Landmarks can’t meet Forge Farm bequest terms

The bar for complying with the terms of the wills of Charles and Virginia Berry, who generously left their beloved Forge Farm on Stonington's Al Harvey Road, all their money and most of their possessions to Connecticut Landmarks, is quite low.

The Berrys' directions were simple: Use the money to be sure the farm is "kept as an example of early American architecture and grounds."

The Berrys gave Landmarks, called the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society when the bequest was made final in 1982, upon Virginia's death, permission to spend on other things income from the part of their trust "not necessary for the purpose of the maintenance and preservation of the house and grounds."

I would say it is obvious, if you read any of the long series of complaining emails from the last tenants at Forge Farm, Terra Firma Inc., about a broken furnace, an oil tank leaking in the dirt basement and window and roof leaks so bad, they said buckets had to be used inside, that Landmarks, despite an endowment then of more than $1.4 million, was not doing even modest maintenance. Terra Firma moved out more than a year ago.

The office of Attorney General George Jepsen has been investigating the use of the Forge Farm money since being asked by Landmarks last year whether the organization could sell the farm and keep the endowment.

I believe the neglect alone is evidence the preservation society has not met even the simple obligations imposed by the will.

But more important, as the investigation of its stewardship continues, it is clear Landmarks remains unwilling and unable to respect the Berrys' wishes. The property and the money should be given to someone who can.

Everyone in the current administration of Landmarks I've spoken to has been dismissive, even derisive, about the historic character of the property. Sheryl Hack, executive director, has called it a "1987 replica."

The property, "while locally significant, is not the 'example of early American architecture' that (the Berrys) wished to have preserved," Hack wrote in an op-ed piece published Feb. 18 in The Day.

Hack complained in the same piece: "Due to its lack of architectural integrity and historic significance, the Forge Farm property has continued to present a dilemma for Connecticut Landmarks."

This is the basis for the organization's ambitious pitch to the attorney general to let it sell the Berrys' house and keep the endowment money. It is no longer an early American house, the organization claims. Nothing more than this attitude disqualifies it from keeping the house or endowment, since that means the group can't honestly respect the Berrys' wishes.

Of course, this claim is preposterous, and contradicted by substantial documentation of a careful, museum-quality restoration of the property carried out by the Antiquarian Society when it first inherited the property. Apparently, the organization was more preservation-minded and respectful of donors' wishes then.

Indeed, according to some Landmarks correspondence, esteemed historic housewright William Gould of Chaplin carried out an extensive, yearslong rebuild of the house for some $434,000, a significant amount of money at the time.

Victor E. Scottron, then vice chairman of the society, wrote a long article for the December 1985 edition of the society's magazine, The Connecticut Antiquarian, thoroughly documenting the start of Gould's work.

It explains the extensive bug and water damage that was discovered, and the elaborate plans made to take the house apart, down to the frame and rebuild it, with the compromised parts replaced or reinforced for added strength. Not-original material from a 1940s renovation was removed.

In the end, a great deal of the original fabric remained, including much of the chimney and three fireplaces, the timber frame, floorboards, doors and door and window trim and, of course, the original stone foundation, and all were preserved.

It turns out the original house, which was dated to 1750, was built with better quality construction methods than a 1795 remodeling. A lean-to at the back from that period was completely rebuilt by Gould, with the original materials reused in other parts of the project.

The farm's outbuildings were used as shops to rework the large original timbers before they were reinstalled, and to cut the handmade wooden shingles for the roof.

The restoration was designed so that three downstairs rooms could be used as a house museum and the rear and upstairs could be used as living space for staff or a caretaker.

Scottron, a naval architect, earned master's and doctorate degrees from Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities and was a professor of civil engineering at the University of Connecticut. It is his analysis of the care taken with the 1980s restoration which makes Hack's 2008 replacement of the wooden Gould windows and shingles with vinyl and asphalt so especially atrocious.

Despite Hack's disparaging comments about the historical significance of the house, this too is substantially refuted in all kinds of recorded history, from the 1903 "Old Homes in Stonington" by Grace A. Wheeler to the farm's inclusion in a Depression-era WPA project that documented historic houses of Connecticut.

The farm was owned for many years by the prominent Gallup family and included a well-known blacksmith shop.

Even the Berry family, who welcomed the public to the farm for riding lessons, brought some of their own celebrated history to the property. Dr. Edward Wilber Berry, Charles' father and a noted paleontologist, died in bed at Forge Farm in 1945. He had summered in Stonington for 30 years.

Berry, according to his obituary in the New York Times, in 1919 headed the Williams Memorial Expedition which Johns Hopkins University, where he eventually served as dean, sent to explore the Andes mountains. They spent one month in Peru, three months in Bolivia and a month in Chile, traveling more than 1,000 miles on muleback, mostly at altitudes of more than 15,000 feet, eventually discovering that South America had been connected to Antarctic regions by land masses that sank below the sea ages ago.

The Stonington Historical Society, concerned about the condition of Forge Farm, has formed a committee to monitor its situation. Members met last week at the farm with Hack and Frederick C. Copeland Jr., chairman of the Landmarks board of trustees, for a tour. Another Landmarks trustee told me it was the first time Copeland has visited the farm.

I asked Elizabeth Wood, executive director of the historical society, whether that organization would be willing to take on stewardship of Forge Farm, if it came with the Berry funds.

She said a lot of research and due diligence would have to be done before that could be considered. The society already owns and manages five buildings, she added.

Copeland and Hack seemed resigned to the idea that they are not going to be allowed to sell the farm and keep the money. They said they are looking at investing some money in it and finding a new tenant.

I understand the farm next door has expressed an interest in using the fields and that a farm employee might want to live in the house.

That way they could continue to profit from a property for which they seem to hold so little regard.

I believe the office of the attorney general can do much better by the Berrys.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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