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OPINION | REX NELSON: Saving a house

by Rex Nelson | April 3, 2021 at 7:55 a.m.

Little Rock's Pike-Fletcher-Terry House has been in the news lately as preservationists attempt to convince officials at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (formerly the Arkansas Arts Center) to do something with the home. In 1964, sisters Adolphine Terry and Mary Drennan deeded the property to the city of Little Rock and specified that the house be used by the arts museum.

"In 1977, after Terry died, Drennan voluntarily surrendered her life estate," writes noted Little Rock architect Charles Witsell Jr. "The AAC then rehabilitated the house as gallery and support space. Rehabilitation construction was done in two phases, generally, from the architect's inspection in 1978 to the one-year warranty inspection in 1985. The museum opened as the AAC Decorative Arts Museum in March 1985.

"In 2004, it became the Arkansas Arts Center Terry House Community Gallery, a multipurpose gallery in which local and regional art was shown. However, it was later closed and now sits empty and unused."

The house has suffered significant deterioration in recent years. In 2017, an assessment was done by architect Tommy Jameson in an attempt to determine the extent of the damage. It was said at the time that it would take more than $1 million to make the house functional again.

In the words of one preservationist: "Former AAC director Townsend Wolfe's vision as a museum dedicated to decorative arts and design in the magnificent setting of Arkansas' premier example of Greek Revival architecture was seen as a stunning complement and contrast to the main AAC campus that was truly innovative, especially for the time and place. But now the house is in a state of crisis, and time for a solution is critical because of its continuing deterioration.

"A number of years ago, the AAC essentially abandoned the house. The AAC has made it clear it wants to unload the house and turn it over to someone else."

The mansion at 411 East Seventh St. near MacArthur Park is best known as the meeting place for the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, which was formed following the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis of 1957. The structure has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972 and has been home to some of this state's most prominent families.

"The builder of the house, Albert Pike, came to Arkansas from New England in 1832 and had a varied career that included being a teacher, poet, lawyer, newspaper owner and editor, and Civil War general," Witsell writes. "In 1839, he purchased the 12 lots of block 61 from Chester Ashley, a lawyer and land speculator who later became a U.S. senator. Pike purchased an additional lot across Eighth Street to the south, where he constructed outbuildings.

"For both purchases, he used resources either from the estate of his wife's father or from his new career in law. The house in its original configuration was two-story brick with a central hallway on each floor, two large rooms on each side and a low, sloping hipped roof used to collect and channel rainwater to one or more cisterns. He constructed a number of outbuildings--including a two-story detached kitchen, a stable and a carriage house."

The board of Arkansas Female College leased the house and grounds from Pike's daughter in 1873. The school opened in October 1874. Lou Krause purchased the property in 1886 and planned improvements to the school that were never made. Title was transferred to her brother-in-law, John G. Fletcher, in 1889.

Fletcher was a Civil War veteran who became one of the South's leading cotton brokers and bankers. His business partner was Austrian-born merchant Peter Hotze.

"The partnership lasted until their retirement in 1900," Witsell writes. "Fletcher was president of German National Bank and was a civic leader of his day. He was Little Rock's mayor from 1875-81 and an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor in 1884 and 1888. During the Fletcher occupancy, a classroom building was removed, as was the original two-story kitchen building, which was replaced with an indoor kitchen. A conservatory was added on the east side and a porch on the west side, and the low roof was replaced with a much steeper one."

When Fletcher's wife, Adolphine Krause Fletcher, died in 1910, the estate was shared by the three children--Adolphine, Mary and John Gould.

"John Gould Fletcher went on to achieve distinction as a poet, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1939, but he lived much of his life abroad," Witsell writes. "Mary married career soldier Leonard Drennan and never moved back to Arkansas. Adolphine married David Dickson Terry, who distinguished himself as a lawyer, civic leader and U.S. congressman. They were married in the front parlor of the house in 1910 and lived there for most of the rest of their lives."

Stables and servants' quarters were removed in 1916. A brick garage was constructed, a sleeping porch was added, and a screened porch was built. The main staircase was also replaced.

"Adolphine Terry was a graduate of Vassar College and spent much of her life working for the causes of education improvement, public libraries and racial harmony," Witsell writes. "She was known as the leader of the WEC, and many of the meetings were held in her house, a fact that's commemorated by the etched names of committee members in the glass panels of the conservatory."

Now determined Arkansans have stepped forward to prevent the further decline of one of this state's most historic structures.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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