Judge to decide whether Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, Foundation should be dismissed from Terry House lawsuit

Judge to rule on dropping museum, foundation from suit

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

LITTLE ROCK -- Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray said she would decide later whether the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and/or its foundation should be dismissed from a lawsuit over Little Rock's historic Pike-Fletcher-Terry House.

A third defendant in that lawsuit is the city of Little Rock.

After a two-hour court hearing by Zoom on Wednesday, Gray said she was taking the case under advisement and would normally make a decision within two weeks. A conference call with the attorneys has been scheduled for Feb. 17. If she reaches a decision sooner, Gray said she would notify the attorneys in writing.

There was some confusion during Wednesday's hearing over whether the judge was to consider one or two motions to dismiss.

John E. Tull III, attorney for the museum and its foundation, filed two motions to dismiss the first amended complaint -- one on behalf of the foundation and one on behalf of the museum. (Before filing those two motions, Tull filed a motion to dismiss the original complaint on behalf of the foundation.)

Richard H. Mays, attorney for the plaintiffs, said his response to the foundation's motion to dismiss was meant to include the museum's motion as well.

"The issues are the same," Mays told the court. "The response to the foundation's motion is the same as would be to the arts center, or the museum's motion."

Gray asked Mays if he intended for his one response to cover both defendants' motions to dismiss the amended complaint, and he said yes.

"I'll take a look at it," said the judge. "I thought that he had some things in there that applied to both of the defendants, but I'll take a look at it. ... It helps me to know which motion to dismiss I'm supposed to be deciding."

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 over the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House.

The two-story, Greek Revival mansion at 411 E. Seventh St. was built in 1840 by Albert Pike.

It's "widely recognized as an architectural landmark," according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

"It has housed several prominent Arkansas families and served as a school and museum," according to the encyclopedia. "It also was the meeting place for the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools during the aftermath of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957."

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.

In the lawsuit, the heirs say 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.

In Wednesday's hearing, Tull said the heirs are asking for something to which they aren't entitled under Arkansas law -- money raised in the 1980s for the decorative arts museum.

"They want a pool of money in order to fix up the house, to restore it, and then they want to keep it," said Tull.

Mays said his clients don't want the house, but they want it to be used by the community. They've set up a nonprofit for that purpose.

"The heirs have made it very clear in this case that they are not trying to get the property back to use it for themselves," Mays told the court.

Mays said the Terry House and the decorative arts museum were one and the same.

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 income from the endowment was to be spent.

"The question is whether the plaintiffs have a claim to the endowment," Mays told the court Wednesday. "We assert that they do."

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.

Last month, Little Rock city board members approved an amendment to this year's budget that allocated $500,000 in capital improvements to the Terry House.

Mays said in a telephone interview Monday that he has yet to hear from the city about that allocation or how it is to be used.

Also Monday, the Museum of Fine Arts announced that it had turned the keys of the Terry House over to the city of Little Rock.

"The AMFA has given the city the keys and its maintenance manual for the property," according to the statement. "In addition, to ensure there is no lapse in service or maintenance of the property, the AMFA Foundation will continue to cover utility costs until the city is able to make an orderly transition. The AMFA values the historic significance of the building and appreciates the years it was allowed to use the building and grounds."

"This removes us from the picture and allows the city to move the building and grounds forward in whatever manner the city sees fit," Van Tilbury, the museum's board of trustees president, said during a board meeting Monday.

Mays said he and his clients were given access to the Terry House on Jan. 12 and inspected it at that time.