Connecticut Landmarks has not followed bequest terms for house in East Haddam

The barn at the Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks, as it appeared Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, in East Haddam. (David Collins/The Day)
The barn at the Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks, as it appeared Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, in East Haddam. (David Collins/The Day)

A 1738 house in East Haddam, once the beloved home of Frederick Palmer, a pioneering restoration architect at the forefront of the historic preservation movement in Connecticut, has sat unused for 13 years and is not regularly open to the public, despite being directed to in a will that bequeathed the property to Connecticut Landmarks in 2005.

What is known as the Palmer-Warner house and its 50 acres on Town Street were given to Landmarks by Howard Metzger, Palmer's longtime partner, who inherited the house from him in 1971.

In addition to the property and house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Metzger, who died in 2005 two days after being injured in a car accident, left the balance of his estate to Landmarks.

An accounting in probate court shows a total of assets, including a lawsuit settlement and insurance claims related to the accident, to be $974,637. Another settlement was provided to the estate, $750,000 from a claim against a doctor, in 2009.

I couldn't determine the total today of the Frederick C. Palmer Memorial Fund, and I haven't heard back from Frederick C. Copeland Jr., chairman of the Landmarks board of trustees, who told me Tuesday he would get that information to me. He did not return a phone message Thursday.

Presumably the endowment, which was restricted in Metzger's will to use for the Palmer-Warner house, should have grown considerably since his death.

I started looking into the story of the Palmer-Warner house after learning how Landmarks has neglected a historic house and property it owns on Al Harvey Road in Stonington, despite a large endowment left for its upkeep.

The Palmer-Warner house, at a glance, is certainly not in as tough shape as Forge Farm, but it is most certainly neglected. The barn, which is believed to be as old as the house, looks to be collapsing and probably is a serious danger. You can see obvious rot on one of the exterior corner columns of the house, right below the plaque explaining that the house is on the national register.

Strangely, a deck on the back, with fresh pressure-treated wood and metal and wire railings, appears to be new and totally inappropriate for a house meant to be a preservation landmark.

The best evidence I have seen of neglect was some correspondence among Landmarks trustees not long after the society inherited the house. Evidently oil delivery was taken off automatic, the tank ran dry and, after a pipe burst, water from a second-floor bathroom ran down through the house, which still is filled with Palmer's and Metzger's antiques and belongings.

The house has never been opened to the public on a regular basis, as Metzger directed in his will.

There is even a Facebook page, evidently started by concerned East Haddam residents who complain about the condition of the house and the fact that it and another in town — the Amasa Day house in Moodus, which also is owned by Landmarks — are not regularly open to the public.

A note on the Landmarks website says you can make an appointment and pay for a tour.

Amasa Day, like Forge Farm, is not listed on the Landmarks website as one of the organization's historic properties.

Copeland, when I asked why the Palmer-Warner house still is not open as a house museum, said that there are plans to do that. He denied Landmarks is not investing in the maintenance of the house, citing a new roof when I asked what has been done to maintain or improve it.

He said he couldn't say when it would open.

Landmarks launched a fundraising campaign last year, saying it wants to raise $1 million to turn the property into a museum dedicated to LGBT themes, with the barn converted to a welcome center. A fundraiser, Classic Cars & Cocktails, was held there last September.

It seems misguided to me, if not disrespectful, to posthumously out two men who didn't choose to out themselves when they were alive. It seems clear from reading both their wills that their intention was for the society, of which Palmer was one of the first trustees, to simply showcase the historic property.

Palmer, who was at the center of the saving and restoration of the Goodspeed Opera House and worked on many significant historic properties in Connecticut, including the First Church of Christ Congregational in East Haddam, the Joshua Hempsted house in New London and the Buttolph-Williams house, dating from 1711, in Wethersfield.

He was born in Montville and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard.

Why would you focus, in a museum, on a part of his life he kept private, when he was a leading figure in the historic preservation movement that he dedicated his career to? Shouldn't that be the obvious focus of a museum in a house he lovingly restored over decades, even dictating in his will that things like the colors and design of the wallpaper should remain the same.

Landmarks actually was fourth in line to receive the house under Palmer's will, had he died after Metzger. The first three that had chance of first refusal were the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Middlesex County Historical Society and the Connecticut Historical Society, in that order.

Historic preservation enthusiasts I have spoken to get almost starry-eyed about the Palmer-Warner house because it is such an outstanding example of the period. The nomination for the national register practically gushes about the quality of the architecture and craftsmanship, and how unique it is for its rural location.

Palmer affectionately called it his "Dunstaffnage" after a Scottish castle.

I am not the first to connect the condition of the Palmer-Warner house to Stonington's Forge Farm.

A recent post on the Facebook page East Haddam's TWO Historic Museum Houses: Sorry, No Admittance by William Hosley, a former executive director of Landmarks, lamented the state of the Palmer-Warner house and provided a link to the column about Forge Farm.

"I am not sure any property CTL owns came with more money attached — more than enough to transform it into the museum house its donors intended," Hosley wrote. "And what HUGE untapped potential it also has as a cultural attraction for (East Haddam) and the lower (Connecticut Valley)."

"(Frederick) Palmer was a visionary trustee who did more to build the organization than anyone in its history," he wrote.

What a way to honor his memory and his treasured Dunstaffnage.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

The bottom of this corner column appears rotten, as the Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks, appeared Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, in East Haddam. (David Collins/The Day)
The bottom of this corner column appears rotten, as the Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks, appeared Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, in East Haddam. (David Collins/The Day)
Rot is seen Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, on a wooden roof of the garage at Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks. (David Collins/The Day)
Rot is seen Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, on a wooden roof of the garage at Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks. (David Collins/The Day)
This deck with modern wire railings, as seen Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, seems out of place at the historic Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks. (David Collins/The Day)
This deck with modern wire railings, as seen Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, seems out of place at the historic Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks. (David Collins/The Day)

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