Little Rock pledges $500,000 for improvements to Pike-Fletcher-Terry House amid legal fight over historic mansion

The Pike-Fletcher-Terry House pictured on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021 in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Little Rock's municipal administration has pledged to spend $500,000 on the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House if city directors approve an amended budget later this month amid a legal fight over the state of the historic property.

The city's finance director, Sara Lenehan, told board members this week that plans are in the works to provide them with a budget amendment that includes the $500,000 allocation -- hopefully to be matched by private donations -- for capital improvements to the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House.

The historic Greek Revival mansion at 411 E. Seventh St. is the subject of a lawsuit filed by six heirs of the sisters who originally deeded the home to the city for the benefit of what was then known as the Arkansas Arts Center. (The Arkansas Arts Center recently changed its name to the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.)

An Oct. 20 complaint filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court asked for ownership of the mansion to revert to the heirs. It claimed that neglect and non-use had subjected the property to deterioration that would accelerate over time.

The complaint also requested that money in an endowment intended for the mansion be turned over to the heirs.

Lenehan's comments came during a meeting Tuesday evening after the new Ward 1 City Director, Virgil Miller Jr., said he had received a lot of phone calls and emails from constituents asking him to advocate for the mansion.

Mayor Frank Scott Jr. then asked Lenehan to move to the podium and deliver the news.

Though she suggested that officials do not have "definitive answers yet," they were working on the final budget amendment for 2021, which would be ready for the board at its Dec. 21 meeting.

She recalled recent budget variables, including stronger-than-anticipated sales tax revenue in the past two months that exceeded the forecast by about $1.4 million.

Scott said "we've been following a lot of the issues with the Terry mansion, and the deeds and who owns what, but we felt it was imperative that we honor the history of the Terry mansion, and figure out a solution and work with the family there."

He acknowledged the advocacy work of Ward 4 City Director Capi Peck, who was absent from the meeting Tuesday.

In response to the statements by Little Rock officials, Richard H. Mays, an attorney for the heirs, said he viewed their discussion as a "positive step" but one that would not affect their legal strategy at this point.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Mays said "it's just the first step, and it's a small step because the money's important, but it's also important that we have a discussion about what use is going to be made of the house by the city."

Mays added that the sum of money city officials discussed "is substantial, but it's not enough to do the work that needs to be done to restore the property."

He suggested that even if an arrangement could be worked out with the city, the heirs would still pursue a claim against the Museum of Fine Arts' foundation.

Constructed in 1840, the house has ties to significant individuals in Central Arkansas' history.

They include Confederate general Albert Pike, for whom the house was originally built; John Gould Fletcher, who served as mayor of Little Rock in the late 1800s and whose son won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for poetry; and former Congressman David D. Terry.

Sisters Adolphine Fletcher Terry and Mary Fletcher Drennan deeded the property to the city in 1964.

A decorative arts museum was housed in the mansion from 1985 until it closed, and the house in 2004 became a community gallery. The building is now vacant, and the heirs say it needs significant repairs.

The complaint from the six heirs named Little Rock, the museum and the museum's foundation. It requested that any money left in an endowment -- which at one time held more than $1 million because of a fundraising effort meant for the property -- be turned over to the heirs.

John E. Tull III, an attorney representing the Museum of Fine Arts and the foundation, has argued in court filings that the museum is not a party to the deed and that the documentation provided by the heirs does not amount to an enforceable contract between them and the museum's foundation.

A Nov. 30 court filing from the Little Rock city attorney's office asked that the heirs' amended complaint be dismissed and denied that they were entitled to the relief requested.

At Tuesday's meeting, at-large City Director Joan Adcock asked the mayor to send out a news release on the potential allocation and cited the calls officials have been receiving about the house.

Scott indicated that officials would get a news release out, then City Attorney Tom Carpenter interjected: "We've got a lawsuit going on with the Terry House. I'm excited to hear about this money. I'm scared to death of sending out a press release, and that this doesn't work out and it comes back to bite us because somebody reads it the wrong way."

Moments later, Scott suggested that he agreed and referred to the coming budget amendment scheduled for action on Dec. 21.

Information for this article was contributed by Bill Bowden of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.