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Connecticut Landmarks is spending Palmer-Warner house endowment on other things

Connecticut Landmarks has been spending money, from a fund left to it along with the 1738 Palmer-Warner house, on things other than the East Haddam property, in apparent violation of the 2005 bequest.

Howard Metzger, in leaving the house and money to the preservation society, specifically directed that the money "shall be used solely to support the preservation and maintenance of the 18th century house known as the Palmer-Warner House ... "

And yet Frederick C. Copeland Jr., chairman of the Landmarks' board of trustees, admitted, in an interview this week with The Day's editorial board, that the money has been spent on things other than the Palmer-Warner house. He then added it has been used for society "overhead" expenses.

Copeland, when pressed about spending the Palmer-Warner funds and the terms of the will, produced a page from a folder he was carrying and then read part of a paragraph from the Metzger will giving the preservation society permission to spend the money in his bequest on its "general purposes."

That is indeed a part of the Metzger will, but it is in the section that foresees a time when the society, for whatever reason, might no longer own the Palmer-Warner house. That hasn't happened.

I find it hard to understand how Copeland, a retired banking and insurance executive who said he has run businesses around the world, could have mistakenly cherry picked such a misleading section of the Metzger will to quote.

The will is only about a dozen pages long, and it is clear and succinct.

Landmarks' care of the Palmer-Warner house and its endowment now is being investigated by the Connecticut attorney general's office, which also is looking at the organization's Forge Farm in Stonington and its trust funds, which amount to about $1.5 million.

A spokesman for Attorney General George Jepsen confirmed Thursday that the investigation into Landmarks has widened to include the East Haddam property. The investigation is being overseen by Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn, since Jepsen, who once hosted a fundraiser for Landmarks, recused himself.

The Forge Farm investigation by the attorney general began after Landmarks asked for an opinion about whether it could sell the property and keep the endowment.

The Palmer-Warner money is in a fund named for Frederic C. Palmer, Metzger's partner and one of the first trustees of Landmarks, then known as the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society. Palmer, a Harvard-educated historic restoration architect, was at the forefront of the beginning of the preservation movement in Connecticut and involved in marquee projects like the restoration of the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.

Copeland said Wednesday the Palmer Fund had about $1.2 million in it in 2005 and has about $1.5 million today.

Some income from a separate fund held by Landmarks also is dedicated to the Palmer-Warner house and that generates about $20,000 or more a year, said Sheryl Hack, executive director of Landmarks, who also was part of the interview.

The monies left for the care of Forge Farm and the Warner-Palmer house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, are among the largest endowments held by Landmarks, even though they are the two houses owned by the society not regularly open to the public and in the worst condition.

Hack said the society has spent a total of $336,000 on the East Haddam house since the organization has owned it. But there are obvious signs of neglect, from the collapsing barn to rot on one of the corner posts of the house.

There was damage inside at one time after the oil tank ran dry, the furnace shut down and a pipe burst.

To serious preservationists, one of the more obviously egregious things that has occurred during Landmarks' stewardship was the replacement of a wooden roof with a modern asphalt one. A previous president of the Landmarks' board of trustees once wrote to fellow trustees that the installation of an asphalt roof and vinyl windows at Forge Farm amounted to "self vandalism."

The asphalt is cheaper and lasts much longer, Hack said. And then, my favorite part, she says you can no longer find the old growth wood here in Connecticut that would have been used for the original roof and that a new wooden roof would use wood from California.

The Secretary of the Interior's guidelines for the treatment of historic properties — the preservation bible — very clearly states about roof repairs: "The new work should match the old in material, design, color, and texture; and be unobtrusively dated to guide future research and treatment."

I spoke recently to someone who talked to Metzger when he was considering leaving the house and his money to Landmarks. He evidently was worried that what has happened would.

Metzger said in his will that the house should be kept either as a house museum or for some other use "that would further the purpose of preserving said Palmer-Warner House and providing access thereto to the public."

Thirteen years after he left the house to the society, it still is not regularly open to the public.

Hack and Copeland brought with them this week a conceptual drawing of the property showing a rebuilt barn to be used as a visitor center to make Palmer-Warner into a gay-themed house museum, a strange concept since neither Palmer nor Metzger chose to out themselves when they were alive.

Hack says they plan to put the couple's correspondence, described in Landmarks promotions as love letters, that were found among all the belongings left to the society, on display.

The Metzger acquaintance I spoke to suggested his friend would have cringed at the thought of his house becoming a museum with a gay theme.

There is still no timetable or budget for doing anything to Palmer and Metzger's beloved jewel, while money dedicated for its care is spent elsewhere.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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