Heirs locked out of Little Rock's historic Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, need key to inspect the mansion

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 can't get a key to go in and look around.

They need to do that so they can assess the condition of the house, which was built in 1840, according to Richard H. Mays, their attorney.

In a Pulaski County Circuit Court filing Tuesday, Mays said he asked the city for a key Sept. 3. The city claims not to have a key. On Nov. 18, he wrote John E. Tull III, attorney for the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and its Foundation, requesting a key. Mays said he has yet to hear back.

Mays wants the court to require the defendants to make the two-story, Greek Revival mansion at 411 E. Seventh St. available for inspection under Arkansas Rule of Civil Procedure 34.

The plaintiffs should be awarded attorneys fees "for the cost of filing and pursuing this Motion as a result of the Defendants' failure to respond to Plaintiffs' request for inspection," according to the filing.

It was the latest salvo in the battle over the historic property.

On Oct. 20, six heirs of Adolphine Fletcher Terry and Mary Fletcher Drennan filed a lawsuit against the City of Little Rock, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation.

In 1964, Terry and Drennan, who were sisters, 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 Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, which is also known as 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 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, saying the 1964 deed required that the property be kept up. According to the deed, the property can revert to the heirs if the conditions aren't met.

They don't want the house, according to court filings, but they will take it if it's accompanied by "endowment" money that can be used to restore the property so it can be used by the public, according to court filings.

Tull has pointed out that the museum's Foundation didn't exist until 1972, eight years after the property was deeded to the city.

Mays responded in filings, saying the city didn't take possession of the property until 1977, five years after the Foundation was formed.

Mays argues that the 1964 deed was a "contract binding on the city," and the Foundation is a party because it benefited financially from the Terry House by using it as a museum and a vehicle for fundraising.

"The Foundation existed at the time that the Deed to the Property became effective," Mays wrote in a Dec. 2 filing.

"The Foundation cites no authority for its apparent position that, in order for an entity to be bound by a contract, the entity has to be in existence at the inception of the contract. ... The long-standing law of Arkansas is that a contract nominally between two parties can be assumed by a third party if that third party accepted the benefits of the contract with full knowledge of the contract."

In a response Dec. 9, Tull wrote, "Now the Heirs assert the ridiculous argument that the Foundation somehow ratified and assumed the deed to the City of Little Rock."

Tull has said in court filings that all of the money raised during the 1980s fundraiser was spent on operations of the Terry House.

Mays wants an accounting of that spending. He argues that the fundraiser was meant to establish an endowment, and only a small portion of the income from the endowment was to be spent.

"Plaintiffs allege and seek an accounting because of the apparent violation by the Foundation of generally accepted principles of endowment fund management," wrote Mays. "There is no way to determine whether that violation occurred without an accounting. The Foundation's own admission that 'The Foundation used all funds raised for the decorative arts museum' -- a statement that appears to violate generally-accepted accounting principles -- is a clear indication that the claim of Accounting is legitimate and necessary."

Tull takes issue with the "endowment" talk.

"The Heirs go further as they stake their claim to what they say is an endowment for the Terry House and argue they should personally receive the funds," he wrote in the Dec. 9 filing.

"To get there, the Heirs conflate conveyance of the Terry House to the City of Little Rock with the activities of the Foundation in establishing what the Heirs say is an endowment. ...

"The deed at issue, however, does not establish a trust, and the Heirs do not have some right to control funds they say should be for the Terry House," wrote Tull.

"This Court should reject the Heirs' ever changing arguments and dismiss the claims against the Foundation under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure."

Little Rock city board members on Tuesday evening approved a budget amendment to this year's budget that allocated $500,000 in capital improvements to the Terry House.

Information for this article was contributed by Joseph Flaherty of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.