Ex-Landmarks employee: Nathan Hale Bible left to rot in closet

When Katharine Chaffee Roberts, who died in 1961, gave her family's 1816 home on the Moodus village green to the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, it was another interesting milestone in East Haddam's prominence in the early historic preservation movement in Connecticut.

In addition to the $75,000 Roberts left as an endowment for her impressive Amasa Day House — it became a total of $100,000 when her husband died six years later — Roberts left $50,000 for the restoration of the architecturally significant pulpit in the 1794 First Church of Christ in East Haddam, designed by the early New England church builder Lavius Fillmore of Norwich.

Roberts specifically directed in her will that Harvard-trained restoration architect Frederic Palmer of East Haddam, then supervising a restoration of the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, which was rescued from demolition, take on the pulpit project.

If Palmer was unavailable, Roberts suggested hiring "a competent architect interested in colonial restoration."

Palmer was himself a founding trustee of Antiquarian & Landmarks and his own 1738 Palmer-Warner House in East Haddam was given to the society when his partner, Howard Metzger, died in 2005.

So it would probably come as some surprise today to both those prominent supporters and early donors to the Antiquarian Society, that the organization, renamed Connecticut Landmarks, has turned its back on historic preservation in East Haddam.

Palmer's and Roberts' houses are now mothballed, to borrow the expression used by one Landmarks trustee in describing them, while some of the endowment money for at least one has been spent elsewhere. Neither has been regularly open to the public for more than 10 years, and they both show obvious signs of neglect, including peeling paint, rot and mildew, on the outside.

Indeed, Landmarks has focused more recently on the Hartford region, completing in 2014 a $2.4 million restoration of the Amos Bull House, combining it with its Butler-McCook House & Garden, creating a campus in Hartford's South Prospect Street neighborhood.

The organization has deep ties to a wealthy and politically connected donor base around Hartford, successfully mining state grants. Its sponsor list reads like a directory of prominent Connecticut foundations.

Attorney General George Jepsen hosted a 2013 fundraiser for Landmarks at his Hartford home. He has since recused himself from investigations by his office into spending from the endowment for Palmer's house and one for Forge Farm in Stonington, which was left to Landmarks in 1982 and also is empty and neglected.

The current chairman of the Landmarks board of trustees is Frederick C. Copeland Jr. of Avon., a former executive vice president of Aetna and a collector of 18th-century antiques.

A predecessor of his at Landmarks was Susan Kelly, the wife of Peter Kelly, a founding partner of the prominent Hartford law firm Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, a national Democratic power broker and Washington lobbying partner of the indicted former Trump campaign chairman, Republican Paul Manafort.

There are five lawyers among the trustees, including lobbyist Jay Levin of Suisman Shapiro in New London. The others are Dial Parrott, retired from Updike, Kelly & Spellacy; Todd Regan of Robinson + Cole of Hartford; James Wu of Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport, and John Bonee of BoneeWeintraub of West Hartford, who has been corresponding with the attorney general's office about Landmarks' wish to sell Forge Farm in Stonington and keep its $1.5 million endowment.

In recent weeks I have heard from more than a half-dozen former employees of Landmarks who say the organization seemed to take a turn away from a focus on serious historic preservation when Sheryl Hack, a former marketing and development director at Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire, was appointed executive director of what was then still known as Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, in 2005.

During Hack's tenure, former employees say, a new emphasis was placed on leasing the properties for weddings and other events. One former site administrator with an academic background in history told me she was fired and replaced by a caterer. There has been a lot of churning of employees in Hack's tenure, they said.

Hack in an interview dismissed these complaints as sour grapes from disgruntled former employees.

A preponderance of images on Landmarks' website are of parties at the properties.

"First and foremost, we give good parties," Hack told a local television host on air last year, while promoting a cocktail fundraiser.

The former employees complained about the lack of proper museum preservation methods, general neglect of the collection, inadequate inventory procedures and no temperature control, curtains or UV filters to protect valuables.

A former Landmarks board president, Lee Kuckro, in 2009 roundly criticized, in a letter to other trustees, a decision by Hack to replace custom wooden windows and wooden roof at Forge Farm with asphalt and vinyl, what he called self-vandalism.

Kuckro, who also complained about Hack stopping automatic oil deliveries, leading to a burst pipe at the Palmer-Warner House, subsequently was pushed out as president of the board, a source told me.

Laura Grace Walls, who worked as a guide at Landmarks' Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry before leaving in 2016 to pursue a master's in museum and gallery studies in London, has written to me from England to complain about the poor treatment of the Hale artifacts.

Her most alarming anecdote was about finding Hale's Bible, one he carried off to war, crammed in the back of a closet. The last time it had been professionally conserved was in the 1990s, she said.

"I found it in one of the hot, humid closets in the homestead, shoved into a corner near the window where it would have been exposed to the most moisture and temperature fluctuations," she wrote, explaining she and another employee then put it in an office cupboard for safekeeping.

Considerable damage was done, she said.

"The outside leather is so heavily cracked it flakes off with just a light touch, and the binding is in tatters," she said. "I tried to conserve it the best I could but it is covered with mold and damp when you touch it."

Walls said an animal-skin-covered chest of Hale's, stored without temperature control or UV protection, is cracked and caved in. The only temperature control at the homestead is in the new gift shop, she said.

She said 90 percent of the objects in the homestead described in a 1978 story in the New York Times no longer are there.

A silhouette of Hale, drawn on the back of a door when he was visiting home in the winter of 1775-76, has been exposed to sunlight and is fading so badly, it is almost no longer visible, she said. She sent photos to show the deterioration over time.

When I asked Hack about these complaints during a recent interview with The Day's editorial board, she dismissed them as attacks by disgruntled employees. She defended the care of the collection.

Hack said she has corrected a structural deficit of $250,000 in the organization's budget during her tenure. She noted that the renovation of the Hale homestead barns, including the new gift shop, won an architectural award.

"It's unprecedented what I have raised in this organization's history," she said. "At no point do we feel we have been delinquent in our mission."

Copeland, during the same interview, praised Hack for improving the society's finances.

Copeland also admitted to using money from the Palmer-Warner House endowment on other things, despite a direction in Metzger's will that the Frederic C. Palmer Memorial Fund "shall be used solely to support the preservation and maintenance of the 18th century house known as the Palmer-Warner House."

Copeland quoted a phrase from the will saying the money could be used for "the society's general uses and purposes," but that phrase comes from a sentence in the will that begins: "In the event the society should sell said Palmer-Warner House with the provisions ... "

Another trustee, architect Patrick L. Pinnell of Higganum, told me last week that trustees at one time discussed spending from the Palmer fund, which Landmarks says now has $1.5 million, on things other than the house and were given a legal opinion that it would be acceptable.

A plaque thanking donors inside the rebuilt Bull house in Hartford, which contains Landmarks' offices, credits the estate of Howard A. Metzger in the category of gifts between $250,000 and $499,999. Landmarks, primary beneficiary of the estate, evidently gave Metzger's money for the Hartford house project while still not honoring his instructions to open his East Haddam house to the public.

Trustee Pinnell told me, as did Copeland, in defending the treatment of the houses in Stonington and East Haddam, that the society has a lot on its plate and limited resources. He said the organization plans to address Palmer-Warner next and Amasa Day after that. He said Landmarks is following the recommendations of a professional assessment of all its properties and tackling issues as resources are available.

In the interview with the editorial board, Hack said that high on the organization's wish list is to have someone in Fairfield County donate a mid-century modern house, with an endowment.

This is curious, given complaints that Landmarks has more property than it can contend with.

Copeland never even visited Forge Farm until last month, when news broke that the attorney general's office was investigating the organization's care of it.

Anyone contemplating a gift of their house should look closely at the experiences of Charles and Virginia Berry and their Forge Farm, Howard Metzger and Frederic Palmer and their Palmer-Warner House and Katharine Chaffee Roberts and her Amasa Day House, properties that have some of Landmarks' largest endowments but are the most neglected by the preservation society, which once cared so much about East Haddam's rich architectural history.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

Last Will and Testament for Virginia Berry (Forge Farm), Howard Allison Metzger (Palmer-Warner House), and Katherine Chaffee Roberts (Amasa Day House)


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