Hidden History: Clash Over Carter's

Historic James City County Plantation Home is caught in the middle of a costly controversy

Just inside the James City County line sits one of the most stunning pieces of waterfront real estate in Hampton Roads: a two-and-a-half-story, five-part, brick mansion on more than 400 acres along the James River, containing an interior so exceptional the Historic American Buildings Survey says it’s “perhaps the finest Georgian woodwork in Virginia.” And now Carter’s Grove, one of just a handful of plantation homes left in the region, is mired in a controversy of historic proportions.

Carter’s Grove’s storied past has many people concerned about its future. Carter Burwell—grandson of the prominent Virginia planter Robert “King” Carter—built the mansion in the early 1750s, and over the next two centuries it went through a series of owners. Archibald McCrea renovated and enlarged the home in the late 1920s, and after his widow’s death, Carter’s Grove eventually became the property of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. CW opened Carter’s Grove to the public for decades, allowing archeological work, reconstructing the plantation’s extensive garden and fielding costumed interpreters of 18th-century slave life.

CW pulled the plug on Carter’s Grove in 2003, however, citing the difficulty of fitting the estate in its 18th-century interpretive mission, among other concerns, and put the property on the market. The price tag was $19 million, and the contract specified conservation easements and preservation requirements for the house and grounds.

Four years later, Carter’s Grove sold. Halsey Minor, founder of the technology media website CNET and a wealthy San Francisco venture capitalist, agreed to pay $15.3 million it. Minor had deep roots in Virginia: he was born here and graduated from UVA where a building, Halsey Hall, is named for his mother’s family.

The deal closed and seemed to be racing right along as a win-win for everyone involved. Minor planned to use the property to raise thoroughbred horses—one of his favorite pastimes. The same year that Minor bought Carter’s Grove, he paid more than $3 million for a 3-year-old filly named Dream Rush. CW was thrilled to sell to a native who would protect the property’s historic assets. It seemed as if this extraordinary gem of riverside acreage was in good hands.

But late last year, the seemingly warm relationship soured. Minor didn’t make the last two payments on Carter’s Grove’s mortgage and CW, the mortgage holder, declared him in default. CW was prepared to offer the property for sale at public auction, a sale cancelled at the last minute by the bankruptcy filing of the company, Carter’s Grove LLC, that Minor had set up to purchase the estate.

Minor has a fairly easy explanation for his mortgage default, claiming that CW and affiliated organizations knowingly withheld information about the condition of the home to him prior to sale—a claim he says that someone in the foundation has corroborated. He says that there was water and mold damage to the house that CW covered up, that construction crews buried some debris from a demolished visitors center instead of carting it all away as promised and that a restrictive covenant prevents him from opening the plantation house for visitation more than seven consecutive days in a year, a move Minor claims is intended to keep Carter’s Grove from competing with the historic area for revenue.

In its defense, CW says that all of Minor’s claims are hogwash, that all interior damage was disclosed and repaired, that all material from the razed building was taken away and that the restrictive covenants do not bar Minor from operating the house as a museum. Some journalists have suggested that Minor’s default owes not to the defects in the property, but to financial troubles, including monetary judgments against him in other, unrelated cases.

It appears now that the truth about the sale of Carter’s Grove will come out in court. Only time—and the legal wrangling of a boatload of attorneys—will determine the future of this historic property.

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