Howard Metzger had doubts about gifting Palmer-Warner House to Landmarks
One month before he died in July 2005, from complications from injuries sustained in a car accident, Howard Metzger wrote to Connecticut Landmarks with second thoughts he was having about giving his 1738 Palmer-Warner House in East Haddam to the preservation society.
In letters to Landmarks during the spring and early summer of 2005, as management of the society began to change, Metzger wrote of sleepless nights and worries about the future of the house, its 50 acres of undeveloped land and valuable collection of antiques.
Metzger wrote in one letter he was worried “the society would be more interested in turning the entire thing into hard cash, apparently so much more desired than the property, that the contents would be offered to an antiques dealer entirely, then the acreage would be sold off to a developer, and the house and lot sold off (with preservation covenants for the exterior) so that the society could say what good people we all are."
“This is a haunting dread.”
Thirteen years later, Landmarks has not sold the Palmer-Warner House, but the home has never been open regularly to the public, as directed in Metzger’s will, and the society has been directing Metzger’s money to purposes other than maintaining his house, despite his instructions to the contrary. It donated $250,000 to $500,000 from Metzger’s estate to its restoration of the Amos Bull House in Hartford in 2014, while Metzger’s own house sat neglected and in need of repairs, its rare 18th century barn collapsing.
The office of Attorney General George Jepsen is investigating the Metzger bequest as part of a “comprehensive review” of all “processes and performances” of Connecticut Landmarks.
The Metzger letters revealing misgivings about his gift are contained in an extensive report on the Palmer-Warner House done by a Landmarks task force led by a former president of the society, before, according to a source, he was forced off the board.
Lee Kuckro, chairman of the task force, wrote in June 2009 to his fellow trustees about neglect of the Palmer-Warner House and its “steady deterioration” under the society’s care.
The house was purchased in 1936 by Frederic Palmer, an early trustee of Landmarks and a restoration architect who helped lead the start of the historic preservation movement in Connecticut, including many of the society’s early projects. Palmer left it to Metzger, his longtime partner.
“Carelessly made and negligently implemented decisions have put the house and the collection at risk. The decision not to heat the house last winter resulted in water damage, dampness, mold, costly and destructive remediation and the permanent loss of some artifacts,” Kuckro wrote in 2009 in introducing task force recommendations.
“We have failed the first test of stewardship. This is a watershed for Connecticut Landmarks. The decisions Connecticut Landmarks makes regarding the Palmer-Warner House will define Connecticut Landmarks for a generation.”
Landmarks seems to have ignored most of the recommendations, including one to nominate the house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, as a National Historic Landmark, noting the unique setting of the house, its architectural distinction and Palmer’s achievements as a pioneering restoration architect.
Frederick C. Copeland Jr., current chairman of the Landmarks board, told me last month, when I first started writing about the organization’s neglect of its properties, that the Palmer-Warner endowment has about $1.5 million today. He promised to provide a full accounting of the fund but didn’t.
Kuckro’s task force estimated the total at $2.5 million in 2009, accounting also for an estimated $500,000 for selling the open space rights for the property, keeping the land but selling conservation easements.
That total does not include the value of the furnishings, which were appraised by Liverant Antiques of Colchester in 1993, as Metzger’s gift to the society began, at $395,000. A 20-page inventory and Liverant appraisal, item by item, of all the contents is included with the task force report.
When I asked Landmarks Executive Director Sheryl Hack, during the meeting with Copeland last month, whether the contents of the Palmer-Warner House had ever been appraised, she said no. Copeland did not correct her.
I obtained the extensive task force report last week from members of a delegation from the East Haddam Historical Society, who met with Landmarks a few years ago to volunteer help to get the Palmer-Warner House open.
They were rebuffed, Andrea Skwarek wrote to me.
“I was part of a committee of four that spent two years ... in an effort to get Connecticut Landmarks to honor the will and repair the house and grounds and get the place open to the public,” she wrote. “Unfortunately our efforts failed.”
Reading Metzger’s correspondence really brings home to me the shameful treatment of his bequest by Landmarks.
It also reveals another insult, Landmarks’ announcement last year that it wants to open Metzger’s house as an LGBTQ site, essentially outing him posthumously. Landmarks said it has Palmer-Metzger love letters to display, exposing what Hack herself characterized in a television interview as lives lived “behind closed doors.”
Metzger, in his correspondence to Landmarks, made it very clear he wanted those doors to remain shut.
“When the society finally takes over, and is sorting out and inventorying etc., that some discreet officer be appointed to weed out truly personal items of which have NO value or interest to anyone but myself ... and to see that these private personal items disappear and are destroyed, without gossip, display, ridicule or comment.”
I think ignoring the donor’s pointed request for privacy and decency might be even more offensive than neglecting his treasured house for 13 years and squandering on other things the money he assiduously saved for its care.
By the summer of 2005, Metzger was in full anxiety about the future of the house and collection of antiques that were supposed to be preserved with money from an ample memorial fund named for Frederic Palmer.
“My concerns now ... is that the society (is) more interested in finances, money and expenses than possession and acceptance and ownership of this property and future opening as a museum or whatever,” he wrote June 4, 2005, to Daniel Lafleur, property manager for Landmarks.
“If the society would like to rethink its acceptance of this place, the time to change that is sooner (rather) than later.”
Metzger died the next month.
This is the opinion of David Collins.