PAWTUCKET — The first time Nick Paciorek saw the stained glass windows adorning the historic Pitcher-Goff House, it felt like being in a cathedral in Paris, right here in Pawtucket.
It was decades ago, probably in the late 1990s, when Paciorek, an artist who’s been involved in historic preservation, was doing a tour of 58 Walcott St., a building that’s probably best known for previously having served as the home of the Rhode Island children’s museum. The 1840 Italianate mansion in Quality Hill was so grand that, local legend has it, the designers of Interstate 95 built the highway around it to avoid having to knock it down.
In 2020, Paciorek toured the house again — this time as a prospective buyer. A bank had foreclosed on the house after an ill-fated attempt to start a jewelry company there. The city of Pawtucket, the federal government, and even private citizens had backed the company, Sara Bella Jewelry, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. But the company had imploded. One casualty was the house itself, which Paciorek noticed right away: The majestic stained glass windows were gone. All of them — from the enclosed veranda, from the front entryway doors, from the top of the stairs in the main foyer that you can see from Route 95 — gone. The home’s wrought-iron gates had also been hauled off.
Paciorek bought the Pitcher-Goff House from the bank anyway, paying $525,000. And he has spent the last two and a half years trying to figure out what happened to the windows that had first moved him so much, and then trying to get them back.
Darlene Brien noticed the stained glass windows, too.
Every time she turned a corner, she found something new that made her gasp, she told the Valley Breeze in January 2017.
“It’s magical here,” she said.
Brien, part of a politically connected family with roots in Woonsocket, had been working for a Smithfield company called Kerissa Creations for years, according to a resume she submitted to the city as part of a loan application. In 2015, she struck out on her own with Sara Bella Jewelry.
To do so, she bought out the portion of the Kerissa business she’d been managing. Kerissa designed jewelry that was sold at places like Chico’s Outlet, Tommy Bahama, and White House Black Market. She financed this customer list in part with a loan from Freedom National Bank — now Bristol County Savings Bank — of $950,000. The loan, and a separate $150,000 revolving line of credit, were guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
But Brien also needed a home for her new business that was a little more grand than an industrial park in Smithfield. The Pitcher-Goff House was ideal. Through Sara Bella, Brien bought it for $500,000 in December 2016. Though the merchandise would be manufactured in China, the team would design beautiful jewelry from their headquarters in a beautiful home in Pawtucket.
And the city was willing to back her efforts.
Sara Bella got a $50,000 loan from the city’s Business Development Corporation in early 2017 to incentivize the fledgling company’s move from Smithfield to Pawtucket. Sara Bella also got a $30,000 loan from the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency to clean up mold in the basement of the Pitcher-Goff House.
But while the marketing plan submitted to the city of Pawtucket focused on things like “leveraging seasonal timing and fashion trends to create a consistent stream of outreach and content opportunities to engage media and influencers,” the company was quickly mired in litigation and having trouble paying its bills.
Brien was the first to sue. It was January 2017. She alleged in a state court suit that her former employer, Kerissa Creations, owed a lot more money to its vendors than it was letting on, and had botched its relationships with some of its important customers. Those were now her customers, and at least one was pulling the plug on the relationship, she said.
Kerissa Creations denied the allegations and counter-sued, trying to hold Brien to the $1 million she still owed them for the acquisition of its clients. They settled in September 2018, with Brien agreeing to pay Kerissa Creations just $45,000.
But as the lawsuit progressed, the company’s financial problems were piling up. A state tax lien had already been filed in July 2017 against the Pitcher-Goff House. The Internal Revenue Service filed liens in October 2017 and April 2018. The company missed a payment for the $30,000 mold cleanup loan in June 2018. Suppliers in China were pestering Brien’s company over bills as early as 2016, documents obtained by the Globe show. And in January 2019, Brien and her company violated the settlement agreement with Kerissa Creations by not making scheduled payments on the $45,000, according to court filings.
Brien also owed money to former employees.
Gloria Ayotte worked at Sara Bella between 2016 and 2017 — the worst nine months of her life, she said. She made loans to Brien, and also did uncompensated work, she said. When legal fees to try to recover a mere $30,000 are taken into account, she ended up $400,000 in the hole from her experience with Brien, she said.
“I want people to know what she did,” Ayotte said.
A man named Raymond Mooney lent about $200,000 to Brien in 2018 as her company struggled, according to court and land records. A woman named Peggy Silvestri lent more than $250,000, according to those records. (It was more like double that, Silvestri said in an interview.)
Kevin Dempsey, whose four years at Sara Bella included doing just about everything, said Brien promised him a big salary and a permanent position. Instead he was paid very little, then paid in nothing but broken promises for two years, he said. He said he ended up living in the mansion’s carriage house, setting traps for vermin so they wouldn’t bite him at night. He used money from unemployment checks to buy food for Brien’s dog, he said. He borrowed money from his own brother to lend to Brien. She never paid him back, he said.
He compared Sara Bella to the Quentin Tarantino movie “Reservoir Dogs.” Nobody won in the end.
“That’s what happened here,” Dempsey said. “Literally everyone got screwed.”
In November 2018, as the home neared foreclosure, a Newport-based company called Aardvark Antiques arrived to take away the stained glass windows. The checks from Aardvark totaled about $17,000 and were written out to Darlene Brien personally.
Dempsey was there when the crews arrived.
“Anything of value in that building was just removed and sold, because she was desperate for funds,” Dempsey said. “I was present, and I didn’t stop it from happening, and I feel supremely guilty for that.”
You might not know the name Aardvark Antiques, but if you’ve driven to Newport from the Pell Bridge via the downtown exit, you’ve seen it. It’s the shop with the menagerie of metal in the front, and gorgeous old fixtures inside.
Company manager Jay Grover Silvestri (no relation to Peggy Silvestri) said they did everything by the book to acquire the wrought-iron gates and the stained glass windows.
“A woman that owned that place rightfully sold them to us,” Grover Silvestri said by telephone. “[They] were sold legally. It was all 100 percent legitimate. And that’s it.”
In June, the gates were still available at Aardvark Antiques. There, in the middle of the lot: “Gate from Goff House Pawtucket. $3,000.” Up against a wall, another: “Lion’s Gate Goff House Pawtucket. $5,500.” In December, the McPherson stained glass windows from the home’s main doors were still listed on the antique sellers’ website. The whereabouts of the other windows are unknown.
The city of Pawtucket said in an email that Brien removed and sold the windows without its knowledge. While the home is within a historic district and is on the National Register, it isn’t individually registered on the local level as a historic home within city zoning, so the city wouldn’t have been able to stop the removal on historic preservation grounds, Pawtucket officials told the Globe. Nevertheless, the city Business Development Corporation acknowledged recently that removing the windows without the city’s permission or knowledge violated the mortgage used to secure the $50,000 loan, which was never paid back in full.
Paciorek, for his part, said that Brien had no right to sell the windows. He sued Brien and Aardvark in September 2020 to get them back. They had been made by W.J. McPherson, a notable 19th-century designer. Paciorek argued in state court that they shouldn’t have been sold when the house was mortgaged to the hilt and subject to historic protections. Those loans, he argued, had restrictions that should have prevented Brien from selling them — and Aardvark knew or should have known about it, he said. In buying the house, he’d acquired the bank’s rights to the windows. His only goal, he says, is to get them back where they belong.
“I thought it was a cultural crime,” Paciorek said during a recent interview, sitting in the smoking room of the mansion. “It’s a travesty.”
A judge dismissed Aardvark — which denies doing anything improper or illegal — from the lawsuit in January. Brien’s answer to Paciorek’s lawsuit was filed by her lawyer brother, Jon Brien, who in November won an election to the General Assembly. Jon Brien said he otherwise had no substantive involvement in the workings of his sister’s company, and was never paid for his work. Darlene Brien often invoked his name when dealing with banks and the city of Pawtucket, but he said it’s not the sort of law he specialized in. They are now estranged, he said.
“Part of it was being put in positions that I never wanted to be in,” Jon Brien said. “I wanted nothing to do with (that business). And I had nothing to do with it. And in the end, relationships were destroyed because of it.”
Darlene Brien’s Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing in December 2019 lays out, in unsentimental detail, the trail of debts. Lawyers, vendors, private companies, plus the city, state, and federal governments. And people, too, including Ayotte, Mooney, and Silvestri.
Within a year, Brien’s bankruptcy case was closed. The bankruptcy trustee found no recoverable assets to pay back creditors, and Brien had $2.9 million in debt discharged. The bank did recover some funds by foreclosing on the Pitcher-Goff House and another house in Maine.
Unpaid debts included the Pawtucket Business Development Corporation’s $50,000 loan to incentivize Sara Bella’s move to the city; the loan to clean up mold in the basement had an unpaid balance of nearly $24,000 when the city Redevelopment Agency gave up on it.
The Small Business Administration and the Bristol County Savings Bank both declined to say how much, if anything, the federal government ended up paying to recoup the losses on the more than $1 million in federally guaranteed loans, but SBA records show the agency charged off (or gave up) about $770,000 from the two accounts.
After initially agreeing to take questions from the Globe, Brien complained to local police instead of responding to a reporter, so it’s impossible to say what exactly she used the money for.
But while people and governments lost money, the city lost priceless cultural artifacts, Paciorek says.
“The city is a real victim in this,” Paciorek told the Globe. “She used this house to hoodwink a lot of people.”
Paciorek said he now plans to use the Pitcher-Goff House for things like tours and art exhibitions. He’s still trying to get the windows back, but knows the odds are long. So he’s doing something else. Call it looking at the bright side. He’s been designing his own stained glass windows.
“It symbolizes positive growth and new beginnings,” Paciorek said. “And I think Pawtucket deserves that.”
This article has been updated to add that the gates and some of the stained glass windows from the Pitcher Goff House were recently seen in the antique store’s lot and online.