The Bourne legacy

Amrita Island off Cape Cod has become a taxing problem for the Animal Rescue League

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / March 25, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

We all know that the last wills and testaments of stately grande dames are oftentimes ignored; witness the hoo-ha over at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where Mrs. G. forbade her legatees to change one detail of her magnificent Venetian-style palace on the Fenway. Now they’re tarting that place up, Renzo Piano style.

Same goes for the vast legacy of Mrs. Esther Minerva Baxendale, who wanted her husband’s estate to aid and abet her “four-footed friends.’’ That’s not happening, either.

Brockton’s Thomas Baxendale came to America from England as a child. He never attended college, and made a huge fortune in the shoe business, perfecting production of the “box toe’’ boot. Along the way, he bought the beautiful Amrita Island on Cape Cod, which is separated from Bourne by a causeway. Thomas and Minerva became great fans of Asian culture; Amrita is derived from Sanskrit, and means “youth renewing water.’’

Like latter-day billionaire Bill Gates, Baxendale hired scholars and deep thinkers to deliver high-minded lectures at his summer estate. One pet theme: animal welfare. “The horses were treated like human beings,’’ his friend Dr. George Donkin told the Globe in 1927. “Thomas and Esther were both very fond of animals [and] made many generous gifts to the Animal Rescue League and work for dumb animals.’’

Childless, the couple were laid to rest in a garish, on-island mortuary alongside their favorite Italian greyhound, Fairy.

Mr. Baxendale was gaga about Harvard, and when his wife died in 1927 the college got Amrita Island in his will. (Baxendale also endowed two scholarships for the sons of a close friend, but they forgot to apply!) For whatever reason — perhaps Harvard had a surfeit of islands — the World’s Greatest University quickly deeded the island to the Animal Rescue League of Boston, which still owns 21 acres there.

The will called for the League to conduct “not less than ten high class free lectures . . . to deal with such subjects [as] . . . religion, sociology and interracial brotherhood.’’ And, of course, lectures on the “appreciation of animals, the promotion of their welfare, and the fostering of the preservation and protection of birds and animals.’’

The late president of the Animal Rescue League, Carlton Buttrick, acquired a nice house on Amrita, and the terms of the will were observed with the League holding summer lectures and renting out houses on the island.

Up until 2007, “the League continued to run a summer camp for inner city children between the ages of seven and fourteen . . . where they learned animal care, dog obedience, pet shows, nature study, and woodworking,’’ according to a Cape Cod Life article by Robert Taft, a member of the Friends of the Baxendale Legacy who has a house nearby. The camp also accepted children from the Bourne area.

With the camp shut down, Taft and others are saying: If the League isn’t conducting charitable, i.e. tax-exempt, activities on Amrita, it should either start paying taxes like everyone else, or get rid of the property. “The Baxendales were quite explicit with what they wanted,’’ Taft says. “I would hope that the camp and the acreage would be given to someone who would fulfill more of their wishes.’’

The fallow property has likewise caught the eye of Donna Barakauskas, the principal tax assessor for Bourne. “I told them, ‘You’ll be going back on the tax rolls,’ ’’ Barakauskas said. “They may be charitable in other parts of the state, but we feel that they’re not.’’ Starting July 1, the League, which is not exactly swimming in money, will start paying about $20,000 in taxes on the unused property.

Tax nerds — some of my best friends are tax nerds! — know that the League has crossed swords with the revenooers before. In a famous tax case, Animal Rescue League v. Assessors of Bourne, the Supreme Judicial Court issued an arcane ruling requiring the League to rejigger its ownership of the island.

League spokeswoman Jennifer Wooliscroft explained that the organization closed its summer camp because “we needed to allocate that money to direct animal care. It became a bigger priority.’’ As for the future of the League’s Amrita holdings, which are closed to the public, she says: “We have no immediate plans for the island, and we will start paying our taxes in July.’’

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is