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Fight in Windsor Farms

The debate over the Quincy Cole estate turns ugly.

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He's an unlikely provocateur. Preppily clad in khakis and rectangular wire-rimmed glasses, Harvard grad Tim Nolan speaks softly while taking a reporter on a tour of the house he's trying to save. In the wealthy Windsor Farms community, it turns out, lawyers and bankers looking to capitalize on widowed mansions such as the Windsor just might find worthy adversaries.

Nolan is the little guy in this fight. But like some of his neighbors, he's a well-educated little guy with some little-guy lawyer friends adept at reading legal dispositions and crunching financials.

In the spring, the trustees of the Windsor Foundation, which owns the mansion, argued in court that the cost to maintain the property surpassed "the benefit received by the public." A judge agreed, says Bank of America spokesman John Yiannacopoulos, and ordered the trustees to sell the property.

The late Quincy Cole would be rolling in his grave, Nolan says, if he knew the trustees overseeing his estate broke his trust and sold his house, which he left as a memorial to his late wife, Anne Owen Cole, upon his death in 1968.

The statutes, the plaques, the Charles F. Gillette gardens, the antique innards of the Windsor are all on the auction block. Bank of America has been accepting bids for the house and plans to select a buyer Nov. 14. But the facts are in fine print, Nolan says: Cole explicitly set aside his estate, now worth more than $12 million, to ensure that the Windsor and his wife's memorial survive in perpetuity.

"Who safeguards the house when you're gone?" Nolan asks rhetorically, putting himself in Cole's shoes. "I paid a trustee hundreds of thousands of dollars to look after it. Then my lawyer got paid out of my estate for breaking my will?"

It's a travesty, neighbor Susan Bennett says.

"They wanted to use a technicality to break the dearest bequest that Mr. Cole made. He wanted the city and the neighbors to remember his wife's contributions to this world," Bennett says. "Here we are, 40 years later, and they are ready to tear it down, auctioning stuff off in the front yard like some rummage sale."

But during the sale and subsequent hearing in Richmond Circuit Court, the judge agreed that the sale was consistent with Cole's dying wishes. Cole's trust only set aside $18,000 a year to maintain the property, no longer enough money, the trustees argued. "It was the court that ordered the sale of the Windsor house," Yiannacopoulos explains. In fact, Yiannacopoulos says the foundation spent $100,000 in the past year on maintenance. The trustees had a decision to make, he says: continue depleteing the trust and hurt its benefactors, or sell the house. Therefore, it had no choice but to sell the property.

Nolan, who has extracted his own set of financials based on the foundation's IRS filings, says the foundation had plenty of money to maintain the property. The foundation's assets total $12.2 million, including the house, with net assets of $8.5 million, according to its most recent filings.

In September, Bank of America opened the bidding process anyway, lighting a firestorm of neighborhood angst.

Bennett says nearby residents are concerned the property will be sold to a developer eyeing the 4.4-acre property for condos, or minimansions. Because the Windsor estate predates Windsor Farms, it isn't subject to the same zoning restrictions as the rest of the neighborhood. In other words, it's valuable. It's assessed at $3.08 million, according to city records, but will probably fetch between $6 million and $10 million.

Things have gotten so ugly that the attorney general's office felt compelled to step in. After neighbors fingered the AG's office for allowing the trust to be broken — according to state law, the attorney general must approve it — William Mims, chief deputy attorney general, intervened and met with neighbors as well as bank officials.

"We've held meetings with both sides in the last three weeks," Mims says. "Again, this office does not have a formal jurisdiction, but Attorney General [Bob] McDonnell did believe he could play a positive role in this matter, hopefully work out some sort of an acceptable solution."

But time is running out. All the bickering is also threatening to skewer the deal, or at the least cast a chill over the bidding process. A developer interested in building condos on the site would have to file a rezoning application at City Hall (it's zoned for single-family dwellings), which would likely set off another series of very vocal fights before the planning commission and City Council.

Don't tell that to Nolan. One of the biggest tragedies, he says, would be to lose the Gillette gardens. In a letter dated Aug. 29, 1967, Gillette, the famous landscape architect, wrote that Cole's gardens would be his "swan song." He was 84 and planned to finish the gardens and retire in Florida. "I just couldn't retire in Richmond after so may [sic] years 56 to be exact — they wouldn't let me!" Gillette penned.

Maintaining the gardens and the house is still a full-time job for Everette Smith, the Windsor's caretaker of the last 25 years. Smith, who lives in a cottage on the property, says he isn't sure what he'll be doing after Nov. 14.

"I told [the real estate agent that] whoever buys it, I have to go along with the property," he says with a forced chuckle. S

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