Sale of Harvard properties rankles
Homes had been donated for staff
In the dead of winter, Harvard University sends its faculty a brochure about the university's summer vacation rentals in Maine, including properties on Sutton Island near Bar Harbor that have been beloved getaways for decades.
But this year, two choice oceanfront properties will not be available.
Last fall, the university sold the historic properties, surprising some faculty and offering the latest glimpse into Harvard's management of its vast real estate holdings. The two properties fetched a total of nearly $5 million.
Court documents show that one of the properties includes a restriction that even the trees on the 25-acre estate be preserved "intact." In his 1938 will, architect William Mitchell Kendall, who designed New York City's massive Farley Post Office, stipulated in donating the property that only the "fallen wood" may be taken for firewood.
Shortly before the Kendall estate sale in October, Harvard sold its other Sutton Island property, known as Paine House, which was donated by the Rev. George Lyman Paine in the late 1950s. It is described in Harvard's brochures as an elegant, three-story home with four working fireplaces and an expansive view of the ocean and Mount Desert Island.
The sales, while not widely known, have surprised the few professors who learned of them, because both properties were donated specifically for the faculty's relaxation. They also came with generous endowments for their maintenance, worth a combined value in November of nearly $2.3 million, according to Harvard.
"I guess consulting the faculty on these issues is not something they worry about anymore," said David A. Evans, a Harvard chemistry professor who summered with his family in Kendall House during the early 1990s and visits the island periodically.
"I am surprised," he added, "that this was done with out any advertising at all to the faculty."
Evans and his wife, Selena, stumbled on a realtor's online advertisement in late August for the Kendall property and said they wrote a letter of protest to Harvard, arguing that it should not have sold a property donated under the condition that it be preserved intact. They said they never received a reply.
"If the Kendall House can be sold, I don't think [any other gift bequeathed to Harvard with restrictions] is safe," said Selena Evans.
Harvard's interest in possibly selling another property, which was also donated with restrictions on the land, has drawn criticism recently. The university considered selling its 99-acre forest in Hamilton, but backed off after preservationists objected. That imbroglio echoed another from two decades ago, when Harvard infuriated some alumni by selling its 3,600-acre Black Rock Forest in New York, a gift from a 1908 graduate who also stipulated that the land be used for forestry research.
In the case involving the Kendall estate in Maine, Harvard asked the Maine attorney general in January 2007 to allow it to sell the property, stating in court papers that the house needed "major capital repairs" and that the island's remote location would force the school to pay an "exorbitant" amount of money for repair work that "far outweighs the income generated by the endowed maintenance fund."
Harvard's petition also stated that Kendall House was "not an income producing property" and noted that Kendall's will stipulated that faculty and their families should stay there "free of rent." Yet faculty interviewed for this story said that Harvard, for years, has been charging faculty market rate rental prices for their stays. Last summer's weekly rate was $1,650, according to Harvard's website.
Professor emeritus Dudley Herschbach, a 1986 recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, remembers two "marvelous" summers with his family at Kendall about 38 years ago, and then his decision to stop going there because, he said, Harvard started charging rent that "was substantial, and I joked that only the upper echelon of the medical school could afford to go there."
Herschbach also said that last summer he stopped by Kendall House, which appeared to have been "greatly" renovated since his last stay.
Maine's attorney general raised no objection to the Kendall sale, and a judge approved the request on Jan. 23, 2007, 15 days after Harvard's petition was filed.
Linda Conti, the assistant attorney general who handled the case, said in a phone interview that she made her decision based on the facts in Harvard's petition. There was no hearing.
"It is surprising to me to learn they were charging the professors rent. That was not my understanding," Conti said. "What they represented in their petition is what I believed to be true. I don't know if it would make a difference in the ultimate outcome, if the facts were different. I would have to reconsider it."
Asked about the Kendall and Paine house sales, Harvard in a written statement said that it decided to sell "after years of consideration and subsidizing their costs" and that "funds generated by market rate rental fees and the endowments left to maintain the properties were not enough to cover needed repairs."
The statement also noted that Maine Probate Court authorized the Kendall sale, on the condition that the proceeds be applied to a separate endowed fund to be used "exclusively to support the rest, recreation and sabbatical study of Harvard University faculty, including lodging and travel expenses but excluding general operating expenses of the University." The statement said the fund has been established, but it did not state what happened to the proceeds from the sale of the Paine House or its endowment, which was valued at $1,519,515 in November.
The university's statement also did not address why its court petition did not mention that it was charging faculty to stay at Kendall House. Joe Wrinn, University spokesman, said he would not elaborate on the court documents.
Tax records show that Kendall House sold for $2.3 million, roughly $33,000 less than its assessed value. Keating Pepper, a Maine realtor who represented Harvard in the sale, said the house was initially priced at $3.5 million, but the price was lowered after it was discovered that Harvard's appraiser missed the restriction about not cutting down any trees.
The 7,700-square-foot Paine House sold for $2,650,000, about $1 million more than its assessed value.
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.