And the road goes on forever...

Friday, June 8, 2012

An Interesting “Revisit”

In September of 2010 Marc and I had the singular experience of a personal tour of one of the nation’s foremost plantation homes. You can see my sequence of blogs about it starting here: Chance of a lifetime
It will forever remain in our minds as one of our life’s top highlights; a memory treasured and not to be forgotten. Imagine my surprise when by a circuitous route I received an email message from a gentleman who lives in Virginia who forwarded me a Washington Post article (written by Elizabeth Stevens & published at the end of May) about the current state of Carter’s Grove. Entitled “The sorry fate of tech pioneer Halsey Minor and historic Virginia estate Carter’s Grove”, I have excerpted cogent portions of the article to cite the current state of Carter’s Grove. (Pictures are mine).

For 260 years, it steadfastly survived looting, flood, hurricane, earthquake, a Hollywood crew filming a now-forgotten Cary Grant movie, and a marauding Revolutionary War colonel who billeted his Redcoats there and, legend has it, rode a horse up the main staircase, hacking the grand railing with his sword along the way. A 1928 renovation diminished the Palladian perfection of its exterior, but still, it endured.
Carter’s Grove may have finally met its ruin, however, in the unlikely form of Halsey Minor, a brash 40-something technology investor living in San Francisco. Minor bought Carter’s Grove from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 2007 and vowed to restore it to its former glory as a palatial private home. 

It was a suitably high-profile homecoming of sorts for Minor, allowing him to reassert his family’s long history of prominence in Virginia. The Minors are an old Charlottesville family, and sitting near the center of the University of Virginia campus are Minor Hall (named for John Minor, an early law professor) and Halsey Hall (named for Minor’s relative, World War II Adm. William “Bull” Halsey). 

Around the same time as his Carter’s Grove purchase, Minor broke ground on a luxury hotel in downtown Charlottesville. In many ways, the local boy made good was returning to his native soil. Minor made a large fortune in the first Internet boom. Shortly after graduating with an anthropology degree from U-Va. in 1987, Minor set out for San Francisco to stake a claim in the nascent Internet industry. He and another U-Va. grad, Shelby Bonnie, co-founded CNET, an Internet media company that went public and was eventually acquired by CBS Corp. Minor went on to cannily fund start-ups such as and the company that became Google Voice. He had a knack for spotting good talent and good ideas.

Many of these investments yielded spectacular financial returns. The young entrepreneur beamed from the cover of Forbes in 1998 as one of the “Masters of the New Universe.” Fortune celebrated him as one of the wealthiest Americans younger than 40, along with fellow phenom Jeff Bezos, and ahead of Tiger Woods and tech investor Marc Andreessen. Minor opined on technology for Charlie Rose, and the Clintons dined at Minor’s house in San Francisco while in town to drop Chelsea off at Stanford. 

Though he already had a country house near Charlottesville, Minor bought Carter’s Grove in 2007 intending to make it his part-time residence and a thoroughbred farm. He announced a plan to buy racetracks on the East Coast, including Miami’s Hialeah Park and Baltimore’s Pimlico. Moreover, a splendidly renovated Carter’s Grove would have been a fitting stage from which Minor might launch a long-hinted run for the Virginia governorship. 

But Minor never moved into Carter’s Grove. It has sat empty and neglected for years. The historic treasure is falling apart. In February, inspectors from Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources found a leaking roof, broken climate-control system, pervasive rot, cracked paneling and indications that the house is shifting and may be unsound. “This deterioration has now reached a critical level and is accelerating rapidly,” Minor was warned in a Feb. 24 letter. “Irreversible damage ... has occurred.” 

The de-escalation of Minor’s wealth may well be as historic and representative of this era as Carter’s Grove is of Colonial America. 

In a series of what used to politely be called “reversals,” Minor lost the bulk of his fortune. That $100 million spending spree collided with the great financial panic of the fall of 2008. And Minor, who had been borrowing heavily, was caught short. 

When Minor bought Carter’s Grove for $15.3 million, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s patrician chief executive, Colin G. Campbell, assured the organization’s longtime chief archaeologist that Minor was “the perfect buyer.” Minor paid $5 million down and borrowed the rest — from Colonial Williamsburg. 

And Minor may well have regarded Colonial Williamsburg as the perfect seller. The august nonprofit was established by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the 1920s to preserve and celebrate the nation’s Colonial heritage. The Rockefellers bought Carter’s Grove in the 1960s and donated it to the foundation, viewing a grand plantation an essential component of the story of early America. The Rockefellers’ involvement has ebbed, though Sharon Percy Rockefeller serves as a trustee, along with such big names as U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy and journalist Andrea Mitchell. 

Minor’s agent was his father, C. Venable Minor. Reached by phone in his Charlottesville real estate office, the elder Minor politely declined to discuss Carter’s Grove or his son. “I don’t want to be the one talking; that would have to be my son, and the odds of getting through to my son are almost nil,” he said. “I have a heck of a hard time getting through myself. Every day [from the time he] gets up and goes to bed, he’s on the move, in meetings. He’s involved in many companies and a lot of other things, too. To be honest with you, I think he basically turned [Carter’s Grove] over to the attorneys.” 

Stephen McLean, the Charlottesville real estate broker who represented Colonial Williamsburg, said Carter’s Grove was in “very good condition” when Minor bought it. The roof was acknowledged to be leaking and needed repairs estimated at $400,000, so Colonial Williamsburg shaved $200,000 off the $15.5 million Minor had originally agreed to pay.

Minor never did the repairs, nor did he finish paying for the mansion. According to court documents, he stopped payments in mid-2010 with less than $4 million still owed. 

The limited liability corporation that Minor created to hold Carter’s Grove filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Feb. 14, blocking the sale. Minor filed a claim accusing Colonial Williamsburg of fraud in concealing leaks; of burying toxic waste containing high levels of arsenic, selenium and chromium on the property; and misleading Minor so he paid “a grossly inflated price.” That lawsuit, which Colonial Williamsburg disputes, is still pending. 

As Minor ran out of options, Judge St. John ran out of patience. 

For more than a year, St. John had listened and accommodated Minor’s promises that his finances would soon be in order. Minor himself showed up in St. John’s courtroom only once. Mostly he left it to his lawyers to speak for him, promising that a lawsuit elsewhere would be won, or another asset sold, any day now. 

At a hearing March 13, it became apparent that the electric power to many of Carter’s Grove’s buildings had been cut off for nonpayment. A $4 million museum building likely had been ruined by rampant mold, Robert Mays, the longtime caretaker of Carter’s Grove, testified. “We are doing the best we can with what we have to work with,” he told St. John, asking for money to buy fuel and blades for the lawn mower. Mays said he and his wife, Tammy, who also is employed to care for Carter’s Grove, had not been paid since the end of 2011. They are supposed to receive weekly wages totaling about $1,000. “You know, we both depend on the payroll for our family,” Mays said. “We are still working every day, so I mean, I would kind of like to see where I stand on getting paid.”

On April 6, St. John appointed an independent trustee to manage Carter’s Grove. Minor’s disastrous 4½-year reign as Lord of Carter’s Grove was over. But perhaps too late for Virginia’s 260-year-old historical treasure. Between the rot of neglect and some landscaping Minor began, much damage has been done. While the damaged original features of the house can arguably be replaced with artful copies, Hume says the archaeological value of Carter’s Grove has been ruined.

Let’s hope that the Williamsburg Foundation is successful in its foreclosure suit to regain ownership and control of this mighty mistress on the James River. Old ladies should be taken care of.