Connecticut Landmarks neglects 1700s Stonington house, despite endowment
It's hard to imagine finding blight on Al Harvey Road, a winding country road in the heart of Stonington, lined by lichen-covered stone walls and the setting for one beautiful farm or estate after another.
And yet one house is in decidedly grim condition, abandoned, the grass overgrown, windows broken. When I stopped by this week, you could see birds flying freely in and out of the attic.
What is most shocking, though, is not the juxtaposition of blight in such a beautiful setting. Rather it is knowing that the house is owned by Connecticut Landmarks, a rich nonprofit that previously was called the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, which is dedicated — drumroll, please — to preserving historic houses.
It's not just that the organization has left the Al Harvey Road house — Forge Farm, named for the blacksmith, a member of the storied Gallup family of eastern Connecticut, who once lived there — empty for more than a year and in disrepair.
But it has been freely spending, apparently on other things, from a large endowment bequeathed for the care of the house on Al Harvey Road.
My calculation of the total of endowment money for the Al Harvey Road house, in the various accounts cited in an audit of Landmarks, would be about $1.4 million. Between 2015 and 2016, according to the audit, about $100,000 was spent from the endowment. It doesn't look like much of that went to the maintenance of Forge Farm.
Sheryl Hack, executive director of Connecticut Landmarks, who finally returned my many calls Tuesday, after I left a blunt message on her voicemail, refused to disclose the exact amount in the Forge Farm endowment or say what the money has been spent on recently.
She also wouldn't answer a lot of other questions and blamed the condition of the house on tenants who she said "abandoned" it about a year ago without notice. She also said she couldn't say when she last visited the property.
The house, which is believed to have been built about 1750, was left to what was then the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society by Charles and Virginia Berry, who apparently had no children. They bought the farm in 1942.
The gift was completed upon Virginia's death in 1982, with a direction in her will that the house and its 50 acres go to the society with the instruction that it "be kept and maintained as an example of early American architecture and grounds."
The will also permitted the society to sell 17 of the acres, land across the street from the house, with the money to go into the endowment. The society sold the land in 1985 for $80,000.
The Berrys left all their other assets, including a large portfolio of stocks and bonds, to the society, except for a small bequest in which Mrs. Berry directed that a friend be able to remove some furniture. The will also said friends boarding horses on the farm should be given ample time to move them.
The will says that the money should be used for the "maintenance and preservation of the house and grounds" and that any "not necessary for that purpose" could be spent by the society for "general purposes."
I don't see how anyone could suggest, given the condition of Forge Farm today, that the organization has honored that commitment.
The society gushed about the bequest at the time it was made and did indeed conduct a thorough restoration, engaging trained craftsmen and architectural historians for a project that lasted more than two years.
Hack told me the organization has spent $500,000 on the house in the years it has owned it, but she would not say how much of that was spent on the original restoration in the 1980s. She also would not say if that money came from the endowment left with the house.
She also would not talk about how the house came to have cheap white vinyl windows, certainly not appropriate to any restoration or repairs of a historic house by an organization that prides itself on preservation.
Indeed, when I called the tenant who Hack said left the house in "deplorable condition," she referred me to her lawyer, who said Connecticut Landmarks had refused to properly maintain the house, despite pleas to do something.
"The house was in shambles", said attorney Paul Geraghty, who represents Terra Firma Farm, a community farm that moved to North Stonington in 2016, after leaving Al Harvey Road.
Terra Firma moved out because of the condition of the building, including numerous code violations, the presence of lead paint and cold drafts that caused plumbing to freeze and leak, which he said Connecticut Landmarks refused to address, including a letter he wrote before the tenant moved out.
Connecticut Landmarks, which is run by a board with many wealthy and politically connected people, includes listings on its website for the many prominent historic houses it owns, most of them looking very primped and cared for.
The website makes no mention of Forge Farm.
Elizabeth Wood, executive director of the Stonington Historical Society, told me she wrote a letter to Hack in December, after a Forge Farm neighbor complained about the condition of Forge Farm. She said Hack did not respond to the letter or return a follow-up phone call.
Hack told me that's not true and said they have been in communication with the Stonington Historical Society, but she would not say with whom.
It looks like Connecticut Landmarks just wanted to be left alone, to keep sipping money from the Forge Farm endowment, the kind gift of Charles and Virginia Berry, who I suspect would be very sad to see the condition of their house today.
This is the opinion of David Collins.
Editor's Note: This column has been edited to correct the total endowment.