Attorney general investigation of Connecticut Landmarks is finished

Just one month before he died in July 2005, Howard Metzger of East Haddam wrote to Connecticut Landmarks, the preservation society to which he had pledged his 1738 mansion, known as the Palmer-Warner House, to confess misgivings.

As the management of the society had begun to change, Metzger wrote to Landmarks that he was having sleepless nights and second thoughts about leaving the house, its 50 acres, a valuable collection of antiques and the rest of his estate to the organization.

He wrote of worries "the society would be more interested in turning the entire thing into hard cash, apparently so much more desired than the property, that the contents would be offered to an antiques dealer entirely, then the acreage sold off to a developer." Metzger died soon after from injuries sustained in a car accident.

It turns out Metzger might have been right to worry. Some 13 years later, the house has never been regularly open to the public as a house museum, as Metzger envisioned in his will, and the buildings have been allowed to deteriorate while money from the funds left for its upkeep has been spent on other Landmarks properties.

A months-long investigation into how Landmarks has handled bequests by Metzger and other significant donors of historical houses and endowments has been concluded by the Connecticut assistant attorney general who oversaw it, and his report is now being reviewed by Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn, according to Jaclyn Severance, director of communications for Attorney General George Jepsen.

Responsibility for the investigation rests with the deputy attorney general, because Jepsen, who once hosted a fundraiser for Landmarks at his home, recused himself from the matter.

Severance said Tuesday the deputy attorney general will review the report and recommendations from the investigation "as quickly and responsibly as possible" and that the matter should be concluded by the end of the year, before the term of the incoming attorney general, William Tong, begins.

I first began writing about Landmarks' care of its properties last winter, after a neighbor of the organization's Forge Farm in Stonington complained about its condition. The Landmarks property on Al Harvey Road had been badly neglected despite an endowment of more than $1.5 million. It was left vacant after tenants moved out, complaining the roof was leaking so badly water had to be collected in buckets.

A former board president of Landmarks, pushed out by a new administration, once complained in a letter to fellow board members that the deterioration of Forge Farm was an act of "self vandalism," with the organization ruining a historically precise restoration of the property by replacing the custom wooden windows and roof with badly installed vinyl and asphalt substitutes.

The attorney general was already reviewing a request at the time by Landmarks to sell the Stonington farm and keep its endowment, a plan the organization has since abandoned.

The attorney general's office widened its review of Landmarks and Forge Farm to include the entire organization as I began to learn more and write about other houses that had been neglected despite money that had been left for their care.

In addition to the Palmer-Warner House, Landmarks also owns the 1816 Amasa Day House in East Haddam, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which has not been open to the public for many years. Like Forge Farm, it is not even listed on the Landmarks website as one of the organization's properties.

Like Forge Farm, it was left with an endowment for its care.

It looks now like the misgivings Metzger confessed to in his 2005 letters, not long before Landmarks inherited his property, may have been justified.

"My concerns now ... is that the society (is) more interested in finances, money and expenses than possession and acceptance and ownership of this property and future opening as a museum," he wrote.

Fortunately, 13 years later, the office of the Connecticut attorney general is looking at whether the wishes of Metzger and other significant donors to Landmarks are being respected.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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