Forge Farm 'no longer truly historic'

As everyone knows, there are two sides to every story. I would like to set the record straight, address the issues that have been raised and tell Connecticut Landmarks’ side of the story of our 35-year stewardship of the Stonington property known as Forge Farm.

The Antiquarian & Landmarks Society (now Connecticut Landmarks or CTL) received the property in 1983 following Virginia Berry’s 1982 death. In 1984, after CTL had accepted the property and begun the house’s repair, it found that the house had been so severely eaten by termites that it required a nearly complete reconstruction to remain standing. This reconstruction occurred from 1984 to 1988 at a cost of well over $500,000. This significant investment was made with $180,000 of the approximately $640,000 of principal received from the Berrys, the only time during CTL’s 35-year property ownership that principal has been used. The remainder came from investment earnings from the Berry funds.

The house’s near total reconstruction left CTL in a difficult situation. Our good faith effort to preserve the house as an example of early American architecture resulted in the creation of a replica of a historic house, which although of undeniable local historical interest, was no longer truly “historic.” It lacked the architectural significance and integrity necessary to be open as a house museum consistent with the other properties in our collection.

And since all of Mrs. Berry’s tangible possessions were deeded to a friend, the Society did not receive any collectible antiquities to display.

From 1988-90 the property was used as a staff residence with its three “museum rooms” open intermittently to test public interest in visiting the property. As that interest was not forthcoming, it was subsequently leased as a private residence, with caretaker responsibilities for the fields.

In 2003, CTL was approached to lease the property to start an educational farm. In 2004, we entered into a multi-year lease agreement with Terra Firma Farm with the expectation that their project would fulfill the Berrys’ vision for the property. Unfortunately, their tenancy ended in December 2016, leaving Connecticut Landmarks with a series of decisions. During the intervening year, the house has remained vacant while we explore options for managing the property as the Berrys intended. The back pastures have been grazed by a neighbor’s cattle in keeping with the property’s agricultural use.

Due to its lack of architectural integrity and historic significance, the Forge Farm property has continued to present a dilemma for Connecticut Landmarks. Following the lead of national organizations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation and regional organizations, like Historic New England, and in keeping with national best practice, we contacted the Office of the Connecticut Attorney General to identify alternatives that would be available for the property prior to contacting potential community groups with whom we might partner to execute such a plan.

During its property ownership, Connecticut Landmarks has invested significant funds in the property’s maintenance and improvement. Our records document close to $750,000 in property expenditures from 1983-2017. This includes $10,000 in 2004, a contribution toward the construction of a new barn for Terra Firma.

The “careful restoration” of the house, which columnist David Collins described as being “significantly dismantled,” is, in fact, intact. In addition, the Berry endowment which Collins claimed was misused and “spent down to about $1 million” over the past 10 years, has been nurtured and grown to about $1.5 million.

The Forge Farm property was received as a conditional gift (not in trust) with the stipulation that it be maintained as an example of early American architecture utilizing the three bequests that came with it. It was further stipulated that only income could be used from two of the funds but that the third fund could be used in its entirety for maintenance and preservation, and that all income not necessary to preserve and maintain the property may be used for the Society’s general purposes.

Connecticut Landmarks is charged with the responsibility of preserving the unique assets of each of our 11 Connecticut properties. We are committed to finding and implementing an appropriate solution for curating the Forge Farm property that both honors the Berrys’ wishes and recognizes that the property, while locally significant, is not the “example of early American architecture” that they wished to have preserved.

Sheryl Hack is the executive director of Connecticut Landmarks.

Editor’s note: The Day ran a correction Feb. 14 noting the endowment stood at $1.4 million at the end of March 2016, according to an audit.

 

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