Landmarks officials pledge to be more transparent with Forge Farm

The 18th century property known as Forge Farm is seen Feb. 5, 2018, on Al Harvey Road in Stonington and is owned by Connecticut Landmarks. The organization has fallen under criticism and now is under investigation for the poor condition of the property despite a hefty endowment, which now totals $1.5 million, that was donated for its care. (David Collins/The Day)
The 18th century property known as Forge Farm is seen Feb. 5, 2018, on Al Harvey Road in Stonington and is owned by Connecticut Landmarks. The organization has fallen under criticism and now is under investigation for the poor condition of the property despite a hefty endowment, which now totals $1.5 million, that was donated for its care. (David Collins/The Day)

Stonington — Connecticut Landmarks officials pledged to continue to invest in Forge Farm and be more transparent with their plans for it during a sometimes contentious meeting late Thursday afternoon with about 30 neighbors and supporters of the historical Al Harvey Road property.

Attendees criticized Landmarks' previous stewardship of the property and the organization's desire to restore the home to its 18th century condition, and asked what new windows will look like and whether the modern roof will be replaced.

They also said they don't trust the organization.

“It’s up to us to build back your trust. I can’t bring it all back right now. Give us a few years,” said Frederick Copeland Jr., the chairman of Landmarks' board of trustees.

Resident Bill Lyman told Copeland that a good way to start to do that is to share Landmarks’ plans for the property with the public as soon as they are available, as well as information about the budget for the work and the time frame for completion.

“I’d be open to doing that. We own it but we believe these are community resources,” Copeland responded.

The state attorney general’s office is investigating not only whether Landmarks properly spent the money bequeathed to it to care for Forge Farm but how it has spent charitable gifts to care for all of its properties across the state.

The probe began after The Day's David Collins, in a series of columns about Landmarks' properties, detailed that Forge Farm had fallen into disrepair even though the late Charles and Virginia Berry had donated the farm along with all their assets, including a large portfolio of stocks and bonds, in 1982 to the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, the predecessor of Connecticut Landmarks. The endowment now totals $1.5 million, according to Copeland. The instructions with the gift were that the property “be kept and maintained as an example of early American architecture and grounds.”

Before Landmarks officials discussed the farm and took questions from the residents, Mike Einsiedel Jr., the owner of Yankee Restoration and Remodeling of Andover, explained the work he has done on the farm since being hired by Landmarks several weeks ago.

He has made roof, siding and other repairs to a modern barn on the property. He also has restored the 19th century corn crib by repairing the foundation, cracked joists and siding. He now will replace the moss-encrusted roof.

Einsiedel said Landmarks is in the process of deciding how to replace 22 modern vinyl windows on the main house with more visually appropriate thermal pane windows. He said modern storm doors will be replaced, aluminum gutters will be replaced with wood, and siding will be repaired. Copeland said about $120,000 has been allocated for exterior work.

Einsiedel said the kitchen and bathrooms have to be redone so the home can be rented again, which Landmarks plans to do in the fall. Plans and a budget for that work are not yet complete, Copeland said.

“The idea is to get it back into a condition that residents of Stonington and North Stonington can be proud of to have as a historic property,” Copeland said.

In their discussion with Copeland, residents criticized Landmarks' past stewardship of the property and the organization's treatment and comments made about the last tenants who lived there before moving.

"Are we going to go forward from this day forward or are we going to continue digging up what happened in the past?” asked First Selectmen Rob Simmons, who is an honorary trustee for Landmarks. “Connecticut Landmarks is making an effort to invest in the property and bring in a family to live here.”

Residents were particularly concerned about whether Landmarks plans to restore the interior of the home to its 18th century condition.

They pointed to a comment by Copeland that it will be restored to a “rentable condition,” which could be more modern. They also questioned the validity of Copeland’s statement that Landmarks spent $500,000 on the home when it first acquired it.

Richard Cole, the treasurer of the Stonington Historical Society, told Copeland that his organization has a legal responsibility to restore the house to its historical and not a “rentable” condition. He added that with a $1.5 million endowment, there is money to do the work.

Residents also urged Landmarks to replace the modern roof with more historically appropriate materials. Copeland said that is a project the organization may undertake in the future.

Copeland said it is not Landmarks' intention to restore the home to its 18th century condition but bring it back to a reasonably historic property that can be rented and maintained.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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