In 1936, William Ackland wrote a letter to Duke University, Rollins College at Winter Park, Florida and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, stating his “thought of building and endowing a gallery in connection with some southern college or university.”
President Willam P. Few of Duke was the most enthusiastic respondent, so much so that he even had the university architect draw up the plans for the museum and the memorial it would contain so that Mr. Ackland could see them and hopefully fund the construction before his death. Mr. Ackland refused to do this, but he was delighted that Duke should have been so attentive, perhaps, it has been suggested, because he viewed Duke as the Harvard of the South, and he always regretted that he had acceded to his family's pressure and not gone to Harvard. Even more to the point, that university’s decision satisfied him because of his feeling that whatever the future might hold, the financial stability associated with Duke would guarantee the well-being of his museum. Late in 1938 his will was written, and he considered the matter settled.
William Hayes Ackland died unexpectedly on February 16, 1940. Before the end of the year, his brother’s heirs first tried to set aside the will and then filed suit to test the validity of the Trust. Soon after, President Few died and, in a startling reversal, the trustees of Duke refused the bequest. The Duke University administration never made public its reasons for refusing to accept the Ackland gift.
Thus it became essential legally to establish that Mr. Ackland’s goal had not been to enrich Duke but rather to use the good services of that university to further, as it came to be cited, “the cause of arts in the South.” That his first will, drawn up in 1936, specifically mentioned the three colleges he subsequently approached was evidence of this interpretation, while excerpts from the correspondence with President Few, which firmly convinced Mr. Ackland of Duke's commitment, in fact became the proof. The matter became of the greatest importance if the courts were to exercise the traditional right of judicial cy pres and choose another southern academic institution to carry out the program on which Duke had reneged.
Because of a decision in the court of appeals some 15 years previously, however, judicial cy pres was not effective in Washington, D. C., his legal residence. This was a grave blow, since the will, written in that city, had to be probated there. And without some sort of reversal of that earlier decision, there seemed no way to carry out Mr. Ackland’s clear intent.
Finding a solution to these problems made the following years busy ones for the many people representing a variety of interests. The interests of the Trustees established by Mr. Ackland’s will, namely, Mr. Edson B. Olds, Jr., and the American Security and Trust Company, were handled by John E. Larson of McKenney, Flannery and Craighill; those of the University by the former governor of North Carolina O. Max Gardner, a devoted trustee of the University and a member of the Washington law office of Gardner, Morrison, and Robers. Since it had been named in the will to receive a small annual legacy, Rollins was already a part to the suit that had been filed by the heirs.
In pursuit of Mr. Ackland’s wishes, Mr. Larson, acting for the Trustees, first turned to Governor Gardner to establish that, should this problem be resolved, the University at Chapel Hill would in fact be interested in being the recipient of the Trust, as would Rollins. Governor Gardner gained the University’s commitment, supervised the preparation of the University’s case, and thereafter followed the intricacies of the litigation with great interest.
It was, however, Mr. Larson’s genius which solved the problem. After months of study of the interpretation of cy pres from the time of Queen Elizabeth I right down to 1940 (in the course of that research distinguishing the difference between cy pres exercised by the monarch and that exercised by the judiciary) he finally found his solution. It was, as is so often the case in the courts, a fine legal point but nevertheless a pivotal one. The lower court’s decision had not defined cy pres with sufficient precision to reflect the common law inherited from English legal tradition by the new republic following the American Revolution. To prove that the lower court’s decision was inadequate, he prepared the briefs, argued the case, and successfully won a reversal of the decision. Thus, judicial cy pres could once again be brought to bear in the District of Columbia, which meant that, in turn, the most appropriate alternative to Mr. Ackland's testamentary wishes could finally be established.
When the confusion surrounding the definition of cy pres was settled and the heir’s efforts to break the will were finally put aside, the Trustees could turn to the basic issue and consider the claims of Rollins and UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as any other possible candidates. Rollins had been active in the pursuit of Mr. Ackland at the time he had initially written the three colleges in 1936. UNC-Chapel Hill had expressed interest, but apparently did not go further, perhaps because its commitment to the arts was just emerging. In 1941, the estate’s Trustees found a quite different reaction at Chapel Hill, an enthusiastic pursuit now based on actual accomplishment.
William D. Carmichael, the University’s vice-president and finance officer, presented the University’s case with conviction that led the Ackland Trustees to recommend that the courts should indeed name the University as the recipient of the Trust’s benefits. Their decision was largely based upon the understanding that the financial stability of the University, a state institution, was assured in perpetuity, that a graduate program in the arts was to be launched, and that, after all, Chapel Hill was not so far away from Duke, Mr. Ackland’s original choice. Surprisingly, a lower court contradicted the Trustee’s recommentaton and ruled in favor of Rollins, but, finally, in February 1949, a successful appeal before the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the lower court ruling and declared in favor of North Carolina. Despite a disappointment that, with the Korean War, all new construction using steel had to be delayed, Chapel Hill had much to celebrate.
Although there was a certain amount of controversy surrounding the design of the building, the final building was a restatement of Jeffersonian design tenets, retardataire for contemporary museum design, but, as Mr. Ackland had stipulated, effectively in harmony with the surrounding University.
With the burial of Mr. Ackland in the memorial area, the building was ready for its dedication, which occurred with justifiable fanfare on September 20, 1958. Acknowledging its great debt to John Larson, the University asked him to be the main speaker at the ceremonies.