Bowdoin College has won a round in its legal battle to buy a house in the middle of its campus that the owner says was used by Harriet Beecher Stowe to pen portions of her ground-breaking anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Maine Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy ruled Wednesday that Arline P. Lay must honor an agreement she signed in 1996 and sell the house at 28 College St. in Brunswick to Bowdoin at a price set through an appraisal process.
The agreement granted the college the right of first refusal on the home at 28 College St. when it purchased an adjacent home at 26 College St., court documents show. Bowdoin says it “paid a premium” to buy the house at 26 College St. from Lay’s family at the time.
In her ruling in the state’s Business and Consumer Court, Murphy said the 1996 agreement “clearly and unambiguously set out what had to occur for Bowdoin to have the right to purchase the property” at 28 College St. Those events were the death of Lay and her husband, or the decision by Lay or her husband to stop using the house as their primary residence, or the potential sale of the property.
Lay, 87, listed the house for sale several times, most recently in 2015. Located in the middle of the college campus, the house has 3,500 square feet and six bedrooms. Bowdoin’s attorney, James Kilbreth, stated he notified Lay’s real estate broker in an April 2016 letter that the college was going to exercise its option to buy based on the 1996 agreement, which stipulated that Bowdoin could buy the house at 125 percent of its appraised value. Both the college and Lay have had appraisals performed, but have not released the results.
In July 2016, Lay received an offer of $750,000 from a South Portland woman and entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement with her. Bowdoin filed a lawsuit in August 2016 to prevent the sale.
Lay’s attorney at the time, Sean Joyce of Portland, argued that Bowdoin’s option to buy the house based on an appraisal was meant to apply only in the event of Lay’s death. He claimed Bowdoin should pay $937,000 to buy the house, the price offered by the South Portland woman plus 25 percent. Joyce no longer represents Lay.
Bowdoin said the $937,000 price was inflated and the value of the house should be determined by an appraiser. According to Brunswick records, the property is currently assessed at $154,300, which is 70 percent of estimated market value. If Bowdoin paid 125 percent of the assessed value, the sale price would be $192,875.
The home’s connection to Harriet Beecher Stowe has been disputed.
In 2014, a Beverly Hills real estate agency listed the Brunswick home for $3 million, claiming Stowe penned part of her famous novel there. Bowdoin College scholars and the state’s leading historian, Earle Shettleworth Jr., disputed that claim. They said Stowe wrote her novel while residing at 63 Federal St.. That property is now known as the Harriet Beecher Stowe House and is owned by Bowdoin College.
The Beverly Hills real estate agency said Stowe rented a room in the 28 College St. house to write because she was distracted by her six children at home.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the judge determined Lay is prohibited from marketing or selling the property without a release from Bowdoin. The judge ruled that the appraisers hired by Bowdoin and Lay now must find a third appraiser to evaluate the house and Bowdoin must pay an average of the three values.
The ruling also states Bowdoin would be “irreparably harmed” if the property was sold to the South Portland buyer or anyone else.
“The irreparable harm to Bowdoin outweighs the harm to Mrs. Lay as both parties entered into this binding agreement, and her financial interests are protected by the appraisal process she bargained for in 1996 with the assistance of counsel,” the judge wrote.
The owner’s son, James Lay, said the family was not surprised by the ruling and plans to appeal the decision to the Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court. He described the family’s dispute with Bowdoin as “a David-and-Goliath battle.”
“Bowdoin can cast a very big shadow in the state of Maine,” James Lay said in a phone interview Friday night from California.
He said the agreement his mother signed decades ago is illegal, and he expects the family to win the case in the end. He said they no longer intend to sell the property and want to keep it in the family. He said he has invested money in restoring the home, and is worried Bowdoin would demolish it.
“We want to keep it as a historical property and give people tours,” he said. “There’s a lot of interesting history.”
Bowdoin spokesman Scott Hood said the college is pleased with the court’s ruling. He noted Bowdoin will again pay a premium on the property with a sales price at 125 percent of the average of the three appraised values.
“We look forward to acquiring the property in accordance with the original agreement,” he said Friday night.
He said Lay’s fears about demolition are “inflammatory speculation.”
“When we acquire it, we will carefully consider its best use, which is what we always do at the college,” Hood said. “We have a very strong record of historic preservation and maintaining buildings and facilities on or near the campus.”
Joyce, Arline Lay’s former attorney, did not respond to a request for comment Friday night.
Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: