In court filing, museum's attorney says heirs to Little Rock's historic Pike Fletcher House 'just want headlines'

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 haven't been denied access to the house as they allege, according to a filing in Pulaski County Circuit Court.

They just need to "schedule the inspection," John E. Tull III, attorney for the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and its foundation, wrote in a response filed Wednesday.

Allegations of denied access were an attempt to "create a false narrative to garner press coverage," according to Tull.

"They just want headlines," he wrote in Wednesday's filing.

Richard H. Mays, attorney for the plaintiffs, filed a motion Tuesday saying they couldn't get access to the 181-year-old house so they can go in and assess its condition.

Mays wrote that, on Sept. 3, he asked the city for access.

"The City orally agreed to such access, but has not produced a key to the House, and claims not to have a key," wrote Mays.

Then, on Nov. 18, Mays sent letters to Tull and Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter asking for access, but Mays never heard back, according to his filing.

In the letter, Mays wrote, "As you know, we have the option of serving a request for entry upon the property for those purposes under Rule 34 of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure, but I would hope that we could make arrangements for this visit on a less formal basis. If not, we will serve a formal request under that rule."

In his motion Tuesday, Mays asked the court to order the defendants to make the property available for inspection.

In his response Wednesday, Tull said the plaintiffs' "motion is meritless" and, like their complaint, premised on a falsehood.

"To be clear, all the Heirs have to do to gain access to the Terry House is schedule the inspection," wrote Tull. "But even if something more were required, the Heirs failed to follow the law. As the letter attached to their motion makes clear, they never made a request for inspection under Rule 34 of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure. Even if they had, they did not confer before filing their motion -- a requirement under Rule 37. And the reason is clear: they are not really interested in accessing the house; they just want headlines."

"They filed their motion out of apparent concern that coverage was shifting to things like the Omicron variant and inflation and away from their lawsuit," Tull wrote in Wednesday's response. "But the heirs cannot win their case through the media. They need a legal basis for what they are trying to do; they have none."

Built in 1840 for Albert Pike, a prominent Arkansas lawyer and later Confederate general, the Greek Revival mansion at 411 E. Seventh St. has been deteriorating and needs more than $1 million in restoration work, according to court filings.

The house was deeded to the city in 1964 by two sisters, Adolphine Fletcher Terry and Mary Fletcher Drennan, who stipulated that it was to be "for the use and benefit of the Arkansas Arts Center and its successors." The Arts Center is now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.

On Oct. 20, six heirs of Terry and Drennan filed a lawsuit against the city of Little Rock, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation, saying the house has been neglected.

According to the deed, the property can revert to the heirs if the conditions aren't met.

The plaintiffs 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.

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.

Tull has consistently argued that the heirs' agreement was with the city, not the museum or its foundation.

"The City has the keys, and, if it cannot find them, keys can be provided," Tull wrote in Wednesday's filing. "The heirs simply need to arrange for a time to view the property. There is no legitimate reason to involve this Court."

On Tuesday, Little Rock city board members approved a budget amendment that allocated $500,000 in capital improvements to the Terry House.

Mays told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this month that the city's pledge to spend the money wouldn't change the plaintiffs' legal strategy.

"It's also important that we have a discussion about what use is going to be made of the house by the city," said Mays.