Bowdoin College is suing a Florida woman to keep her from selling a property in the middle of the Brunswick school’s campus that the owner says was used by Harriett Beecher Stowe to write portions of the groundbreaking anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Portland attorney James T. Kilbreth filed the suit against Arline P. Lay of St. Augustine, Florida, in Cumberland County Superior Court on Aug. 12. The listing agent, David J. Jones, and prospective buyer, Louise Jonaitis, also are listed as defendants.

According to court documents, Bowdoin obtained the right of first refusal on the home at 28 College St. in 1996, when it agreed to purchase an adjacent home from Lay’s family at 26 College St., which the school says it “paid a premium” to purchase.

The college’s right of first refusal was contained in an agreement signed by the college and Lay.

Lay, 87, put the 28 College St. property on the market this year and received a $750,000 offer from a South Portland woman.

The court documents identify the prospective buyer as Jonaitis, a Rumford native and past owner of several wood-turning and furniture manufacturing businesses. Jonaitis could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Court records say the sale is scheduled to close Sept. 14.

The 1996 right-of-first-refusal agreement said that the college would pay 125 percent of a price based on appraisals. Lay’s attorney, Sean Joyce of Portland, said that provision would only apply in the event of Lay’s death and is asking that Bowdoin pay his client the sale price plus 25 percent, or $937,000, for the six bedroom, 3,500-square-foot residence located in the middle of the college campus.

Bowdoin says the sale price is inflated and that the home’s value needs to be determined by an appraisal firm.

Kilbreth, Bowdoin’s attorney, states in the suit that he was notified in March that Lay had listed the home for sale. In a letter dated April 8, Kilbreth said he notified Lay’s broker, Jones of F.O. Bailey Real Estate in Falmouth, that the college was going to exercise its option to buy.

“Despite Bowdoin’s demand to cease and desist listing the property for sale, defendants Lay and Jones continued to actively list the property as being for sale,” the college claims. “The property listing falsely states that Harriet Beecher Stowe sought refuge to write ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ at the property. Defendants Lay and Jones knew that this statement was false at the time it was made.”

In 2014, a Beverly Hills real estate agency listed the Brunswick home for $3 million, marketing the property as the place where Stowe penned part of her novel. That marketing strategy was disputed by Bowdoin College scholars and the state’s leading historian, Earle Shettleworth, who said Stowe wrote the novel while residing at 63 Federal Street – known as the Harriett Beecher Stowe House.

The Stowe House is owned by Bowdoin College and is used as faculty office space and a student residence. One room in the house has been renamed the Harriett Beecher Stowe writing room. The home at 28 College St. once stood on Park Row near the Stowe House, but was moved to its current location in the middle of the campus in the late 1890s.

The Beverly Hills real estate agency said Stowe was unable to concentrate on her writing at the Federal Street home – the noise caused by her six children was too distracting – and she rented a room at the Park Row house to write.

“The home has a very special importance to the Lay family given the numerous historical events that transpired there, including visits by Eleanor Roosevelt, Norman Rockwell staging his famous Thanksgiving Day illustration, Henry Longfellow penning a poem about a grandfather clock on its stairs and the oral history of Harriett Beecher Stowe renting a second-floor bedroom while the home was on Park Row to write portions of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ ” Joyce, Lay’s attorney, wrote in a statement.

“All these historical events are well known by Bowdoin College, as one of its most distinguished professors to serve on the Bowdoin faculty, Robert P.T. Coffin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, is the uncle of Arline Lay,” the statement says.

Bowdoin College released a brief statement Wednesday through its spokesman, Doug Cook. In an email, Cook said that Bowdoin would never have paid a premium price for the property at 26 College St. without having the option of purchasing 28 College St.

He said Jonaitis should have known that Bowdoin was exercising its legal option to purchase the property.

“We have exercised our option, which we’ve explained to Ms. Jonaitis, so there is no valid contract between her and the Lays we could ‘interfere with,’ the college said in its statement. “Once the appraisal process has been validly completed as contemplated in the original agreement, we will purchase the property at the price established by the process.”

In its lawsuit, the college says the home is “located directly in the middle of Bowdoin’s campus … the property is unique and no monetary damages can compensate Bowdoin for its loss or use of the property.”

Joyce said his client simply wants a nest egg to live on during her retirement years.

“Arline Lay, age 87, is now being sued by Bowdoin College for exercising her inalienable, constitutional right to protect her property at 28 College Street in Brunswick and to demonstrate its fair market value,” Joyce said. “Mrs. Lay has owned and lived at this property for several decades, and the home has been passed down through her family for generations.”

Joyce said the home at 28 College St. is the last piece of property on campus that is not owned by Bowdoin. He said hundreds of acres that comprise the campus were donated by the Pennell, Lay and Coffin families.

“Yet, Bowdoin College refuses to compensate the same families with a fair market price for 28 College Street,” Joyce said.

Lay’s husband died in 2012.


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