BRUNSWICK, Maine — The dispute between Bowdoin College and a family who says Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote most of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in a house they own appears headed to court.
As Bowdoin College on Thursday celebrated the Underground Railroad designation of the college-owned Harriet Beecher Stowe house on Federal Street, attorneys were notifying 86-year-old Arline Pennell Lay that the college will file suit to force her to comply with a 1996 purchase-and-sale agreement that gives Bowdoin the right to purchase her College Street home for a fraction of what Lay says it’s worth.
Stowe lived in the Federal Street home with her family from 1850 to 1852 while her husband taught at Bowdoin. During that time, she penned the abolitionist novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Bowdoin purchased the house and connecting 55-room inn in 2001. The inn was turned into student housing before being restored as a national historic landmark. The inclusion of the house in the network was based on research by Bowdoin College senior Katie Randall, according to the college, which later this month will open a former parlor room in the house as “Harriet’s Writing Room.”
But Lay says Stowe rented a room in the five-bedroom colonial she owns and escaped from the chaos of a large family to write the famed novel there.
Now, the college’s 21st century plans clash with Lay’s claim of historical value dating to the 19th century in a conflict that could wind up in court.
A place to write
Lay’s home at 28 College St. is the last property on the cross-campus street not owned by Bowdoin College. Earlier this month, Lay listed her house for sale for $1.6 million — a price her family contends is fair market value given the historical connections they claim.
Lay said Friday she grew up in the College Street house hearing stories from her mother and her uncle — poet and Bowdoin College professor Robert Peter Tristram Coffin — about Stowe renting the upstairs front bedroom between 1850 and 1851 from Mrs. Lamb, who owned the house, then located at 183 Park Row. In about 1905, Lay’s grandfather, James Coffin, bought the house and moved it to College Street.
“She had small children and wasn’t able to write because it was so noisy, so she went to Mrs. Lamb’s house and did the writing there,” Lay said Friday.
In a notarized statement earlier this year, Robert Coffin’s son, Richard Coffin of Falmouth, affirmed Lay’s recollection.
The family says the historic value of the College Street house is further increased because the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his poem, “The Old Clock on the Stairs,” about a grandfather clock in the house, and Alice Lay and Richard Coffin were models for a Thanksgiving painting by Norman Rockwell. According to the current real estate listing, “Other famous people such as President and Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Chris Wallace and William Cohen have stayed at this home.”
College Street and the properties on it are included in the Federal Street Historic District established in 1976. The following year, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
But Bowdoin College contends the house is listed on the National Register because of the Longfellow poem and other history rather than any connection to Stowe, according to attorney Sean Joyce, who represents Arline Pennell Lay.
Bowdoin spokesman Scott Hood on Friday declined to confirm the college’s intent to file suit, saying instead, “The college isn’t going to comment on any of this. The matter is in the hands of our attorneys. The lawyers will work it out or it will be resolved in court.”
Joyce said Wednesday he was notified by Bowdoin attorney James Kilbreth that the college would soon file suit seeking to force the Lays to abide by a 1996 agreement that the college says allows Bowdoin, if the owner dies or puts the house on the market, to purchase the property for 125 percent of the appraised value.
The property is assessed at $154,300, which is 70 percent of the estimated market value, according to Angie Bradstreet in Brunswick’s assessing office.
But Joyce said he will ask a judge to rule the right of first refusal is invalid, not only because sections of the agreement are “inconsistent” but because Lay says she and her husband were not represented by an attorney when the agreement was negotiated.
“My understanding is that at the closing, the Lays essentially walked across the street, sat in the [Bowdoin] treasurer’s office and signed the documents with no attorneys involved,” Joyce said. “We’re investigating whether or not she had representation and [whether] it was, essentially, unequal bargaining.”
“We were really naive,” Lay said Friday. “It was all written up by Bowdoin’s attorney.”
Joyce said he was told by Bowdoin’s attorney that the Lays were represented during the negotiations by Leslie E. Lowry III of Jensen, Baird, in Portland. Joyce said he has requested closing documents from that firm and from Bowdoin, but he added, “I haven’t seen one piece of correspondence that shows any attorney was involved for the Lays. … We do intend to fight the suit and litigate the issues surrounding the execution of this deal, and what was the context for this option agreement being written.”
Joyce said he will also object to the agreement because the right of first refusal does not include any clause that would allow Lay to seek other offers and then require Bowdoin to match any third-party offer.
“We’re not going to be forced to sell the house to you just because you tricked my mother into a contract,” James Pennell Lay, Arline’s son, said recently. “If [Bowdoin] wants to buy the house, they should pay for the history.”
In 2014, Arline Pennell Lay listed the house with a Beverly Hills real estate agent, asking $3 million for the property. Bowdoin College disputed the family’s historic claims, and Lay said the family received a certified letter from Bowdoin demanding they stop the sale of the house.
At the time, Hood told The Times Record, “In our view, this counterclaim about the location of Stowe’s work is merely an attempt to sell a once-moved historic Brunswick house at an inflated price.”
Joyce said the family is confident that $1.6 million reflects fair market value for the land and building.
David J. Jones, Lay’s real estate agent, said he has fielded several calls and inquiries about the property but is waiting to show it until her son finishes painting the exterior of the building.
“The value of the home will be determined by how much someone’s willing to pay,” Jones said.
“The Lays should be given the right to market the property and find someone who appreciates the historical significance,” Joyce said. “While Bowdoin may dispute some of the historical references to the home — specifically the Harriet Beecher Stowe relationship — Mrs. Lay and the family feel strongly this oral history has been passed down from generation to generation.”
Where’s the proof?
Katherine Kane, executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, said Friday that since the Lays first listed the house for sale in 2014, staff at the center have been asked several times whether documents exist to support Lay’s claim that Stowe wrote part of her novel in the College Street house. The Stowe Center and museum houses the largest collection of Stowe materials, including artifacts, and has access to a database of other materials located elsewhere.
“We haven’t found in our collections the letters or any written Stowe material that documents the story,” Kane said. “That doesn’t mean it’s true or not true. Part of the context, of course, is that Stowe did have a household of kids and according to [the Joan] Hendrick biography of Stowe, which won a Pulitzer, she struggled with meeting weekly deadlines to write the book, so it’s reasonable to think there were various accommodations. But what they were, we don’t know the details.”
“Unless you have some testament from [Stowe] that, ‘Oh, no, this is actually where I wrote it’ — and even then, I’m at a loss,” Maine State Archivist Dave Cheever said last week. “It’s a distinction that might hold value, but for whom, and how much?”
The Lays said they worry that if Bowdoin does acquire the house, it will be razed, as was a house at 26 College St. that the Lays previously sold to the college.
Hood said last week that there are no plans for 28 College St. because Bowdoin doesn’t own it, but that if the college does acquire it, its disposition would be determined by the condition of the house.
“Does that preclude the idea that it could be torn down? No,” Hood said. “Does it preclude the idea that it could be renovated and turned into something? No. But there’s a whole process the college would have to go through before it does anything like that.”
Despite College Street’s inclusion in the Federal Street Historic District when it was established in 1976, no protection is offered by that designation because the National Park Service relies on town boards to protect historic buildings.
Unless a federally authorized project could affect the property or local ordinances protect it, “usually the property owner is free to do as they see fit,” Maine State Historian Kirk Mohney said.
However, when Brunswick’s Village Review District was created in the 1970s, the boundary stopped short of the college campus, ending on Bath Road, according to Brunswick’s director of planning and development Anna Breinich.
As a result, the town’s Village Review Board has no authority over any College Street properties — or, in fact, any historic properties on the Bowdoin campus where Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and explorers Robert E. Peary and Donald MacMillan, among others, graduated.
Should such as case go to court, a decision is likely to hinge on how a judge views the “negotiating power” of the parties, according to professor Sarah Schindler, who teaches property and land use law at the University of Maine School of Law.
Speaking generally and without knowledge of this specific case, Schindler said, “As with any contract, [the terms] are up to the parties. If one party is not represented and the other party is a corporation, [the judge could rule in favor of the property owner]. But at the same time, a lot of courts are deferential to the contract and say, ‘You should have gotten legal representation.’”