with a genuine affection and enthusiasm for the city they adopted as their own.

The Pink House

It was largely through their close friendship with local author Josephine Pinckney that the Morawetzes took on the task of restoring the then-crumbling Pink House. At this time, many Holy City dwellings were derelict, unable to be helped because of the depressed economy. Pinckney, with the guidance of noted architect Albert Simons, had restored her home at 36 Chalmers and transformed it into one of the city’s most charming residences, where the Morawetzes were frequent guests at her celebrated cocktail buffets.

Only a cobblestoned block away was the Pink House, a former 18th-century tavern thought to be the oldest building on the peninsula. In May 1930, the couple reached into their deep pockets, bought the tiny two-story dwelling built of salmon-hued Bermuda stone, and put Simons in charge of its rehabilitation.

Since the plan was for the Morawetzes to use it for entertaining, a small addition for a kitchen and bath was built to accommodate caterers. Eventually the couple offered it as a retreat for struggling artists like Taylor, who worked there in the 1930s. It later served as a studio for Lowcountry artist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. Marjorie kept ownership of the Pink House until 1946, when it was sold to writer Harry McInvaill Jr. and his wife, the poet Talulah Lemmon.

VIDEO: Fenwick Hall Plantation (note: Fenwick Hall is privately owned and not open for public tour. However, it is currently on the market, exclusively represented by Patricia Byrne at Handsome Properties)

“The greatest asset of Charleston at the present time consists in the beauty of its location and its ancient houses,” noted Victor in a 1931 News & Courier interview. “The people should do everything possible to preserve the old houses and the character of the place, which is unique.” And he put his money on his word. The Pink House was only one of many historic structures restored under the Morawetz aegis. The properties they purchased—some mainly to be stabilized before a permanent owner was found—include 46 King (bought in 1929), used as their residence while work was being done at Fenwick Hall; the Ravenel Mansion at 11-13 East Battery (1944); the Simmons-Edwards House with its famed pineapple gates at 14 Legare (1946); and the stately Young-Motte House at 30 Meeting (1947), Marjorie’s last winter residence.

Fenwick Hall

Perhaps the couple’s most massive undertaking was the restoration of John’s Island’s Fenwick Hall, which was little more than a shell when Victor purchased the estate in 1930. “We were attracted to Fenwick Hall when we first saw it,” Victor told The News & Courier as renovations began on the Georgian manor house. “In fact, we were attracted by Charleston and its beautiful houses. The people of Charleston have a degree of cultivation and charm which we do not find elsewhere in the world.”

Unlike other Northerners who purchased plantations for winter hunting retreats, the Morawetzes’ attention was toward saving an important architectural treasure. “I did not come here to shoot,” said Victor. “We will endeavor to restore Fenwick Hall as much as possible to its original condition and to make it a home.”

Restoring the two-story brick mansion, built by John Fenwick in 1730 on the Stono River, was a mammoth undertaking. Under the guidance of architect Albert Simons and building engineer C. Stuart Dawson, every means was taken to ensure the historical integrity of the structure—all 13 rooms, five baths, and seven bedrooms. Original hand-carved pine and cypress mouldings remained intact while electricity, modern plumbing, a kitchen wing, and pool house were added. The original fireplaces were repaired, including one in the drawing room purportedly haunted by a ghost.

The deep basement held an oil furnace, auxiliary kitchen, wine cellar, and servants’ quarters. One unusual feature was an underground passage that, according to legend, was an escape route to the Stono River. The late Charleston historian Samuel G. Stoney quelled these stories while the house was being renovated, quipping to The News & Courier that “fancy has outrun fact.” The truth, said Stoney, was that it was merely “a serviceably large drain, through which a not too large boy might creep without great discomfort to dislodge the carcass of a cat.”

One of the most impressive additions was the saltwater swimming pool with water pumped in from the Stono River, first to a purification system and then to a heating system for warming to a desired temperature. The pool house was set amidst several acres of gardens noted for stands of camellias, azaleas, and live oaks. It was also on these grounds that Victor Morawetz created a place to indulge his passion for cactus.

The Cactus Garden

A hobbyist horticulturist, Victor had a fascination with cacti and may have been the foremost collector of them in the world at the time. He traveled regularly to obtain specimens and had them delivered by rail from the Southwest. Wrote The News & Courier in 1939, “Some of these giants are more than 1,000 years old…. he had scores of varieties, some of which bloom only at night. The cactus garden was one of the sights shown to visitors to the place, which had become famous for the hospitality of its owners.”

In truth, it was only because of Victor’s unlimited means that the garden thrived. The humid Lowcountry climate was totally unsuitable for cacti, which prefer arid conditions. Thus they had to be continually replaced. Still, in its heyday, the garden was a matchless, if not unusual, centerpiece of the Fenwick Hall grounds.

GALLERY: Check Out Notable Moments During the Morawetz Era

Victor’s love of plants tendriled into other areas. He was a friend and backer of Prince Matchabelli, the perfume maker, and at one time suggested that Charleston would be a good place to raise shrubs, flowers, and other plants for his essential oils. While that idea never came to fruition, another outstanding endeavor did. As early as 1931, Victor had bemoaned the lack of trees along the highways leading into town. He suggested that some organization might begin a movement to line the roads with magnolias. In 1935, Victor took on the task himself and had 200 planted along Maybank Highway where it runs through the municipal golf course. “He wished to assure an avenue of loveliness for all who pass that way,” wrote The News & Courier in 1938. The magnolias are still there—beautiful reminders of one man’s determination to better the Lowcountry surroundings.

Seabrook Island

In 1937, the Morawetzes turned their attentions to the “wooded oceanfront paradise” called Seabrook Island. Then almost entirely undeveloped, most of the island was owned by the Andell family, who was selling 560 acres of the southern portion. Entranced by the island’s natural beauty and concerned that it would fall victim to timbering, the Morawetzes not only purchased the Andell lands but also the defunct Kiawato boys’ club tract, eventually renovating the Kiawato clubhouse into their summer cottage. They also purchased the 247-acre Jenkins Point tract on the North Edisto. They then leased the land (today’s Camp St. Christopher) to the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina for only one penny a year so that it could serve as a summer retreat for boys.

GALLERY: Fenwick Hall Historic Photos

Sadly, Victor only had a brief time to enjoy Seabrook. He died of a heart attack at the age of 81 in 1938. Yet with typical generosity, he left a codicil in his will that after Marjorie’s death, the Seabrook property would go to the Episcopal Church. Marjorie spent summers at Seabrook for the remainder of her life, and the beach cottage was happily inhabited by houseguests from the world over. In keeping with Victor’s wishes, when she died in 1957, the church was deeded the land. While the diocese subsequently sold most of the property, the Camp St. Christopher grounds remain as a retreat for children and adults.

A Lasting Legacy

The couple’s contributions stretched well beyond saving historic properties, planting gardens, and conserving natural vistas. Both were patrons and members of the board of directors of a number of important civic organizations. For her part, as early as 1932, Marjorie worked with the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings (today’s Preservation Society of Charleston) to raise funds for the restoration of the Joseph Manigault House on Meeting Street. Likewise, in 1937, along with Josephine Pinckney, Dubose Heyward, and others, she and Victor were patrons of the Committee for the Dock Street Theatre, which worked to save this first theater in America.

Victor’s contributions to the Carolina Art Association and Gibbes Art Gallery earned him the title of “benefactor.” In 1936, he donated two monumental paintings by Washington Allston, Moses and the Serpent and David Playing Before Saul, along with a self-portrait done by Lowcountry artist James Deveaux and a miniature of Mrs. Samuel Wilson (née Paul) by Thomas S. Officer. The following year, Victor presented the gallery with a gift of 18th- and 19th-century miniatures, generally portraits done in watercolor on thin sheets of ivory. Seventeen in total, these included works by noted Charleston artists Charles Fraser and Henry R. Bounetheau. When combined with those already in the gallery’s possession, they created a collection that today is considered one of the most prestigious portrait miniature collections in the United States.

GALLERY: Fenwick Hall Present Day

In 1937, the Morawetzes gave $75,000 to Roper Hospital to build a wing dedicated to the treatment of African Americans with contagious diseases. They also gave substantial monies for a maternal welfare clinic and in his will, Victor left more than $1 million to the Medical Society of South Carolina.

Marjorie lived almost 20 years after Victor, returning to Charleston annually to spend time with the friends she’d made in the town she’d grown to call her own. She continued her work for the community, serving on the board of the Charleston County Association for the Blind and, with the onset of World War II, on the boards of the Red Cross War Fund and Friends of France, arranging for the latter group’s president to speak in New York, Columbia, and Charleston. She left a bequest of $15,000 to the Preservation Society and gave her outstanding collection of 18th- and 19th-century Chinese porcelain to The Charleston Museum.

After Marjorie’s death in 1957, Albert Simons wrote a letter to the editor of The News & Courier that sums up the love and respect Charlestonians had for the Morawetzes, noting, “Their generosity has bequeathed much to deserving institutions and they will be long remembered as benefactors, but to many of us their memory lives on as the companions of other days whose wit and spirit for a brief moment made life seem more colorful and more civilized.”

Resources: 

Photographs by Brett Tighe (present-day Pink House) & courtesy of John Hauser, fenwickhall.com (3); Library of Congress (2);