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 email@example.com.