Gilded Age money pit nearly sends heirs to poorhouse: Strange Inheritance

It’s not the retirement home you’d expect for two New Jersey public school teachers – a chateau transported from France’s Loire Valley to 100 acres near Princeton and then filled with Louis XVI interiors from a Vanderbilt mansion.

Then again, Sandy Perkins’ magnificent home nearly landed her and her husband, Tim, in the poorhouse.

The Perkins are featured in the latest episode of “Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby.” It’s on FOX Business Network at 9:30 p.m. ET on Monday, March 12.

The story begins in the late 1800s, when American tycoons traipsed around Europe, scooping up relics of royalty and shipping them back to their mansions in the U.S.

William Henry Vanderbilt acquired mantelpieces, chandeliers, sconces, gates and fixtures – some dating back to the reign of French King Louis XVI. He installed them in his “Triple Palace,” a landmark on Manhattan’s Five Avenue until it was razed in the 1940s.

After World War II, another generation of well-heeled Americans regarded Europe as the standard of refinement. Among them, Wall Street lawyer Maurice Smith. He and his wife vacationed in a century-old Loire Valley chateau and loved it so much they had it dismantled, shipped across the Atlantic and reassembled in the New Jersey countryside brick by brick.

To make it a real show place, the Smiths acquired architectural relics, lavish trimmings and even entire rooms from the Triple Palace and other grand Manhattan mansions facing the wrecking ball.

“Mrs. Smith collected the materials at auctions,” Tim Perkins tells Colby on the program. “They all go back to Louis XVI era.”

How Sandy Perkins, a special-education teacher, came to own the home is another story.

Her mother, Betty, was a widow who married George Garfield, a lawyer from a family that once employed Betty as a housekeeper. Garfield purchased the New Jersey chateau from the Smiths years before.

By the time George and Betty died, the place had fallen into disrepair.

“They were both elderly, and they really didn’t keep it up.” says Tim.

So when Sandy, her brother and her sister inherited the home, they wanted to sell it quickly. But Tim, a retired shop teacher, threw a monkey wrench into the plan. He persuaded Sandy to use their retirement savings to buy out her siblings and fix the place up.

“He was very persistent,” Sandy tells Colby on the program. “So I kind of believed in his vision.”

They quickly discovered that they had sunk all they had into a Gilded Age money pit.

“We sold our stocks, bonds and other investments,” Tim says. “Sold everything.”

The project was much bigger than they had anticipated. “The heating and air conditioning were gone, the plumbing was gone, the electrical … everything, absolutely everything,” Tim says. “One of the walls even collapsed, so we had to jack that side of the house up. Once I started digging away, it got bigger and bigger and worse and worse.”

Caught in a financial vise, the Perkinses found financial relief in a state Farmland Preservation program that paid them for a conservation easement that would prevent their property from ever being developed.

It gave Tim and Sandy about $1 million in cash and tax deductions. That was enough to restore the chateau – with its balconies, ballroom and grand entrance – to its former glory and ensconce them as lord and lady of the manor.

“It wasn’t about the money,” Tim says. “It was about the dream of having the house and something very special and unique.”