The sorry fate of a tech pioneer Halsey Minor and historic Virginia estate Carter’s Grove

May 31, 2012

It was reputed to be America’s loveliest Colonial­-era plantation house, a jewel of Georgian architecture. Its interiors, with opulent walnut and yellow pine paneling, parquetry and grand staircase — the work of a master joiner summoned to Colonial Virginia from England — are lauded in its National Historic Landmark paperwork as the most beautiful in the South.

For the better part of three centuries, Carter’s Grove rested serenely on the northern bank of the James River. It was built in 1750 by Carter Burwell, grandson of Robert “King” Carter, the English colony’s early land baron, to awe visitors with physical evidence of the bountiful riches that could be wrung from the New World wilderness.

Before the house, the land was the site of Martin’s Hundred plantation and Wolstenholme Towne, an ill-fated English settlement founded in 1620, just a few years after the establishment of Jamestown five miles upriver. Wolstenholme was destroyed during a native Powhatan massacre of English settlers in 1622.

But Carter’s Grove had better luck. 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 Salesforce.com 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.

In about 2006, however, Minor and his wife, Deborah, divorced, and he recast himself as a Los Angeles-based bachelor and investor. He embarked on a $100 million post-divorce spending spree: houses in Bel Air and elsewhere, thoroughbred racehorses, major art, and a deposit on a new $59 million Gulfstream G650 to shuttle between California and Virginia.

He soon remarried and bought another San Francisco house, an almost comically formal stone manse officially known, in all seriousness, as Le Petit Trianon for $22 million. Minor hired Michael S. Smith (who was later also tapped by the Obamas to redecorate the White House) for what Minor promised would be a $15 million transformation.

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.”

DHR mailed its stern letter to Le Petit Trianon — itself in such disrepair that the city of San Francisco in March 2011 cited it as an abandoned building. DHR lawyer Gillian Bearns says Minor has not responded to the department’s efforts to discuss problems at the property. Nor did Minor respond to several interview requests submitted to his lawyer for this story.

It seems the decline of Virginia’s Georgian jewel is inexorably tied up in the declining fortunes of the imperious man who had such grand aspirations for both Carter’s Grove and himself. And in the wake of it all, a valuable and once-beautiful piece of American history is being lost.

***

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.

Suits and countersuits followed. Sotheby’s had his accounts frozen as it sought to collect money for art Minor had bought in 2008. Christie’s sued. Merrill Lynch abruptly called a $25 million loan and seized the assets in Minor’s other Merrill accounts; Minor sued, claiming illegal seizure. Suits were filed over the failed Charlottesville hotel.

The legal entanglements grew as convoluted as Dickens’s fictional Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Some fed off the others, indignant creditors latching on to other’s cases to try to pick whatever they could from the carcass of Minor’s once-formidable fortune. (While Minor lost the suit that Christie’s brought against him for failing to pay for art won at auction, he won a related suit over what he said was Christie’s improper seizure of other artworks Minor had sent to a Christie’s subsidiary to be sold.)

Finding himself hounded by blue-chip companies that once courted him, Minor came to see himself as a tribune for dispossessed individuals fighting against the evils of Big Government and Corporate America.

“Here in the shadow of Monticello, I often wonder what Thomas Jefferson would think of today’s America, a nation that is rapidly but silently abandoning the individual in favor of faceless corporations, rapacious banks and a collusive, unresponsive government,” Minor wrote in a July 2010 Huffington Post column titled “Why I Fight.”

He described his odyssey of litigation as the act of a patriot, dedicating himself a year before Occupy Wall Street to challenging the power of the 1 percent. “Why do I fight?” Minor continued. “The simple answer is that someone must or we will emerge from this recession with wealth and power concentrated in a few tiny financial institutions representing a new ruling elite, not unlike the one that inspired Thomas Jefferson’s generation to revolution.”

Minor in August filed a declaration of indigence in a case over the half-built hotel that is now, says Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja, “a blight on downtown.”

Minor said he had less than $112,643 in cash and owned no publicly traded securities; the declaration did not cover illiquid assets such as art, real estate or shares in nonpublic companies.

In April, California announced that Minor and his wife, Shannon Minor, topped the state’s list of tax debtors for the third year in a row, owing $10.5 million.

***

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 bragged about his newest trophy to a Fortune magazine reporter in 2008:

“ ‘I had the archaeologist who did all the work here over for dinner, and he said, “I just want you to know you have the most historic property in America.” And I said, “Oh, come on, [how about] the White House?” ’ Minor then goes on to explain why Carter’s Grove indeed has it over the President’s residence.”

The archaeologist was Ivor Noël Hume, an Englishman who spent more than 30 years at Colonial Williamsburg. In the 1970s Hume discovered Wolstenholme, lost to history for nearly 400 years. For his work, Hume was named an Officer of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 1992.

Speaking recently from his home in Williamsburg, Hume said he never said Carter’s Grove was more historically significant than the White House (nor did Minor offer him supper). But Minor did invite Hume to come discuss what the future held for Carter’s Grove. The pair sat in the otherwise empty 18,700-square-foot mansion (Colonial Williamsburg had packed off all the furnishings to auction). Hume, who had advocated against Colonial Williamsburg’s “draconian” decision to sell Carter’s Grove, “came away happily impressed.” Minor talked about continuing the archaeological program and eventually allowing the public access again.

The truth of the matter was that Colonial Williamsburg could ill afford to keep Carter’s Grove. It desperately needed a graceful exit, but the course it took ended up breaking Hume’s heart, as the archaeologist watched his life’s work destroyed.

***

Colonial Williamsburg’s heyday was in the 1970s and early 1980s, as America celebrated its bicentennial, Ronald Reagan celebrated “Morning in America,” and the discovery of Wolstenholme in 1976 drew considerable attention.

Attendance peaked at 1.3 million in 1976 but was just 670,500 last year. Colonial Williamsburg has operated at a substantial loss for two of the past three years and has slashed its number of employees by about half.

For a long while, investment income from Colonial Williamsburg’s endowment masked the problem of falling attendance, but in 2010 total revenue fell by a third, to $107.5 million, and investment income, at $27.6 million, was half the previous year’s level.

“We have had some disappointments along the way over the last decade,” Campbell said in an interview. “Yes, we have had operating pressures. We are taking the steps necessary to assure a bright future.”

In 2002 Carter’s Grove — which back then also featured a museum dedicated to Wolstenholme and Martin’s Hundred’s archaeological treasures, as well as an area depicting the lives of the plantation’s slaves — averaged only 562 visitors a day, but it cost $860,000 to operate. Colonial Williamsburg closed it in January 2003, and eventually decided to sell the mansion and its nearly 500 acres.

But the nonprofit couldn’t very well sell to a developer who would build riverfront condos. So shortly before finalizing the sale to Minor, the foundation donated to Virginia a conservation easement on Carter’s Grove. The easement permanently prevented any commercial or residential development and required the new owner to maintain Carter’s Grove at the highest possible standard.

Donating the easement was much more than a simple act of preservation. In fact, it was quite lucrative for the foundation.

The Commonwealth pays landowners valuable tax credits for donating easements. A landowner submits an appraisal for the property’s pre-easement value and post-easement value (typically about 40 percent lower than the pre-easement value) to come up with a value for the easement being donated. The state then issues a tax credit worth 40 percent of this easement value (Virginia says it has the most generous such program in the country). Donors can also claim the full value of the easement as a charitable contribution on their federal taxes.

There are now more than 400,000 acres under easement in Virginia, an accomplishment that has cost the state $1.3 billion in tax credits over the past decade. Critics complain that the program has been a windfall for owners of large country estates or exquisite townhouses in Alexandria who had neither the inclination nor the zoning leeway to develop their properties anyway.

As a nonprofit, that tax credit would have been of little use to Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which pays no income taxes. But Virginia is one of just a few states to allow donors to sell their tax credits.

So, Colonial Williamsburg received from the state of Virginia a tax credit worth about $1.5 million, which it sold to anonymous buyers in 2008.

Colonial Williamsburg’s tax credit would have been far larger if Minor had not agreed to pay significantly more for Carter’s Grove than Colonial Williamsburg’s appraiser thought it was worth. According to a private appraisal Colonial Williamsburg commissioned at the time of the sale, the pre-easement value of Carter’s Grove was $19.1 million. Had the post-easement value of Carter’s Grove been calculated at the more typical 40 percent discount, the property would have been worth about $11.5 million. Minor agreed to pay $15.3 million.

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.

***

By early 2011, Colonial Williamsburg had run out of patience. In late January, Campbell sent out a terse e-mail declaring that Colonial Williamsburg was foreclosing and Carter’s Grove would be sold on the courthouse steps Feb. 15.

Minor seemed surprised that the high-toned foundation would be such an aggressive debt collector. “Somehow, we had tipped over from trying to have a very, um, gentlemanly way of working it out to ... a sale on the courthouse steps,” Minor lamented during a taped legal proceeding a few weeks later. Campbell’s public shaming of him, Minor complained, “almost felt like punishment.”

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.

It’s all a liquidity problem, Minor told the U.S. bankruptcy trustee in the taped session in March 2011.

When Sotheby’s got his assets frozen in a lawsuit, Minor said he found himself unable to pay for a cellphone, his children’s school fees, or power to his primary residence, much less payments to Colonial Williamsburg.

“I don’t typically earn my money by art or real estate,” Minor said. “I earn it by starting companies and selling portions or all of them. That’s how I’ve funded just about everything I have done. And that’s how I assume I will continue to fund everything.”

His liquidity issues would be put to rest, Minor said, when Sotheby’s sold $15 million of works it was holding from his art collection.

But it appears that the artworks sold for less than what Minor owed Sotheby’s, and Sotheby’s is among Carter’s Grove’s creditors, with a $3.4 million claim. Sotheby’s spokeswoman Diana Phillips would say only that the original suit and countersuit had been settled, and she declined to discuss Sotheby’s claim in the Carter’s Grove case.

For a time, Minor tried to borrow more against Carter’s Grove with a 2009 appraisal that valued it at more than $21 million — in the midst of the financial crisis, a remarkable 37 percent gain over what Minor had paid two years earlier — but he told the U.S. bankruptcy trustee he had been unable to find a lender.

In the year or so that Carter’s Grove has been in bankruptcy, Minor has submitted multiple plans to give him time to resolve his liquidity issues and put things to rights. But that grew increasingly unlikely, as his other court cases did not go his way.

In the Merrill Lynch suit, a judge issued a summary judgment in the firm’s favor in late February 2012, and ordered Minor to pay Merrill’s legal costs. Minor filed an appeal in late April. In mid-March another bankruptcy judge was done listening to Minor’s plans to resuscitate the Charlottesville hotel and indicated that it would be auctioned off this summer.

One of Minor’s last — if not the last — business assets is Atmosphir, a struggling Internet gaming company. In early February, as Stephen C. St. John, the federal bankruptcy judge overseeing the Carter’s Grove case, ordered him to finally patch the roof, Minor sent a breezy note to his 142 LinkedIn contacts: “Hey, I’m opening up investment to friends in my new company. Here is a slideshare.com description.”

It was quite a comedown for someone who was an early executive committee member of TechNet, the tech elite’s public-policy group.

***

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.”

The judge had had enough.

“I regret that fact that Mr. Minor has apparently again, I think, misled this court into thinking that, you know, he was one invention away or one endeavor away from resolving this. But I promise you, I understand what’s going on now, and it is reprehensible,” St. John said. “I have given him leeway, and he has made me a fool.”

The sorry sight of Mays standing in his courtroom pleading for lawn mower blades was an epiphanic moment.

“Is Mr. Minor so broke he can’t pay this man and his wife?” St. John railed. “When I hear how he’s treating his employees, you know, while he lives in his mansion and flies his jet plane that he recently surrendered, that is just one of the most common reprehensible, unconscionable things that I have ever seen in a case.”

After considering Minor’s moral failings against the Mayses, the unpaid roofers, Colonial Williamsburg, his own lawyers, Carter’s Grove, and, implicitly, all of Virginia and humanity, St. John gave Minor 48 hours to pay the Mayses. If Minor didn’t produce the money, St. John vowed to “re-devote my life to attempting to figure out how to remind Mr. Minor that you don’t invoke this Court’s protection and authority with the cavalier attitude he is now displaying.”

Minor sent a check, and on March 15, St. John had everyone wait while the caretaker and Minor’s lawyers took the check to a bank near the Norfolk courthouse to make sure it cleared.

***

The current plan is to put Carter’s Grove up for sale, again. Colonial Williamsburg seems prepared to front the hundreds of thousands of dollars it will likely cost to shore up the property, and the nonprofit paid $75,000 in April to reinstate the property insurance that had lapsed.

Ominously, on May 17, St. John instructed the U.S. Trustee’s office of the federal Department of Justice to examine Minor’s representations to the court, and the local paper reported St. John saying in the hearing that he thinks Minor lied. If that is found to be the case, the matter could be referred to the U.S. Attorney as a criminal case, said one attorney who was at the hearing.

Meanwhile, in late May The Hook, a Charlottesville newspaper, reported that Minor’s Fox Ridge Farm there is for sale, and that a local auction house had been retained to sell its furnishings. Le Petit Trianon, Minor’s San Francisco home, was also listed for sale on May 25.

Minor’s legal team has floated an aggressive argument to lift the easement intended to forever protect Carter’s Grove.

Lifting the easement, which likely would be strongly opposed by Colonial Williamsburg and the state, would allow all the creditors — Colonial Williamsburg, Sotheby’s, the leasing company for Minor’s relinquished private jet, the power company, and James City County, which is owed property taxes — their best chance of recovering their money.

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.

“The Colonial gardens, the fences put in to be historically correct, the Wolstenholme reconstruction — all destroyed,” Hume said, grief in his voice. All that remains now of an installation depicting the lives of the slaves who toiled on Carter’s Grove Plantation for roughly half its history are a couple of caved-in shells.

Years ago, Hume and his team found the graves of some of the first Europeans to live — and die — in the New World. They identified each by gender and approximate age, and recorded this lost history on grave markers. “That was all destroyed,” Hume said.

Also destroyed, Hume says, were artifacts and native Powhatan remains that dated back 2,000 years.

“It is one of the most unfortunate preservation tragedies in recent years,” the 85-year-old Englishman said. “I care deeply about Carter’s Grove. Most of my productive working life was focused on that property, the films I made, the books I wrote, my getting the O.B.E. from the Queen — my life was tied up in that place. What happened to it is the great disaster of my life.”

About a year ago, with the power out at their cottage and other buildings on the property, Tammy Mays summoned Hume for help, the archaeologist said.

They walked through the mansion together, through the grand first-floor rooms cited in the 1970 anointment of Carter’s Grove as a National Historic Landmark as “not only beautiful, but authentic in its classical proportions, setting a new standard of ‘correctness’ in colonial America.”

Hume told Tammy Mays about the house in better days, when a huge Christmas tree marked the holidays, and it was filled with furnishings.

“Everything was stripped out of the place,” he recalled. “The roof leaked, panels were shrinking. It was going down the tubes.

“Tammy Mays has really devoted the last years of her life so consistently to the place, that when she took me through, she was crying. I was talking about my dinner with President Nixon at Carter’s Grove. And she was crying. She wept at what had happened here, in this completely empty house.

Elizabeth Lesly Stevens wrote a column on money and power for the Bay Area section of the New York Times before moving to Washington last fall. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpletters@washingtonpost.com.

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