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Foundation, state fight over Terrace Hill

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A view outside the gate of Terrace Hill last week in Des Moines.

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A view of the exterior of Terrace Hill last week in Des Moines.

DES MOINES (AP) — A dispute is unfolding in Polk County district court over who owns the sofas in Gov. Kim Reynolds’ house.

A petition filed by the Terrace Hill Society Foundation lays out a conflict it says has grown between it and the Terrace Hill Commission, the state agency responsible for managing Terrace Hill, the official Iowa governor’s mansion in Des Moines.

The nonprofit organization maintains it owns many of the furnishings and other items in the spectacular Second Empire edifice, long the city’s most famous residence. But, according to court filings, the Terrace Hill Commission is denying the group access to maintain and inspect its collection.

A list of the items the foundation claims are part of its collection does not include all furnishings at Terrace Hill, but foundation attorney Jason Casini said it encompasses hundreds of items, including furniture, books, fine china and historical artifacts. Many of those items are “irreplaceable,” Casini said in an email, and the collection is insured for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

According to the complaint, the foundation, which abbreviates its name THSF, for decades has had access to the property to inspect, maintain and repair or replace items, as needed. It said that in recent years, however, “A disagreement has developed between the Commission and THSF regarding ownership and control over the Collection, resulting in the Commission, in effect, seizing control of the Collection and denying THSF … control over it or access to it.”

The disagreement over ownership and control of the collection dates back to 2014, Casini said.

“The Commission has not explicitly claimed ownership, but it claims that the Collection is not owned by THSF and based on that position has denied THSF access to it,” he said.

The petition seeks declaratory judgment, asking the court to pronounce the foundation the proper owner of the items as well as monetary donations for the collection’s upkeep. It further seeks an injunction from the court granting the foundation access to its collection.

Casini said in a news release that the foundation “was reluctant to pursue this legal action and viewed it as a last resort.”

“Numerous attempts over several years to amicably and informally resolve these pending issues with the Commission have been met with indifference and inaction,” he said.

A representative of the commission declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Reynolds’ office referred questions about the dispute to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, where a spokesperson also declined to comment.

Reynolds is the fifth Iowa governor to live at Terrace Hill, which occupies a commanding position atop a towering hill south of Grand Avenue, overlooking the Raccoon River and Waterworks Park as well as the downtown skyline. The first resident governor, Robert Ray, took occupancy in 1976, and Gov. Terry Branstad lived there twice, returning after defeating then-Gov. Chet Culver in 2010.

The home dates from 1869, built by Des Moines’ first millionaire, Benjamin Franklin Allen, who made his fortune in banking and real estate. He served as a state senator before going bust in a controversial bank failure, and sold the mansion in 1884 to insurance and real estate magnate Frederick Hubbell for a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had paid to have it built.

Hubbell’s descendants lived there until 1957. In 1971 they donated the house, long vacant, to the state, and the Legislature voted to renovate it to serve as the governor’s mansion. But it didn’t initially allocate any funds for the project, so the Terrace Hill Society, later to add “foundation” to its name, formed the following year to raise the funds and to collect fine furniture, art, carpets, books, silver, china and other items to decorate and equip the vast house, empty since the Hubbells moved out.

One potential source of the current disagreement about who controls the collection: From the beginning, the society was tied closely to the state. Though it was a nonprofit corporation, among it incorporators was then-Iowa Secretary of State George Mills, who headed the state’s Terrace Hill Planning Commission — forerunner of the Terrace Hill Commission. Also among the founders was the state treasurer, and contributors to the society were directed to send their donations in care of the treasurer’s office.

Still, coverage over the years indicates the two groups long worked amicably together, and provide no indication of what sparked their rift.

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