AG's office goes easy on Connecticut Landmarks

This house at Forge Farm, as it appeared Feb. 5, 2018, on Al Harvey Road in Stonington. It is owned by Connecticut Landmarks. The state attorney general's office has been investigating the organization's use of endowment funds, and released its findings this month. (David Collins/The Day)
This house at Forge Farm, as it appeared Feb. 5, 2018, on Al Harvey Road in Stonington. It is owned by Connecticut Landmarks. The state attorney general's office has been investigating the organization's use of endowment funds, and released its findings this month. (David Collins/The Day)

I think my heart sank the most, in reporting last year on the dreadful condition of Stonington's Forge Farm, after years of neglect by its owner, Connecticut Landmarks, when I talked to tenant Brie Casadei of the nonprofit Terra Firma Farm and she told me how they had to move out because of the deplorable conditions.

Casadei said the furnace no longer was reliable, the oil tank was leaking, the door locks didn't work, a lot of the windows were broken, letting cold air blow in, and for some time she had to move buckets around inside to catch the leaks when it rained. She hired a lawyer to negotiate and stopped paying rent in 2016, but eventually moved out when she said things got unbearable, the end of a 13-year stint during which she had kept the property open to the public with programs for schoolchildren.

Incredibly, the 1750 farmhouse was neglected despite an endowment of seven figures, which was left to Landmarks by Virginia and Charles Berry, along with their beloved Forge Farm on Al Harvey Road.

At the end of her tortured tenancy, Casadei told me, she was finally reduced to tears when Frederick C. Copeland Jr., chairman of the Landmarks board of trustees, screamed at her on the phone and told her to move out immediately, after she informed him she was leaving at the end of the month.

Copeland, when I later asked him about that phone call, told me: "I think there are a lot of issues she wants to bring up, to explain why she didn't pay her rent and walked out on the lease."

For some naïve reason, I thought the office of Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, after investigating Connecticut Landmarks and its practices for the better part of a year, was going to censure the organization in some way for the neglect of several of the historic houses left in its care, including two in East Haddam that have not been open to the public for a decade, despite specific financial bequests left to the organization for that purpose.

Instead, a report released Friday by Jepsen's office — the attorney general personally recused himself because he is friends with Landmarks' director and once hosted a Landmarks fundraiser party at his own home — blandly accepted the organization's excuses for the neglect of the property, while acknowledging that neglect occurred.

The report, for instance, said an individual should henceforth be identified who will inspect all the organizations' houses and personal property for needed maintenance and preservation issues on a regular basis and report directly to the board of trustees at every board meeting.

That seems to be a strong rebuke of the current management, while suggesting the management isn't going to change.

I know some preservation advocates in Stonington and East Haddam share my reaction to the attorney general's report and its deferential criticism.

When I asked why the report from the taxpayer-funded, yearlong investigation does not even address the concerns in East Haddam about the disrepair of Landmarks' Amasa Day House, which remains closed to the public despite a considerable endowment and a donor request that it operate as a museum, Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn essentially punted to incoming Attorney General William Tong.

"Should the next administration .... feel that additional recommendations are needed or warranted, it is certainly free to take additional steps," he said in a statement.

That makes me grateful there is a new attorney general.

The attorney general's report does chastise Landmarks for replacing the custom wooden roof and windows at Forge Farm with asphalt and vinyl. The report, however, accepts the excuse that it was done as a temporary measure, with winter pressing, even though the inappropriate materials were never replaced for 10 years.

There is also lots of documentation about how the roof and windows had leaked for much longer than one season, and Terra Firma's submission of a bid to have them properly replaced with wood was rejected.

It's like Landmarks told the attorney general the dog ate its homework, and the attorney general said: bad dog.

But the attorney general did not suggest the organization pay any price or return any money to the house endowment. Now, with the new appropriate windows and roof, the attorney general suggests, Landmarks will be free to continue to spend the endowment and rent from new tenants any way it pleases. The Berrys had negotiated their bequest with Landmarks, an organization then known for the quality house museums it ran, and clearly expected their Forge Form to be preserved as early American architecture that could be seen and enjoyed by the public, not just tenants paying rent to Landmarks for projects elsewhere.

The attorney general's report also shrugged off the many years of neglect at the Palmer-Warner House in East Haddam.

"The (Palmer-Warner House) does not appear to have been cleaned since (Landmarks) has taken ownership (four years earlier)," a former president's report said. "Mice have been nesting in papers and fabrics; dishes sitting in the sink. During the winter of 2009, the house was not heated and the pipes burst, causing damage."

Even after citing this bleak assessment, the attorney general's report concluded, approvingly, that Landmarks had "other priorities" — building its new headquarters in Hartford.

If I were really cynical, I would think that Landmarks got away with neglecting donors' intentions for so long, focusing on properties in the Hartford area that make better venues for the parties it throws and promotes on its website, because its board is made up of politically influential lawyers, bankers and Hartford establishment figures.

But as I welcome a new cop in town in the attorney general's office, I will try to not to channel that cynicism.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

The bottom of this corner column appears rotten Feb. 11, 2018, at the Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks, in East Haddam. (David Collins/The Day)
The bottom of this corner column appears rotten Feb. 11, 2018, at the Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks, in East Haddam. (David Collins/The Day)
The barn at the Palmer-Warner House, which is in the care of Connecticut Landmarks, on 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, on Feb 11, 2018, in East Haddam. (David Collins/The Day)

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