Court filing: Heirs have no contract to back claims in battle over Little Rock's historic Pike-Fletcher-Terry House

Little Rock’s Pike-Fletcher-Terry House on East Seventh Street, Oct. 20, 2021. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit over Little Rock's historic Pike-Fletcher-Terry House have attempted to "craft a contract" from various documents because no contract existed between them and the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation, according to a filing Monday in Pulaski County Circuit Court.

[DOCUMENT: Foundation's reply in support of motion to dismiss »]

The plaintiffs are arguing that a contract of some type existed as grounds for laying claim to what is left of a $1.6 million endowment raised in the 1980s to fund a decorative arts museum in the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, which is also known simply as the Terry House.

"The Heirs cannot create a contract by sleight of hand, no matter how they try," John E. Tull III, attorney for the Foundation and the museum, wrote in Monday's court filing. "The Heirs do nothing to explain how this mishmash of documentation and information can form an enforceable contract between the Heirs and the Foundation. The reality is that it cannot."

Tull used the word "heirs" because the lawsuit was filed Oct. 20 by six heirs of Adolphine Fletcher Terry and Mary Fletcher Drennan, who were sisters.

In 1964, Terry and Drennan deeded the house to the city "for the use and benefit of the Arkansas Arts Center and its successors." The Arts Center is now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.

The Arkansas Arts Center Foundation was formed in 1972, and in 1984 a fundraising drive began to establish a decorative arts museum in the Terry House.

Eventually, $1.6 million was raised, with the initial $1 million coming from the estate of former Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, according to court filings. The decorative arts museum, located in the Terry House, operated from 1985 to 2004.

Now vacant, the Terry House -- one of Little Rock's oldest and most-storied homes -- has fallen into disrepair and needs more than $1 million to restore it, according to court documents.

The heirs of Terry and Drennan filed suit against the city, museum and its Foundation saying the 1964 deed required that the property be kept up, and that's not happening.

According to the deed, a breach can result in the property reverting to heirs of the donors. But if that happens in this case, the heirs also want money from the 1980s endowment to help pay for restoration of the house.

Tull wrote in Monday's court filing that the heirs have no right to money donated by others 20 years later for a decorative arts museum. Besides, the money was all spent on the decorative arts museum, he wrote in a previous filing.

Richard H. Mays, attorney for the heirs, has argued that the endowment was for operation of the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, and he produced some documents to support that argument.

One of those documents was an Oct. 1, 1984, letter from Marion Burton, a co-trustee of the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, to Robert Shults, who was an attorney for the museum and Foundation.

The $1 million from the Rockefeller Trust was to be used for "the purpose of endowing the operation of the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House," wrote Burton.

"This communication was not prepared by the Foundation, and the Heirs were not a party," Tull wrote in Monday's filing. "Statements by third parties that are not directed to the Heirs cannot be the basis for a contract between the Heirs and the Foundation."

Tull made similar arguments regarding other documents cited by Mays.

The Foundation is not the museum's "alter ego," wrote Tull in response to one of Mays' arguments in the case.

"Acknowledging they have no contract with the Foundation, the Heirs ask the Court to ignore the distinction between the Foundation and the Museum, though they do not explain why that helps their case," wrote Tull. "Regardless, while they state the Foundation is the Museum's alter ego, they allege nothing in support. Arkansas law is clear that the distinction between entities must be respected, and a close relationship does not allow the separation to be ignored."

The heirs want an accounting of the endowment funds to ensure they were spent on the Terry House.

"Plaintiffs cannot request an accounting and, regardless, are not entitled to Foundation funds," wrote Tull.

Their claims should be dismissed, he wrote.

Tull's filing on Monday was a reply to a Nov. 22 filing from Mays.

Tull filed two more documents in the case on Tuesday on behalf of the museum: a motion to dismiss the first amended complaint and a brief in support of that motion. He filed similar documents on behalf of the Foundation on Nov. 19.

Also on Tuesday, Shawn A. Overton, chief deputy city attorney for Little Rock, filed a response to Mays' amended complaint saying "The City specifically denies that Plaintiff is entitled to any of the relief requested."

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Susan Terry Borne, Elizabeth Terry Foti, Mary Catherine Drennan, Leonard John Drennan III, Margaret Yatsevitch and Michael Yatsevitch.

The Pike-Fletcher-Terry House was built in 1840 for Albert Pike, who became a general in the Confederate Army, established a national reputation as an attorney and was one of the founders of the national Masonic fraternal organization, according to the lawsuit.

Later, the house was occupied by the family of Capt. John Gould Fletcher, a member of the Capitol Guards during the Civil War who became mayor of Little Rock and Pulaski County sheriff, according to court filings. His son, John Gould Fletcher Jr., won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1939.

More recently, Congressman David D. Terry and his family lived in the house.

His wife, Adolphine Fletcher Terry, was instrumental in forming the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, which opposed former Gov. Orval Faubus' resistance to the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1958, Mays wrote in a news release. The work led to the recall of three segregationist members of the School Board and the reopening of the Little Rock schools, according to the lawsuit.

The Women's Emergency Committee met in the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, and members' names are etched on windows of the room where the meetings took place.