Members of the Sagtikos Manor Historical Society who knew Robert David Lion Gardiner say the estate's eccentric last resident was a regal man with an aristocratic air who gallantly recounted his family history -- to anyone who cared to listen.
That included the history of Sagtikos Manor, the large white house on 10 acres in West Bay Shore that the Gardiner family owned from the 1770s until the 1980s, when Robert Gardiner bequeathed it to what would become a foundation bearing his name, set up to manage his $80 million trust.
Historical society members say Sagtikos Manor should be a beneficiary of that fortune, which was endowed to the foundation after the death of Gardiner's wife, Eunice, in 2011. In June, the society filed a lawsuit against the Hampton Bays-based foundation, suggesting the foundation's primary charitable purpose is to preserve the manor.
"We spent over a quarter of a million dollars refurbishing the manor," said 35-year society member and attorney Lawrence Donohue. "We think that money that the Gardiner family had was intended to preserve the manor, and we think that's what it should be used for."
The Historical Society has operated and maintained Sagtikos Manor as a living museum since 1964. Donohue says Gardiner, who had no heirs, would have wanted the place preserved.
The foundation sold the property to Suffolk County in 2002, and while there is no mention of Sagtikos Manor in Gardiner's will, Donohue points to the foundation's 1980s Internal Revenue Service application for exempt status as proof the foundation was established to support the manor.
According to the application, the foundation was "formed to maintain and preserve the Manor and its surrounding 10 acres, and to educate the public about the historical significance of this site." An application for property tax exemption in Islip Town lists the same purpose.
But the foundation no longer owns the property, and its Manhattan-based attorney, David McCabe of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, said it has moved to dismiss the lawsuit. "Our position is that this case is totally without merit," McCabe said. After the property was sold, the foundation's charitable interests were listed as scholarship.
The foundation has denied the society's request for funding, Donohue said. Society president Christine Gottsch said its $65,000 budget -- raised mostly through fundraisers, tours and events at the manor -- is enough to keep it running but not enough for needed repairs.
Suffolk County attorney Dennis Cohen said the county's concern is protecting its ownership, which isn't being challenged. The manor, a Suffolk County Historic Landmark, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Washington so it can never be sold or demolished.
Alexandra Wolfe, preservation director at the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, said she has seen an increasing number of similar disputes, "where a bequest or charitable effort or project is initiated by somebody and after they're gone, it's unclear what the terms are and what their true wishes are. The language needs to be as clear as possible."
About Sagtikos Manor
It was purchased from the Secatogue tribe by Stephanus Van Cortlandt, the manor was built in 1697.
"Sagtikos" means "head of the hissing snake."
The Gardiner family acquired the manor when Isaac Thompson married Mary Gardiner in 1772.
President George Washington spent night there in 1790.
Source: Sagtikos Manor Historical Society