A lawsuit filed today alleges that the city of Little Rock, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, and the museum’s foundation have allowed the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, the mansion at 411 East 7th Street, to fall into disrepair — violating the terms of the deed that conveyed the property.
The city and the museum have also failed to follow the deed’s requirement that the property be used “exclusively for the advancement of the cultural, artistic or educational interests of the community,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit, filed by the heirs of Adolphine Fletcher Terry, the last to occupy the house, and Mary Fletcher Drennan, her sister, argues that the property should now revert to the heirs under the terms of the deed.
The Terry House has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972. Albert Pike, who came to Arkansas from New England in 1832, built the house in 1840, making it one of the oldest in Pulaski County.
Terry and Drennan donated the house and the city block on which it is located in 1964 to the City of Little Rock for the use and benefit of the Arkansas Arts Center (now known as the Museum of Fine Arts).
From a press release accompanying the lawsuit:
[I]n the years since the gift, the property was used as a decorative arts museum and for assorted purposes. However the Arts Center, which is now known as the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, has ceased using the property for the purposes specified in the deed, and ceased maintaining the house, causing it to significantly deteriorate. Recent estimates indicate that approximately $1.3 million will currently be required to restore the house to stable condition.
The press release also includes a statement from Susan Terry Borné and Beth Terry Foti, two of the plaintiffs in the case and granddaughters of Adolphine Fletcher Terry:
We and our entire family deeply regret that it has become necessary to file a lawsuit against the City of Little Rock and the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and its foundation. However, the property that is involved is too important to the political and cultural history of the state of Arkansas to allow it to decay further. By taking this action, we are doing what is necessary to regain and restore the property and will find a use for it that will fulfill the wishes of our grandmother, Adolphine Fletcher Terry, and our great-aunt, Mary Fletcher Drennan, that this great property be used for public purposes.
In May, Preservation Arkansas named the Terry House to its 2021 list of the state’s Most Endangered Places, explaining in a press release:
In 2017, preservation architect Tommy Jameson completed a condition assessment on the house, indicating approximately $1 million in needed repairs at that time. Now, deferred maintenance has taken its toll, and the building’s exterior is showing signs of significant disrepair. Water penetration and foundation issues are causing wood and brick failure that is especially evident at the front porch, solarium, and eaves. For every day these issues go unaddressed, the repairs grow more costly, putting the home’s future in jeopardy.
There is strong public support to save this place – the Friends of the Terry Mansion Facebook group has nearly 1,000 followers, and recent letter-writing and social media campaigns resulted in fence repair at the site. With this listing, Preserve Arkansas hopes to raise awareness of the home’s significance and the need for preservation to a wider audience, encourage emergency repairs, and help to find a sustainable use for the house that will benefit all stakeholders.
“The Mansion is perhaps the city’s most important historical home, and it is falling to ruin,” argues the “Friends of the Terry Mansion” Facebook page.
From the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, here’s the history of the Arkansas Arts Center’s involvement:
The AAC then rehabilitated the house as gallery and support space. Rehabilitation construction was done in two phases, generally, from the architect’s inspection in 1978 to the one-year warranty inspection in 1985. The museum opened as the AAC Decorative Arts Museum in March 1985. In 2004, it became the Arkansas Arts Center Terry House Community Gallery, a multi-purpose gallery in which local and regional art was shown.
However, it was later closed and now sits empty and unused.
The museum, renamed the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts earlier this year, is currently undergoing a renovation and expansion, with its new building slated to open in 2022.
Where does that leave the Terry house? A D-G report from May suggests that interest from the museum is tepid, with city leaders suggesting the city could take over upkeep if an endowment was in place:
Capi Peck, a Little Rock city director, said the Terry house “doesn’t really fit” with what the museum is doing now.
Peck said the city is prepared to assume operation of the Terry house from the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, but an endowment for its upkeep would need to accompany the house.
Peck said there was an endowment for upkeep and maintenance of the house, and that endowment was about $2 million back in the 1980s.
“The city would then bring it back under its direction if the endowment comes with it,” said City Attorney Tom Carpenter. He said city officials have been discussing the matter with heirs of the Terry family.
Here’s more history on the house from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas (much more at the full entry):
The Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, located at 411 East 7th Street in the MacArthur Park Historic District of Little Rock (Pulaski County), has been widely recognized as an architectural landmark since its construction in 1840. It has housed several prominent Arkansas families and served as a school and museum. It also was the meeting place for the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC) during the aftermath of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Although the house was remodeled several times, it retains much of its original Greek Revival character.
The builder of the house, Albert Pike, came to Arkansas from New England in 1832 and had a varied career that included being a teacher, poet, lawyer, newspaper owner and editor, and Civil War general. In 1839, he purchased the twelve lots of block 61 from Chester Ashley, a prominent lawyer and land speculator who later became a U.S. senator. Pike purchased an additional lot across 8th Street to the south, where he constructed additional outbuildings. For both purchases, he used resources either from the estate of his wife’s father or from his new career in law. The house in its original configuration was two-story brick, with a central hallway on each floor, two large rooms on each side, and a low, sloping hipped roof used to collect and channel rainwater to one or more cisterns. He constructed a number of outbuildings—including a two-story detached kitchen, a stable, and a carriage house—on many of the thirteen lots. The initial configuration of the house had a small front porch of unknown design. Within the next few years, this porch was removed and replaced with a broad gallery with six monumental Ionic columns.