STONINGTON — Questions remain about Connecticut Landmarks’ intentions for Forge Farm, but according to documents obtained from the Attorney General’s office on Friday, the organization has been seeking court permission to sell the farm since July 13 of last year.
Connecticut Landmarks, formerly known as the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, received Forge Farm as a “conditional gift” in 1983 after the death of owners Charles Berry, who died in 1979, and his Virginia Berry, who died in 1982.
The 20.8-acre property with three buildings on Al Harvey Road, including a two-story farmhouse built in 1780, was to be maintained and preserved as a “historic landmark” using funds from the Berry endowment, according to Virginia Berry’s will.
The Berrys’ three trusts amount to $1.55 million, according to a spreadsheet from John Bonee, a West Hartford lawyer who represents the preservation group.
The Hartford-based organization could keep the funds if the farm were sold, but only if the terms of the contract were proved to be broken.
On July 13, Bonee met with Gary Hawes, an assistant attorney general, and Sheryl Hack, executive director of Connecticut Landmarks, according to an email from Bonee the next day.
“During the course of our discussions we reached a general agreement that we wish to pursue seeking probate court permission to sell the real estate devised to CT landmarks in the Berry Trust as an asset of the trust because the trust purpose regarding the real estate is lost, i.e. it is an impossibility to maintain the real estate as an example of early American architecture and grounds,” Bonee said in his email to Hawkes, which was copied to Frederick Copeland Jr., president of the Connecticut Landmarks board.
“Under the current factual scenario, the charitable restriction in the Wills is not longer viable. Prior to listing for sale, however, we wish to receive an indication from you as to whether your office would acquiesce in the sale and not present any impediments at Probate when we submit our motion for sale approval,” Bonee wrote.
On Sept. 6, Hawes sent Bonee a list of additional information needed to evaluate the organization’s proposal, including a description of all efforts taken by Connecticut Landmarks to maintain the house as an historic landmark, and a description of the renovations, with dates, since it had owned the house.
Hawes also asked why the house had not been reconstructed in the style of early American architecture, both interior and exterior.
Bonee responded in a letter of Dec. 21, telling Hawes that “Connecticut Landmarks has taken as extensive an effort as reasonably possible to preserve the house and grounds as an example of early American architecture and grounds.”
He said that during a four-year timespan beginning in 1985, the organization had spent $435,694 “in a good faith effort to create a hand-tooled replica of the house as it stood in the 1700s.”
Bonee said the house had been damaged by termites and “the elements of nature,” rendering it “now a mere replica.” He noted that “entire portions of the structure had to be leveled and completely replaced, which amounted to approximately 75 percent of the house as it stands today.”
As to why the house was not reconstructed in the style of early American architecture, Bonee said that Connecticut Landmarks “immediately set out to restore the structures and return them to as close to their original historic condition as possible,” employing “highly-skilled trades persons in this extension renovation.” However, because of the extensive water and termite damage, “only a few aspects of the original material could be used,” Bonee said.
This month, in a Feb. 7 email to the assistant attorney general, Bonee reiterated, “I have confirmed that the Ct. Landmarks intends not to make any efforts at sale until it has worked through the charitable issues with your office.”
On Tuesday of this week, a group toured the farm, according to Evelynn Lyons, vice president of the Stonington Historical Society, who was one of the participants.
In an email Wednesday to Mollie Burton, whose property abuts the farm, Lyons said that “Sheryl Hack, CTLM Director, who visited the farm for the first time yesterday, reiterated several times that Forage Farm is not and has never been a ‘museum quality house.’”
Lyons further noted that it was also Copeland’s first visit to the property.
Lyons said that Copeland and Jim Anderson, another Landmarks director, had mentioned that they would propose to their board that the organization restore the house to acceptable historic standards.
“However the elephant in the room was the money that the owners of the farm left CTLM for the preservation of their beloved Farm,” wrote Lyons. “It would not surprise me if at a future date, when the spotlight has faded, they will quietly attempt to sell the property but retain the ‘conditional gift.’”
Nevertheless, Copeland was quoted in a Day editorial published on Wednesday that there was a “95 percent chance” that Connecticut Landmarks would keep the farm and use the endowment income for repairs.
Hack could not be reached for comment.
The organization has also been in a dispute with its former tenant, Terra Firma Farm, which relocated to North Stonington in 2016.