Connecticut Landmarks accused of 'self vandalism' of historic Stonington property

Hand cut wooden roof shingles and custom wooden windows were replaced with asphalt and plastic, as the house at Forge Farm appears on Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (David Collins/The Day)
Hand cut wooden roof shingles and custom wooden windows were replaced with asphalt and plastic, as the house at Forge Farm appears on Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (David Collins/The Day)

An Oct. 7, 2008, email from the tenant at Stonington's Forge Farm to the executive director of Connecticut Landmarks, her landlord, pretty succinctly tells the story of the preservation society's undoing of the historic property left to its care by probate decree.

"I hate to be a pest," wrote Brianne Casadei of Terra Firma Farm Inc., a nonprofit community organic farm, which by then had invested considerable resources of its own improving the property, in addition to paying many tens of thousands of dollars in rent and property taxes.

"But we are cold and wet in here!!"

"After yet another wet Sunday our kitchen ceiling is bubbled and soaked. The water is just pouring in ... we now have to strategically place buckets to catch the leaks from the ceiling and windows," she wrote, saying the leaks were rotting one wall and threatening the plaster of another.

She also wrote that the house was cold and that one bedroom window had two broken panes.

This would be unacceptable treatment of any tenant by any landlord.

What is most shocking, though, is that a Connecticut Landmarks balance sheet for that year shows $1.4 million in the Forge Farm endowments, money specifically left by Virginia and Charles Berry for the maintenance and preservation of their beloved Forge Farm, also left to Landmarks by bequest.

It seems clear to me, after reviewing papers related to Landmarks' decades-long control of the property, that it was allowed to grossly deteriorate over the last 10 years and some of a careful restoration of the 1750s house, completed by previous management of the preservation society, has been dismantled.

Landmarks is now seeking an opinion from Attorney General George Jepsen on whether it can sell the house and keep the endowment, which has been spent down to about $1 million, an effort that would require them to prove that the house can no longer be "kept and maintained as an example of early American architecture and grounds," as the Berrys' wills require.

Is it possible that a storied Connecticut nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation has been intentionally ruining a historic house in Stonington in order to be able to pocket the endowment?

The society is prohibited under the terms of the Berrys' wills from spending money from the endowment unless Forge Farm is maintained and preserved. And yet the farm's endowments have been significantly spent down in the last 10 years, even though rent was being collected for years and no significant new investment in the neglected house has been made.

The endowment balance stood at $1,424,196 in the second quarter of 2008, according to a balance sheet from the time.

Where did the rest of the Berrys' money go?

After months of pleading from Casadei, who politely but firmly catalogued the deplorable disrepair of the property — she said in one email that every one of the downstairs windows had broken panes, with people getting cut — Landmarks finally did some repairs, installing cheap vinyl windows and an asphalt roof so inappropriate to a restored building that it caught the attention of historic museum officials around New England, horrified at what they saw as preservation sacrilege.

The inappropriate repairs and apparent misuse of the Berry endowments were raised before the Landmarks board in stark terms, but the warnings went unheeded.

"Connecticut case law and the Statute of Charitable Uses are very protective of charitable restrictions. But beyond our legal obligation, beyond the ethical imperative of good faith with our donors, this sort of self vandalism to one of our own historic structures damages our reputation," Lee Kuckro, who was president of the board at one time, wrote to "fellow trustees" in December 2008.

"Forge Farm is a public relations disaster in the making," he wrote.

And yet the board, including many influential and politically connected people, never repaired the egregious improvements, kept spending down the endowment and is now talking about selling off Forge Farm and keeping what's left of the Berry money, a strategy that was considered back in 2001 but abandoned, when lawyers told them they were unlikely to get away with it.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, fresh out of Congress after being defeated by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, was among the Landmarks trustees warned back in 2008 that they were ignoring their fiduciary responsibilities for Forge Farm.

Kuckro, alarmed about the treatment of the property and its endowments, also wrote directly to the former congressman, knowing the farm was located in his town and that he had served or was still on the board of Terra Firma, beseeching him to do something.

Landmarks management at the time was stalling negotiations with Terra Firma for a renewal of its lease.

"No one has to tell you what a fruitful confluence of interests have been served by our arrangement — historic preservation, heritage appreciation, open space, agriculture, educational programs for families and children, all while protecting the sense of place in (Stonington)," Kuckro wrote to Simmons, in February 2009.

Kuckro declined to comment when I reached him last week.

Simmons, who stayed on the board into 2016, according to tax records, the year Terra Firma finally gave up and left Forge Farm, pipes freezing up, the furnace broken, refused to talk about any of it when I called him last week, telling me everyone is "lawyered up."

He has evidently stayed in contact, though, with Landmarks Executive Director Sheryl Hack, speaking to her as recently as last week, after the first newspaper account of the deteriorating condition of the farm appeared.

The problems at Forge Farm began to spin out of control after Hack, previously director of marketing and development at Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire, was appointed executive director of Connecticut Landmarks, then still known as Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, in 2005.

It was Hack to whom Casadei directed most of her complaints about the condition of the house. When Casadei went directly to trustees, Hack told her to never contact them directly.

Hack also ordered the installation of the vinyl windows and the asphalt roof, even though Casadei had obtained estimates for wooden windows and a wooden roof to replace the ones already there. The estimate for a historically appropriate wooden roof was $26,500. All Hack had to do was say yes.

Casadei later also warned Landmarks that the vinyl windows, in addition to being inappropriate, were not installed properly, narrowing the window openings.

"The window situation has honestly been shocking to us," she wrote Dec. 9, 2008. "Much to our disbelief, as well as the concern of others, we are in the middle of watching the house be damaged.

"The windows ... are white vinyl replacement windows with no grids. The windows were not measured or installed by a professional and the appearance and structure of the house has suffered.

"The windows were so mismeasured that we have lost a significant amount of light, the window frames have been chiseled.

"Professionally installed wooden windows . . . would have better kept with your mission and ours and would have gone unnoticed to concerned residents."

In my two conversations with Hack last week she refused to discuss the vinyl windows and asphalt roof. She told me she would get back to me with details about expenditures from the Forge Farm endowment, but she hasn't.

She said there is no specific plan to sell the property, despite the talks with the attorney general, and would not say what other ideas have been considered for the now-vacant farm.

I asked her to relay a message asking the chairman of Landmarks' Board of Trustees, Frederick C. Copeland, Jr., a banker who also served as chief executive officer of Aetna International, to call me. He hasn't.

I have left some messages but have not heard back from any other officers of the organization.

Landmarks considered in 2001 the idea of selling Forge Farm and keeping the endowment, but its lawyers tried to quash the idea, noting that they would have to prove it couldn't be maintained as a historic house.

Sprouts of the idea seemed to begin forming again after Hack came on in 2005.

Hack presided over the creation of one set of board meeting minutes that described Forge Farm as a "rebuilt 1987 house." This was after the handmade wooden roof shingles and custom built wooden windows had been replaced with asphalt and plastic.

This characterization of the house in the minutes was called out by Kuckro, who asked in a memo that the record be corrected.

He then sent around copies of a long 1980s article from the society's own magazine, explaining what a careful restoration of the Berry house had been done after the society first inherited it. The article, thorough in its description of the preservation tactics used in restoring the house, was also placed in the record of the Stonington Probate Court, as proof the society was living up to its fiduciary responsibilities.

That was then.

In March 2009, Casadei wrote a heartfelt plea to all Landmarks trustees, including Simmons, recalling the progress made at Terra Firma and pleading for talks to extend the lease.

"Five years ago, I presented a plan to grow something I never could have dreamt could grow so well," she wrote. "I presented a plan to return the overgrown fields of Forge Farm back to lush pastures, to turn the long-lost pathways into well-worn paths stomped on by small-sized muck boots, to harrow fields into gardens that would grow food for our local community and our local food banks.

"I presented a plan to create a bus stop that would deliver kids who would run up the steep, washed-away driveway to what they would soon call 'their farm.'"

The tenants respected the Berrys' wishes, showcasing the historic property, welcoming school kids and the public. Seven years later, they ended up leaving because the house had become so neglected it was unlivable.

The attorney general can't work through an investigation of all this fast enough.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.ccom

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