Archive for the ‘Little Rock’ Category

The Albert Pike and the Sam Peck

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

It was 1929, the year the Great Depression began, when the Albert Pike Hotel opened in downtown Little Rock.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the best time to be opening a hotel, but the Albert Pike would reign as one of the state’s best-known hotels for decades. In 1971, Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church bought the hotel for $740,000 and transformed it into a residence hotel. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Now in private hands, it remains a residential facility for those ages 55 and older.

The block on which the hotel was built once had been occupied by a house constructed in 1827 for Robert Crittenden, the secretary of the Arkansas Territory. The Crittenden House was among the first brick residences in Little Rock. Facing financial problems, Crittenden attempted to trade the house for 10 sections of undeveloped land, hoping the brick home would become the site of the territorial capitol. Foreclosure followed Crittenden’s death in 1834, and the house was sold to Judge Benjamin Johnson, whose heirs later sold it to Dr. E.V. Dewell.

Dewell, in turn, sold the house to Gov. James P. Eagle, and it was the official governor’s residence from 1889-93. The Crittenden House was razed in 1920.

The 175-room Albert Pike was constructed at a cost of almost $1 million. The hotel was built in the Spanish Revival style, which was popular in California. It featured tiled roofs, exposed beams, decorative tile, iron work and stained-glass windows. The building is Little Rock’s only remaining major example of Spanish Revival architecture.

At the time the Farrell Hotel Co. opened it, the Albert Pike was considered to be among the finest hotels in the South. Architect Eugene John Stern designed two main wings of eight stories each that extended toward Scott Street and were connected across the back by a 10-story section. Above the entries were terra-cotta medallions with heraldic shields and the initials “AP.”

The two-story main lobby was overlooked by a mezzanine that featured a custom-made Hazelton Brothers grand piano designed to match the building’s interior features. Hazelton Brothers Piano Co., established in 1840 by brothers Henry and Fredrick Hazelton in New York City, was one of the premier piano manufacturers of the period.

The owners decided to name the hotel after Albert Pike, a prominent lawyer who had died in 1891. Pike, a central figure in the development of Freemasonry in the state, was a poet, a writer and a Confederate commander in the Indian Territory during the Civil War.

In 1976, the residence hotel received a $2.4 million loan from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for infrastructure improvements. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in November 1978. In late 1985, it was purchased by a privately held corporation based in Jonesboro. The new owners continued upgrades to the interior, including restoration of what’s known as the North Lounge in 1994.

In May 2013, BSR Trust of Little Rock and Montgomery, Ala., completed the purchase of the 130-unit apartment building. Empire Corp. of Knoxville, Tenn., was hired to perform additional renovations.

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program notes: “The main significance of the Albert Pike Hotel lies not in the site on which it stands nor in the man for whom it was named; rather the real significance lies in its vivid reflections of a bygone time and an architecture appropriate for that time. The Albert Pike was built in the year of the great crash, but as near as the crash and Great Depression were, the time was still the Roaring Twenties when the hotel was built. It was still a time of spending, speculation and naïve economic optimism. The lavishness of the hotel’s architecture is a kind of social art reflecting that time of high living so soon to end.”

By the time the Albert Pike was built in 1929, the Hotel Frederica had been going strong for more than a decade. Businessman Fred Allsopp chose the corner of Capitol Avenue and Gaines Street in downtown Little Rock to construct a five-story building in 1913 with one bathroom on each floor. The rates were $2 per night for a room, $20 per month and 50 cents for meals.

Allsopp had been born in 1867 in England (the country, not the town in Lonoke County). His family moved to Arkansas — Prescott to be exact — when he was 12. He began selling newspapers and by age 16 was setting type for the Nevada County Picayune. He applied for a job at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock when he was just 17 and was hired. Allsopp started work in the mailroom but was ambitious and quickly moved up the ladder. After learning shorthand and typing, he was transferred to the business office as a stenographer and subscription clerk. Allsopp would write letters, keep files in order and take dictation. He later moved to the newsroom. After several bad experiences as a reporter, he returned to the business department.

James Newton Smithee became the majority owner of the Gazette in May 1896 and appointed Allsopp as the newspaper’s secretary and assistant business manager. Allsopp moved up to business manager and was asked to stay on when a new group of owners came along in 1899. Judge Carrick Heiskell of Memphis bought the newspaper in 1902 along with sons John and Fred. Allsopp became a minor stockholder, though the Heiskell family later would buy back his shares.

“Allsopp developed a reputation for his penny-pinching ways,” Dennis Schick wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He insisted on keeping advertisements on the front page long after that went out of style. He dragged his feet on virtually every new proposal, from daily and color comics to going to a seven-day publication. But in 1906, the newspaper added a Monday edition, becoming a seven-day-a-week publication, and the newspaper added color comics in 1908, a first in the state.

“A lifelong lover of books, Allsopp recognized that he had a book-publishing opportunity within easy grasp with his newspaper’s printing department and bindery. In addition to publishing books, he collected them and opened a bookstore, Allsopp & Chapple, the leading bookstore in Little Rock.”

Allsopp also wrote five books.

In 1935, Sam and Henrietta Peck bought the Hotel Frederica and immediately began to make changes. Bathrooms were added, as was a sixth floor of suites. The Pecks lived on the fifth floor, and the hotel’s name was changed to the Sam Peck Hotel.

In 1938, the Pecks hired architect Edward Durrell Stone to design an art deco annex. Stone, who had been born at Fayetteville in 1902, would go on to become one of the most famous architects of the 20th century.

“The youngest of three children, Stone attended Fayetteville’s public schools but was not a serious student,” Robert Skolmen wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother encouraged his talents for drawing and building things and allowed him to have a home carpentry shop. At age 14, he won first prize in the countywide birdhouse competition, the judges of which included an architect and the president of the University of Arkansas.”

Stone attended the University of Arkansas from 1920-23 and then moved to Boston, where his brother was an architect. Stone was hired as a draftsman by Henry Shepley, one of the city’s leading architects. Stone later attended the Harvard Architectural School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, though he never graduated. He headed to Europe for two years in 1927. When Stone returned to the United States, he settled in New York, working on projects such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Goodyear House. He was the chief of the planning and design section of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II.

Stone returned to Arkansas after the war, designing buildings such as the University Hospital in Little Rock and the Sigma Nu house on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. Childhood friend J. William Fulbright even asked him to design a line of furniture, which was manufactured by Fulbright Industries of Fayetteville in the 1950s.

Stone would go on to design such well-known structures as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, the General Motors building in New York City, the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, the El Panama Hotel in Panama City, Panama, and the Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif.

When Winthrop Rockefeller fled New York in 1953 for Arkansas, the Sam Peck Hotel was the first place he called home. Rockefeller, who was among the world’s richest men, was in a sense a refugee from a highly publicized divorce and the constant scrutiny that anyone with the name Rockefeller was forced to live under in Manhattan. He was a far different man than his brothers. He had withdrawn from Yale University after three years and gone to the oil fields of Texas to serve as an apprentice roughneck. Rockefeller later would tell friends that it was one of the happiest periods of his life.

In 1937, at age 25, the man who later would become known in our state simply as WR returned to New York and went to work for the family’s Socony-Vacuum oil company. He didn’t like it. Another happy period would be Rockefeller’s Army career during World War II. He had enlisted as a private more than 10 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By the end of the war, Rockefeller was a lieutenant colonel who had seen action at Guam and Okinawa.

“Rockefeller’s years after World War II were not happy ones,” Arkansas historian Tom Dillard wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Still working at Socony-Vacuum, he chaffed at the restrictive lifestyle expected of him and his siblings. A heavy drinker known for his playboy lifestyle, Rockefeller often frequented chic cafes late at night with a movie star on his arm. He abruptly married an attractive blonde divorcee named Barbara ‘Bobo’ Sears on Valentine’s Day in 1948. Soon they were the parents of a son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, but the marriage dissolved within a year.”

So he fled to Arkansas and the Sam Peck at the invitation of an old Army friend who was from Arkansas, Frank Newell. His arrival date was June 9, 1953. Within a year, Rockefeller had purchased a large tract of land atop Petit Jean Mountain and set out to create a model ranch. Ultimately, he would change an entire state.

The third and final section of the Sam Peck Hotel was built in 1960. The 49-room addition was designed in the fashion of the motor inns of the era and was intended to capture some of the business that had been lost to the motels being built on the roads leading in and out of Little Rock. Downtown Little Rock was about to begin a long, slow decline, and the Sam Peck declined with it.

The original five-story hotel was renovated in 1984, and the hotel reopened as the Legacy. A number of owners would be involved during the years that followed, and the hotel closed for a time in 1996. Another group of owners performed renovations in 2003. They enclosed the exterior corridor of the motor inn portion and connected it to the original hotel.

I was there with Gov. Mike Huckabee on that June day in 2003 when Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller re-enacted his father checking into the hotel on the 50th anniversary of that important date in Arkansas history. The lieutenant governor even used the suitcase that his father had carried on that day.

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The grand hotels

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

The early 20th century was a time for building hotels in downtown Little Rock. Most of the hotels opened during that period — the Marion, the Lafayette, the Albert Pike and the H. Grady Manning — are no longer being used as hotels. The Frederica (built in 1913 and later called the Sam Peck) now does business as the Legacy Hotel but doesn’t generally get good reviews.

The Lafayette houses offices and condominiums. The Albert Pike is a residence hotel. The Marion and Manning are long gone, imploded on a cold Sunday morning in February 1980 to make way for the Excelsior Hotel.

What’s now the city’s most famous hotel — the Capital — was opened in 1877, though the building didn’t begin as a hotel. The building was constructed in 1872 for offices, shops and apartments.

“In the second half of the 19th century, after the end of the Civil War, Little Rock was a growing river port and rail station,” Sharolyn Jones-Taylor wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “There was already an upscale hotel on the river, the Metropolitan, so William P. Denckla, a wealthy New York railroad tycoon, saw a business opportunity in creating a place to nurture commerce in the capital city. Denckla purchased the land on which to build from Arkansas Supreme Court Justice George C. Watkins. In the spring of 1872, construction began. After Watkins’ death in 1872, just as the building was nearing completion, Denckla sold the complex of stores, offices and ‘bachelor quarters’ back to the judge’s heirs. It lay diagonally across from the Metropolitan Hotel and directly across from Little Rock City Hall.

“One of the hotel’s most notable features is the prefabricated cast-iron façade that is part of the original construction (though it has been added to since). This architectural detail was built outside the state — where is not known for certain — and shipped to Arkansas. The building was designed and constructed to accommodate the façade, which is not only decorative but a vital structural element as well. Though not originally built as a hotel, the Denckla Block became one in 1877 after the Metropolitan burned on Dec. 14, 1876. The manager of the Metropolitan, Col. A.G. DeShon, was instrumental in leasing the Denckla Block as a home for a new hotel, persuading its agents at the time of the need for a grand hotel in the capital city.”

During the 20th century, no hotel in Little Rock was more important than the Marion. Construction began in 1905, and the Marion was the tallest structure in the state from when it opened in 1907 until 1911. The Marion was built by Herman Kahn, a shrewd businessman who had moved to Little Rock from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1870. Kahn’s great-grandson, Jimmy Moses, has been a driving force behind developments in downtown Little Rock in recent years. Herman Kahn and his sons, Sidney and Alfred Kahn, were involved in banking and real estate development. Sidney Kahn developed the Prospect Terrace neighborhood of Little Rock.

When it opened, the 500-room Marion had green carpets, bellboys in green uniforms and a marble fish pond in the lobby. The hotel had been named after Herman Kahn’s wife, Marion Cohn Kahn. It billed itself as “the meeting place of Arkansas,” and top organizations held their conventions there. Its bar was named the Gar Hole and featured a mounted alligator gar. Visitors to the Marion through the years included Will Rogers, Helen Keller, Douglas MacArthur, Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt.

On June 10, 1949, Truman addressed those attending the reunion of the 35th Infantry Division at the Marion. He said of the reunion: “I didn’t want to miss this one, particularly because it was in Little Rock. I have had some wonderful times here. I remember one time, in the Marion Hotel, it was my privilege to be the guest of Mrs. Hattie Caraway when she was running for re-election. I never had so much fun in my life as I did then. And Mrs. Caraway, who is still in Washington, enjoyed herself immensely.”

Writer Richard Ford, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1996 novel “Independence Day,” once lived in Room 600 of the Marion. Ford was born in Jackson, Miss., in 1944. His father had a heart attack when Ford was 8 and died when Ford was 16. Beginning in 1952, Ford spent summers in Little Rock with his maternal grandparents. Ford’s grandfather, Ben Shelley, was the hotel manager.

“It created for me a nice sense of comfort because I knew everybody,” Ford said in a 2013 interview with the Arkansas Times. “Everybody was family: all the bellmen, all the telephone operators, all the front office people, all the cooks, all the waitresses, all the waiters. And yet all around that little island of home-like experience, there were all these people coming and going, day in and day out, people I would never see again. I could lie in my bed, and I could hear the buses coming and going from the Trailways bus station. Down behind the hotel, I could hear the Missouri Pacific switch cars. I could hear voices out on the street. I could hear sirens. I never thought of it as lonely.”

The Marion sometimes was referred to as the “real state Capitol” since legislators congregated there during legislative sessions, cutting after-hour deals and forging compromises. During its final decades of existence, the Marion was owned by Southwest Hotels Inc. H. Grady Manning expanded Southwest to include hotels in Little Rock, Hot Springs, Memphis, Kansas City and Vicksburg, Miss. In Little Rock, Southwest owned the Albert Pike, Lafayette and Grady Manning hotels in addition to the Marion.

The Grady Manning Hotel, which had opened in 1930, originally was known as the Ben McGehee Hotel. It was designed by architect Julian Bunn Davidson and was owned by Benjamin Collins McGehee. In Hot Springs, Southwest owned the Arlington and Majestic hotels. Only the Arlington continues to operate as a hotel.

The Lafayette opened in 1925 and was among the state’s best-known hotels until its closure in 1973. Now known as the Lafayette Building, it houses offices and condominiums. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 1982.

Little Rock was experiencing a growth spurt during the 1920s, and an entity known as the Little Rock Hotel Co. decided to capitalize on that growth with a new hotel. A.D. Gates of St. Louis was the company president, and John Boyle of Little Rock was the vice president. The 10-story structure, which has a full basement, was designed by St. Louis architect George Barnett.

The Lafayette opened on Sept. 2, 1925, with 300 fireproof guest rooms. The rooms, which featured private baths with running water, rented for $2.50 per night. The building’s exterior featured elements of the Renaissance Revival style of architecture with its decorative terra cotta detailing, arched windows on the top floor and a projecting copper cornice. The interior public spaces were designed by decorator Paul Martin Heerwagen.

The Great Depression hit the hotel business particularly hard, and the Lafayette closed in 1933. The building remained vacant until a housing shortage caused by an influx of soldiers at Camp Robinson increased the demand for hotel rooms and apartments. The Lafayette was purchased by Southwest Hotels and reopened on Aug. 23, 1941. The number of guest rooms was reduced from 300 to 260. A coffee bar and lunch counter were added with an entrance off Sixth Street.

An Arkansas Gazette article the day after the opening said: “Guest rooms, suites and efficiency apartments are the newest, freshest and most livable rooms in the city, high above the street, light and airy.” The newspaper described the coffee bar as “truly the most beautifully decorated and artistically designed coffee bar in the state.”

The interior of the hotel was repainted. The lobby ceiling was stenciled and painted by John Oehrlie, a Swiss mural painter. Oehrlie and his crew redecorated the hotel in eight months, spending three months of that time working on the lobby ceiling. Oehrlie had been Heerwagen’s foreman in 1925, so he was familiar with the hotel. The Civitan Club, Kiwanis Club, Optimist Club and Lions Club all began having meetings at the hotel. The Missouri Pacific and Rock Island railroads had ticket offices in the lobby. There also was a telephone answering service, a coin shop and a beauty parlor. The Gaslite Club opened in the basement and remained in business until the 1960s.

There was another remodeling effort in 1953 as the hotel’s owners tried to keep up with the growing number of motels and tourist courts on the highways leading in and out of Little Rock. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing updates were made. The interior décor was changed to incorporate a red-and-white color scheme. It wasn’t enough. The Lafayette closed on Nov. 23, 1973. The Gazette described the hotel as the “victim of more modern competition, one-way streets and no parking facilities.”

In the early 1980s, the investment banking firm Jon R. Brittenum & Associates purchased the building and began renovations. Witsell Evans & Rasco of Little Rock was hired as the architectural firm. Baldwin & Shell of Little Rock was the general contractor. Federal historic rehabilitation tax credits were used, and company officials said they were prepared to spend up to $6.3 million on the renovations. The renovation effort began in the fall of 1983 and was completed in December 1984. The black-and-white marble floors in the lobby were repaired, the red gum walls and columns were stripped and finished, the kitchen on the first floor was enlarged and new elevators were installed.

The Little Rock firm Designed Communications, owned by Suzanne Kittrell and Becky Witsell, was hired to research and document the original decoration and then re-create it. A team of six women — Witsell, Kittrell, Ovita Goolsby, Kathy Worthen, Susan Purvis and Susan Leir — spent almost a year repainting the ceiling.

In January 1986, Brittenum & Associates filed for bankruptcy a day after Jon Brittenum had filed a personal petition for protection from creditors. State securities regulators earlier had alleged in a complaint that the firm misappropriated $3.3 million in customer funds. Brittenum’s personal Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition showed that he and his wife owed more than $17 million. In 1989, Brittenum pleaded no contest to theft by dececption charges.

Brittenum’s 1984 project had focused on the exterior, the lobby, the top three floors and the mechanical systems. A company known as American Diversified Capital Corp. of Costa Mesa, Calif., announced plans in late 1984 to do work on the floors that Brittenum was not using, but little was done. Tower Investments of California began efforts in 2005 to create condominiums and office space. Tower completed its renovations in 2008, but the Great Recession slowed condominium sales.

With downtown revitalization efforts gaining steam in Little Rock, Tower sold the building in January 2014 to Chad and Jessica Gallagher of De Queen and Scott and Deborah Ferguson of West Memphis. The two couples said they planned to make the lobby a major gathering spot once more.

In the next installment, we’ll pay a visit to the old Albert Pike and Sam Peck hotels.

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Little Rock: Crime city?

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Back in May, someone sent me an Internet link. When I opened it, this headline was splashed across my screen: “Little Rock Voted #1 Most Dangerous Mid-Sized City in America.”

The list, compiled by Movoto Real Estate, was based on an analysis of FBI crime data from 2012. Cities were compared using crime rates per 100,000 residents.

Flint, Mich., was No. 2.

Jackson, Miss., was No. 3.

Here’s what was written about Little Rock: “While the capital of Arkansas has received its share of accolades in recent years, including a nod from Forbes in 2011 as the second cleanest city in the country, Little Rock’s crime rate was all we looked at for this ranking. Overall, it was bad enough to warrant the city’s naming as our most dangerous mid-sized city we studied. Little Rock ranked second overall in terms of total crime with 9,378 crimes per 100,000 in 2012. The chance of being a victim of one of those crimes stood at 1 in 21. The city’s rank for property crime was only slightly better at third with 8,062 per 100,000 (1 in 24 odds) during the same period.

“It was also ranked third for murder with 23 per 100,000 and odds of 1 in 8,524. For violent crime, Little Rock placed fifth overall. There were 1,316 violent crimes per 100,000 people there in 2012, which translated to a 1 in 149 chance of being the victim of one.”

Earlier this week, crime struck home.

My mother-in-law — who retired in Little Rock several years ago following a career with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. — left her home on a sunny Monday to have lunch with a friend who was visiting from the nation’s capital. She lives at the end of a cul-de-sac in far west Little Rock.

When she returned, she found the front door kicked in. The house had been ransacked and thousands of dollars worth of items had been stolen.

I realize how easy it is for someone to say: “Oh, there goes another white guy from west Little Rock who doesn’t care about crime until it affects him.”

For several years, though, I’ve thought a lot about how crime — and the perception thereof — affects economic development in our state’s largest city.

Our mayor likes to talk about Little Rock being the “next great city.”

Greatness depends on who’s defining the word, but no one can doubt that Little Rock is at a crossroads. Future crime rates largely will determine whether the city is more Nashville or more Memphis, more Austin or more Jackson.

In September 2011, I did what many people in my age and income groups did in Little Rock — I went to the polls and voted for both a three-eighths of a cent sales tax increase for capital improvements in the city and a five-eighths of a cent sales tax increase for operations. There are a number of things in Little Rock that are being funded by that additional penny, but most of those in the majority voted for the increases primarily because they knew the dire straits that otherwise would be faced by the city’s policemen and firefighters. There were unfilled positions, worn-out vehicles, an antiquated communications system and a mold-filled police headquarters. We also looked forward to the hiring of additional code enforcement officers and hoped for some of the most rigid code enforcement in the country.

About 54 percent of those who turned out in the 2011 special election voted for the increases, which at the time were expected to raise $31.6 million a year for operations and an additional $196 million during the next decade for capital improvements. It was the city’s sixth attempt since 1981 to get a sales tax increase approved. Only two of the previous attempts had been successful, the most recent being in 1994.

You might remember 1994.

The gang situation had reached its zenith. I remember thinking that Little Rock had hit its low point on the Friday night when Chef Andre was shot in front of a full house at his crowded restaurant in the converted Hillcrest home that now houses Ciao Baci.

The year 1994 was when the HBO documentary “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” ran over and over. HBO viewers around the world perceived of Little Rock as a sort of Detroit of the South.

Worried Little Rock citizens went to the polls in 1994 and increased the sales tax by half a penny, knowing that much of the money would be used to beef up the police force.

By September 2011, Little Rock seemingly had reached yet another turning point, and taxpayers approved another sales tax increase.

Three years have passed since that vote, yet the perception of Little Rock as a highly dangerous place lingers.

During the years I worked in politics, the commonly used phrase was “perception is reality.”

Little Rock city officials will tell you that some of these rankings are based on faulty criteria. But the national perception of Little Rock is that of a city with a crime problem. It’s a huge issue, of course, for the unfortunate people who live in the low-income neighborhoods with the highest crime rates. Yet it also becomes an economic development issue, and that’s a problem for everyone.

You don’t think perception is important?

Consider the Jonesboro economic miracle. Jonesboro had had explosive growth in recent years. The city’s leaders have done things right. Let’s not take anything away from them, but let’s also realize that there’s a perception issue that has helped Jonesboro tremendously. For decades, folks in northeast Arkansas gravitated toward Memphis. They read The Commercial Appeal each morning. They watched Memphis television stations. They went to Memphis to eat out, visit the doctor and shop.

In recent decades, the perception has grown that Memphis is a dangerous place. People in towns like Blytheville and Wynne, who once went to Memphis to visit the doctor or for a night out on the town, now go to Jonesboro. The perception of Memphis has fueled the Jonesboro miracle as that city has become the regional hub of northeast Arkansas.

Little Rock has plenty of positives its leaders can point to.

In July 2013, Little Rock was ranked No. 1 among mid-sized cities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Metro areas of 1 million or fewer residents (725,000 people live in the Little Rock MSA) were considered.

A month later, Forbes ranked central Arkansas No. 32 on its list of Best Places for Business and Careers.

Outside magazine ranked Little Rock among its best towns in 2013, saying that the city had become “a runner’s paradise.” The article talked about the Arkansas River Trail and the numerous parks in central Arkansas.

Which lists do you think people pay the most attention to?

I suspect the answer is those dangerous city rankings.

The city fathers can build all of the tech parks they want. They can add more trails. They can help revitalize downtown. But until they can find a way to further reduce crime — and end the perception of Arkansas’ capital city as a dangerous place to live or visit — nothing else they do is really going to matter.

That makes Kenton Buckner, the new Little Rock police chief, about the most important man in the city right now.

Buckner took over the Little Rock Police Department at the end of June, succeeding Stuart Thomas, who had been chief since March 2005. Buckner joined the Louisville Police Department in 1993 and became the assistant chief there in 2011.

In an interview with the Arkansas Times, he said of his approach to crime control: “I subscribe to intelligence-led policing, which basically means we have some sort of mechanism that allows us to gather, analyze and disseminate information. From that information, I think you look at hot spots and focused deterrence. Look at locations where crime is occurring or is likely to occur and focus deterrence — focus in on the key individuals who are causing problems in those areas. The reason that is important is so we do not alienate the public that we’re trying to protect, and who we are asking to work with us, with the kind of ‘net fishing’ that you’ve seen some agencies do with the stop-and-frisk and the zero tolerance. Those things are very short-sighted, in my opinion. They offer short-term success and, in many instances, it scars the community and the trust and relationship that you have with them.”

While not asking Buckner to go against his philosophy, I do wish city employees (including code enforcement officers) would subscribe more to the so-called broken windows theory.

In a landmark 1982 article for The Atlantic, two college professors advanced the theory that maintaining public order also helps prevent crime.

“If a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling wrote.

Wilson, who taught at Harvard and UCLA, died in 2012.

Kelling is retired from Rutgers but still going strong at age 78 as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

The theory was applied by two New York City police commissioners, William Bratton and Raymond Kelly. Crime rates fell, real estate values soared and New York thrived.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Housing Survey, the number of broken windows in the New York metropolitan area plunged during the past decade.

Kelling told The New York Times: “Taking care of broken windows reduces crime. Taking care of crime reduces broken windows. I’ve never been long on arrests as an outcome.”

He said zero-tolerance policies represent “zealotry and no discretion — the opposite of what I tried to preach. In an urbanized society, in a world of strangers, civility and orderliness is an end in itself.”

Here’s part of what Kelling and Wilson wrote in the original article: “Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

“Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

In other words, fix problems when they’re still small.

While they’re at it, Buckner, City Manager Bruce Moore and Mayor Mark Stodola might even look at the Safe Streets Program that was instituted by Albuquerque, N.M., in the late 1990s. The theory was that people in other parts of the country use roadways much like New Yorkers use subways. Lawlessness on the roadways therefore has the same effect as it does in the subways of New York.

I make the drive from far west Little Rock to downtown each morning on Cantrell Road. Each day I watch self-indulgent idiots run red lights and speed through school zones. I’ve never seen one of them pulled over. There’s indeed a sense of lawlessness on the streets of Little Rock, and the problem seems to be getting worse. I can’t help thinking that this is a city that, in certain ways, feels broken.

“I understand that there are a lot of historical scars in this community and this police department as there are in most communities that have an urban environment,” Buckner told the Arkansas Times. “Police and African-American communities and Hispanic communities historically don’t have a very strong relationship. I can’t subscribe to that. I can’t surrender to that. My job is to build those relationship bridges where we can to get them to come to the table. All of that starts with trust. Trust is built with deposits of good will, and I think we’re doing a lot of things in the police department to get some of those conversations started.”

I agree with the new chief that trust is important.

So are results.

It’s important for all Arkansans that the state’s capital city do well economically. You look at the downtown revitalization of Little Rock and feel hopeful on the one hand. On the other hand, recent job creation statistics in Arkansas have been abysmal. We’re near the bottom nationally.

Little Rock is at a turning point.

More like Memphis or more like Nashville?

More like Jackson or more like Austin?

A hip urban environment or a new round of white flight to Cabot, Conway, Benton and Bryant?

More than anything else, the crime statistics the next five years will tell the story.

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The Fragile Five (and the shame of Hot Springs)

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Each year, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas releases its list of the most endangered places in the state.

The alliance began compiling the list in 1999. An announcement is made in May, which is Arkansas Heritage Month and National Preservation Month.

The 2014 list was released during a Thursday morning news conference at the historic White-Baucum House in downtown Little Rock, which is being renovated.

This year’s list is called the Fragile Five. And it probably will come as no surprise to you that the list is dominated by Hot Springs.

Since the massive fire that destroyed the oldest portion of the Majestic Hotel in late February, Hot Springs has been in the news. Finally, Arkansans are paying attention to the plight of that city’s downtown.

As I’ve written more than once on this blog in recent months, one of the most iconic stretches of street in the South is the portion of Central Avenue from Grand Avenue north to Park Avenue. For decades, that stretch of street has been in decline.

Because Hot Springs is the leading tourist destination in Arkansas, this is far more than a local issue. The revitalization of downtown Hot Springs must be among this state’s economic development priorities. Those property owners who have refused to develop the upper floors of historic buildings they own should begin to develop them now or put them on the market at a reasonable price to see if there are investors willing to take on the task.

Here are the three listings from Hot Springs and what the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas wrote about each one:

1. Downtown Hot Springs — The Central Avenue Historic District encompasses a wealth of historic buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Until recently, city ordinances allowed and even provided incentive for upper stories above Central Avenue storefronts to be left undeveloped by exempting the upper floors from meeting building codes as long as they remain unoccupied.

The fire that destroyed the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel in February dramatized the issues facing legacy structures that define one of the most recognizable commercial districts in the state. Despite general recognition of the importance of the buildings along Central Avenue, some property owners remain resistant to making required updates and investing to make the buildings safe and suitable for occupancy.

The recent designation of the Thermal Basin Fire District allows for installation of fire suppression systems per the International Existing Building Code to preserve historic features while meeting modern safety expectations. We hope that the loss of the Majestic Hotel will encourage property owners, developers, city officials, community and state leaders to work together to address the issues of large-scale vacancy and find solutions for reuse and rehabilitation of these important assets for the benefit of Hot Springs and the state of Arkansas.

2. The Thompson Building in Hot Springs — This building is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Central Avenue Historic District. The building, which features an ornate glazed terra cotta façade, was designed in the neoclassical style by architect George R. Mann, the principal architect of the Arkansas Capitol. Like many other structures in the district, the first floor is occupied but the upper stories are vacant.

The Thompson Building is particularly vulnerable to fire due to a vertical shaft that runs through the top four floors, which would inevitably spread fire quickly through the building. Though it is eligible for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, the Thompson Building’s owner has to date not invested in improving or updating the property beyond the first floor.

This architecturally and historically significant building needs to be retrofitted in order to meet recently adopted International Existing Building Codes to protect it from fire and further deterioration.

3. The John Lee Webb house in Hot Springs — The house is a centerpiece of the Pleasant Street Historic District. The house at 403 Pleasant St. was home for three decades to one of the most influential leaders of the African-American community in Hot Springs. Webb served as supreme custodian of the fraternal organization Woodmen of the Union and as president of the National Baptist Laymen’s Convention.

The house was a wood-clad structure, but the red-brick veneer and green tile roof were added in the 1920s by Webb. The dark red brick is characteristic of buildings Webb developed, including the Woodmen of the Union Building on Malvern Avenue, which also is known as the National Baptist Hotel.

The house has been vacant for many years. It’s vulnerable to vandalism and fire in its current state. Limited resources for rehabilitation and its deteriorated condition make the building’s future uncertain. We hope to bring attention to this little-known but important resource and to encourage efforts to preserve this place.

Here are the other two entries on this year’s list and what the alliance had to say about them:

1. The Central High School Neighborhood Historic District in Little Rock — The district is named for the Art Deco school that was called the “most beautiful high school in America” when it was built in 1927. Its historic buildings tell the story of Little Rock’s growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They bore witness to nationally significant events during the desegregation of Central High School.

While private investment has been made in pockets of the district, decades of disinvestment have led to vacancy, neglect, alterations of character-defining features and demolitions at the hands of the city of Little Rock and private owners. The alterations and demolitions particularly jeopardize the historic district’s designation and property owners’ access to state and federal historic tax credits. Residents hope to bring attention to the historically rich and important area, encourage sensitive rehabilitations and build support for protection of the historic structures and character of this neighborhood.

2. Arkansas mound sites — These sites serve as an important representation of the native people of Arkansas through many different cultures and time periods. They represent the largest material symbols of cultural heritage for native peoples who identify themselves as descendants of those ancient people.

Mounds in Arkansas have been destroyed by looters looking for items to sell, by erosion caused by digging and stream cutting, by the creation of lakes and reservoirs, by residential and industrial development and by people using the soil as a source of fill dirt. The greatest threats are the landscape modifications that go along with irrigation agriculture and associated land leveling. Large-scale industrial development poses another immediate threat in both the Delta and on the periphery of metropolitan areas.

Land owners, developers, native peoples, archaeologists and historic preservation professionals need to work together to preserve those sites that can be saved and to document those targeted for destruction.


There you have it. That’s the 2014 list of the most endangered places in Arkansas.

And I believe the most important sentence of all is this: “Despite general recognition of the importance of the buildings along Central Avenue, some property owners remain resistant to making required updates and investing to make the buildings safe and suitable for occupancy.”

The status quo no longer is acceptable in downtown Hot Springs.

Every tool available to government must now be used to force those property owners to act. What they’ve allowed to occur downtown borders on being a crime. All 3 million Arkansans should be insulted by their continued inaction.

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Little Rock’s downtown renaissance

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

It’s finally happening.

The pace of redevelopment in downtown Little Rock has reached critical mass.

It’s now safe to say that downtown is back.

The announcement came earlier this week that the Chi family of Little Rock — which already owns five restaurants and two motels in the capital city — has purchased the Boyle Building at the intersection of Capitol and Main and will transform it into a hotel.

In the nearby River Market District, construction will begin soon on a Hilton Garden Inn and a Hilton Homewood Suites. Add to the mix the millions of dollars in renovations being done at the Marriott Little Rock and upgrades made in recent years at the Doubletree Hotel. Also add in the addition of the Courtyard by Marriott in 2004, the Hampton Inn and Suites in 2008 and the Residence Inn by Marriott last year. A few blocks away, the Capital Hotel remains, quite simply, one of the finest hotels in the country.

The restaurant scene downtown is as busy as the hotel scene. In the River Market District, high-dollar Cache and down-home Gus’s are packing them in during their first months of business. On one end of Main Street, the reincarnation of Bruno’s Little Italy is doing a brisk business. On the other end of Main Street, South on Main is receiving rave reviews from foodies across the country.

Developer Scott Reed and his partners continue work on the Main Street Lofts and the K Lofts, which will bring hundreds of new residents to the street. The Mann on Main, the building that houses Bruno’s, has already brought more office workers during the day and residents at night.

Over on Capitol Avenue, Reed and his partners are about to transform the Hall-Davidson Building into more loft apartments. The ground floor of that complex reportedly will house a fancy restaurant known as The Still with Chef Donnie Ferneau at the helm. The new owners of the Lafayette Building, meanwhile, are promising to bring a restaurant to that historic facility and increase its role as a place for meetings, wedding receptions and the like.

Back on Main Street, expansions and relocations for organizations such as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Arkansas and the Arkansas Repertory Theater are making the idea of a creative corridor a reality. That corridor also will be the home of Kent Walker Artisan Cheese. An underground space will include rooms for manufacturing and aging along with a tasting room that will serve cheese, wine and beer.

“It’s basically the opposite of a wine bar, where you have all of these awesome wines and five cheeses that they just grab,” Walker told Sync earlier this year. “Here you’ll have a whole bunch of awesome cheese, not just our own stuff. We’ll rotate out a few wines and beers, both local and from elsewhere. It’s a unique space and should provide a pretty neat look into the science of cheese aging.”

As the downtown lofts fill up with residents, expect even more upscale businesses — art galleries, wine bars, gourmet food stores and the like — to join Walker. As I said at the outset, critical mass is being reached. Success will begat success.

A bit further north on Main Street, the advertising and public relations firm Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods will move into the Fulk Building, where Bennett’s Military Supply long was located. Across the street, the building that housed Mr. Cool’s Clothing will be the home of Jones Film Video, a CJRW subsidiary. In other words, even more creative folks are coming to Main Street. Just down the street, the well-known bicycle manufacturer Orbea has opened a facility. There’s already a fancy cigar bar on Main Street.

Artisanal cheese, expensive bicycles, boutique hotels, ballet studios, hip restaurants, cigar bars.

Is this downtown Little Rock or is this Portland?

“Our agency has always been located in the heart of downtown, and we’ve been looking at several options for the better part of a year now,” says Wayne Woods of CJRW. “When we considered what we’ll need moving forward, the Third and Main location made all the sense in the world. To the extent that our move will advance all that is going on in the Main Street corridor, we’re very pleased.”

There’s something else you can factor into all of this development downtown. At some point soon, more than $20 million of city sales tax revenues will be invested downtown for a technology park. Yet more creative people. Yet more customers to eat cheese, smoke cigars and sip wine.

Doug Meyer of Terraforma, the development company renovating the two Main Street buildings for CJRW, told KATV-TV, Channel 7, this week: “It’s like $60 million under contract right now on Main Street. … With all the momentum on Main Street, this thing is snowballing. It’s wonderful.”

I’ll say.

Private investors and government aren’t the only ones getting in on the act, either. The nonprofit sector is also active.

Last month, the Junior League of Little Rock announced a $1.1 million capital campaign for the old Woman’s City Club, its headquarters at Fourth and Scott. The Junior League plans to transform the building’s third floor into a center for small and startup nonprofits. The center will have the capacity for six organizations and 17 employees. Also planned are landscape improvements, parking lot enhancements, iron fencing, new lights and structural upgrades to the 1910 building.

“This is a transformational project for our community,” says Mary-Margaret Marks, the Junior League president. “The nonprofit center will enhance job creation and economic development.”

Compare this revolution to where we were just a few years ago in downtown Little Rock.

Here’s how the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program described the downfall of downtown: “Starting in the late 1960s, downtown Little Rock experienced a marked decline that it has yet to recover from. This decline was caused by a number of factors. Starting with the post-World War II economic boom, the availability and affordability of automobiles allowed for a dramatic increase in ownership. With more cars on the road, downtown began to develop a traffic problem. These new cars allowed for the continued growth of suburban areas. Interstates 30 and 40 were constructed around Little Rock, making it even easier to live outside the city and still access the amenities of city life. This triggered westward growth and the development of suburbs like Maumelle in the 1970s.

“In addition to normal suburban growth, the 1980s was an era of white flight. This was due to the many desegregation issues that the area schools faced. The area desegregation program assigned students to neighborhood schools and allowed majority students to transfer into minority schools. However, this program led to de facto segregation as the racial makeup of most of the neighborhoods was homogenous.

“In 1982, the mostly African-American Little Rock School District sued the mostly white North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts to create a singe district with a countywide busing program to end segregation. During the next three years, the districts were ordered to consolidate, and then that order was overturned. The instability of the districts and desegregation issues caused many parents to move their children to suburban districts.

“Between 1960 and 1980, Little Rock’s population grew by about 10 percent while the combined population of the suburban cities of Benton, Bryant, Cabot, Conway, Jacksonville, North Little Rock and Sherwood grew by almost 120 percent. Because of the suburbanization, strip malls and other types of retail centers developed, such as the 1959 construction of Park Plaza off University Avenue and the 1973 construction of McCain Mall in North Little Rock.

“The modern malls drew crowds of shoppers who wanted less complicated traffic, more convenient locations and more parking. These new shopping centers undermined the Capitol Avenue and Main Street commercial district, especially because many of the businesses in the district opened profitable branches in the new shopping centers, removing the customers’ need to travel to Main Street.”

As it turned out, the salvation of downtown Little Rock would not be the return of large retailers.

Instead, the comeback is based on small entrepreneurs, restaurants, bars, apartments, condominiums, hotels and the arts.

Downtown’s demise took decades.

Even the sunniest optimist could not have predicted that the renaissance would occur with such force.


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Little Rock’s Lafayette Hotel

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

I was driving to my favorite winter event — the Slovak Oyster Supper — on the final day of January when my cell phone rang.

It was Chad Gallagher, the head of Legacy Consulting, a company that does political, governmental affairs, business development and community development work.

I am quite a bit older than Chad, but we have several things in common.

We’re both graduates of Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia.

We both worked for Gov. Mike Huckabee.

And we share a love of historic preservation and downtown renovation efforts.

Chad, a former mayor of De Queen, was calling to inform me that he had just closed on the purchase of the downtown Little Rock building that once housed the Lafayette Hotel. He wants to put a top-notch restaurant in its dining room and then aggressively market its public areas for meetings, receptions, weddings, you name it.

Partners in the venture are former state Rep. Scott Ferguson of West Memphis and his wife, Deborah, the current state representative from that district.

Chad has leased offices for his consulting firm in the building — which hasn’t been used as a hotel since 1973 — for the past five years.

Knowing his strong feelings for the Lafayette — and watching the amazing renaissance of downtown Little Rock — I think he can succeed in achieving his goal.

The goal: To once more make the lobby of the Lafayette a major gathering spot in the capital city. The restaurant will bring foot traffic into the building, introducing more Arkansans to that beautiful lobby. Chad also hopes to lease space to a retailer on the first floor in an effort to generate additional traffic.

I enjoy old hotels.

I have fond memories of going with my parents to downtown Dallas each November when I was a child, staying at the Baker Hotel (it was imploded to make way for an office building) and eating in its coffee shop (The Baker’s Dozen).

These days, I like to sit in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel at Memphis and people watch. Stay there long enough and you’ll see everybody who’s anybody in the Delta.

I wish the Lafayette were still a hotel. Instead there’s office space on several floors and 30 condominiums on the top five floors. But I’ll take a revitalized lobby with lots of people going in and out.

Little Rock was experiencing steady growth during the 1920s. An entity known as the Little Rock Hotel Co. saw an opportunity to capitalize on all that was going on downtown. A.D. Gates of St. Louis was the company president, and John Boyle of Little Rock was the vice president. The 10-story Lafayette Hotel, which also has a full basement, was designed by St. Louis architect George Barnett, who died before the hotel was built.

The Lafayette opened Sept. 2, 1925, with 300 fireproof guest rooms. The rooms featured private baths with running water. They rented for $2.50 per night.

“The building’s exterior features elements of the Renaissance Revival style with its decorative terra cotta detailing, arched windows on the top floor and a projecting copper cornice with dentils,” says Rachel Silva of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. “The Lafayette was truly one of Arkansas’ finest. In addition to the building’s exterior beauty, the interior public spaces — including the lobby, formal dining room, mezzanine and top-floor ballroom — were designed by well-known decorator Paul Martin Heerwagen.”

Heerwagen was born in Bavaria in 1866 and came with his parents to this country in 1881. He studied interior design in Detroit and then moved to Little Rock in 1891 to open a paint store. Before long, he was known as the state’s foremost interior decorator and muralist. He married a Little Rock resident in 1893, and the couple had six children.

“Heerwagen and his family moved to Fayetteville in 1911,” Silva says. “He operated the Paul M. Heerwagen Studios from a farm on the outskirts of town. Heerwagen was commissioned to design the interiors of hotels, office and government buildings, churches, Masonic temples, theaters and private residences throughout the South. Some of his notable projects in addition to the Lafayette Hotel included the Arkansas state Capitol murals, the Peabody Hotel at Memphis and the Strand Theatre at Shreveport.”

Heerwagen died in 1955 and is buried in Fayetteville’s Evergreen Cemetery.

The neighborhood was hopping during the Roaring Twenties. The Lafayette’s neighbors included the three-story Grand Central Hotel (later called the Ozark Hotel), the Kempner Theater (which was the Arkansas Theater in its final years), Pfeifer Brothers Department Store and St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

“Everything seemed to be going just fine for the Lafayette Hotel until the Great Depression,” Silva says. “The hotel closed in 1933 due to financial troubles, and the building remained vacant until 1941 when a housing shortage made reopening feasible. The U.S. Army had reclaimed control of Camp Robinson in early 1940 to use as a training post. From that point on, there was a housing shortage in Little Rock and North Little Rock due to the influx of soldiers.”

The Lafayette was purchased by Southwest Hotels and reopened at noon on Aug. 23, 1941.

Older Arkansans are familiar with Southwest Hotels. In Little Rock, the company once owned the Hotel Marion (built in 1906), the Albert Pike Hotel (built in 1929) and the Hotel Ben McGehee (built in 1930 and later renamed the Grady Manning Hotel). There were hotels owned by the company in St. Louis and elsewhere.

In Hot Springs, the Arlington and the Majestic were owned by Southwest Hotels. Only the Arlington survives as a hotel.

Southwest Hotels founder H. Grady Manning died in September 1939, but family members continued to run the company.

“When the Lafayette reopened in 1941, Southwest Hotels had done a substantial remodeling of the building,” Silva says. “It had been modernized throughout to the point that it had the appearance of a new building. The number of guest rooms had been reduced from 300 to 260, and a coffee bar and lunch counter were added with an entrance off Sixth Street and through the hotel lobby.”

An Arkansas Gazette article the day after the opening said: “Guest rooms, suites and efficiency apartments are the newest, freshest and most livable rooms in the city, high above the street, light and airy.”

The coffee bar was described as “truly the most beautifully decorated and artistically designed coffee bar in the state.”

The Optimist Club, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club and Civitan Club began having meetings at the hotel.

The Missouri Pacific and Rock Island railroads had ticket offices there. There also was a telephone answering service, a coin shop and a beauty parlor at the Lafayette.

The Gaslite Club opened in the basement and remained in business until the 1960s.

“Before the hotel’s 1941 reopening, the interior was completely repainted, including the lobby,” Silva says. “The lobby ceiling was stenciled and painted by John Oehrlie, a Swiss mural painter and chief decorator for Southwest Hotels. Oehrlie and his small crew of men redecorated the entire hotel in eight months. They spent three months on the lobby ceiling.”

Back in 1925, Oehrlie had been Heerwagen’s foreman so he was familiar with the hotel.

There was another remodeling effort in 1953 as the hotel’s owners tried to keep up with the growing number of motels and tourist courts on the highways leading in and out of Little Rock. There were mechanical, electrical and plumbing revisions. The interior décor was changed to incorporate a red-and-white color scheme.

The Lafayette closed on Nov. 23, 1973.

The Gazette described the hotel as the “victim of more modern competition, one-way streets and no parking facilities. The closing will leave Southwest Hotels Inc., once the city’s major hotel operator, with only the Grady Manning Hotel in Little Rock.”

Soon, the Grady Manning also was gone.

In the early 1980s — the go-go era of the Little Rock bond daddy — the investment banking firm Jon R. Brittenum & Associates purchased the building and began a renovation effort. Witsell Evans & Rasco was the firm hired as renovation architects. Baldwin & Shell was the general contractor. Federal historic rehabilitation tax credits were tapped, and company officials said they were prepared to spend $6.3 million on the Lafayette.

“When the hotel closed in 1973, the building was left unheated and uncooled, causing damage to the interior materials and finishes,” Silva says. “However, the hotel has a concrete substructure, so it was in pretty good shape structurally. The rehabilitation project started in the fall of 1983 and was completed — to a degree — by December 1984.”

The black-and-white marble floors in the lobby were repaired, the red gum walls and columns were stripped and finished, the kitchen on the first floor was enlarged and new elevators were installed.

“The most interesting part of the building’s rehabilitation was the restoration of the lobby ceiling,” Silva says. “This was one of the first big restoration projects in Little Rock in which a lot of time and money were spent to re-create historic interior decoration. When the 1984 rehabilitation began, the entire lobby had been painted white. But with years of no climate control, the many layers of white paint were flaking and exposed some of what was hidden underneath. A Little Rock firm called Designed Communications, owned by Suzanne Kittrell and Becky Witsell, was hired to research and document the original lobby decoration and then re-create it.”

A team of six women — Witsell, Kittrell, Ovita Goolsby, Kathy Worthen, Susan Purvis and Susan Leir — repainted the ceiling. It took a year.

Brittenum’s rehabilitation effort focused on the exterior, the lobby, the top three floors and the mechanical systems.

A bit of background on Jon Brittenum is in order.

I had just turned 5 years old in the fall of 1964 when quarterback John Brittenum led the University of Arkansas Razorbacks to their only national championship in football. But I remember my album of songs about that team, especially “Quarterbackin’ Man.” It went like this:

When Jon Brittenum was a little bitty boy,

Sittin’ on his mammy’s knee,

Well, he said to his mother, don’t you worry now,

Big Frank’ll make a quarterback o’ me …

Big Frank’ll make a quarterback o’ me.

“You hear it not only in Fayetteville or Little Rock or Fort Smith, but in Possum Grape … and Pea Ridge and Terrapin Neck, far along the leafy Ozark hills and then down in the river bottoms where a wild hog — a razorback — looks for acorns when he’s not listening to some barefooted fellow hollering at him ‘whoooo pig sooey’ or when he’s not beating a Texan at football again,” the great Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated that fall.

Arkansas might have won another national championship in 1965 had Brittenum not been injured in an upset loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1966. I was at that game.

Coach Frank Broyles would later call Brittenum “the best passer on the move that I’ve ever seen. He could throw it like a frozen rope on the sprint-out series. He was the perfect passer-runner for the system that we played at the time.”

Brittenum lasted just one season in the NFL and later entered the securities business.

In January 1986, Brittenum & Associates filed for bankruptcy a day after Jon Brittenum had filed a personal petition for protection from creditors. State securities regulators earlier had alleged in a complaint that the firm misappropriated $3.3 million in customer funds. Brittenum’s personal Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition showed that he and his wife owed more than $17 million. The firm, which had been founded in 1973, had earned a reputation of being an aggressive company that dealt heavily in speculative investments such as futures contracts.

An executive at another Little Rock investment firm said at the time that Brittenum & Associates “tried to play a big boy’s game with a little boy’s money.”

The firm had a long record of run-ins with regulators. It was fined and censured several times by the National Association of Securities Dealers for violations. Arkansas regulators charged it with executing unauthorized trades for customers and engaging in other unethical practices.

In 1989, Brittenum pleaded no contest to theft by deception.

A company known as American Diversified Capital Corp. of Costa Mesa, Calif., had announced plans in late 1984 to do work on the eight floors that Brittenum wasn’t using, but little was done. Tower Investments began its efforts in 2005 to create condos and office space. Tower completed renovations in 2008. The Great Recession had hit by then, and condo sells were slow.

Now, Chad Gallagher and his wife Jessica, along with Scott and Deborah Ferguson, hope not only to sell the remaining 10 condos and rent the remaining office space. They also want to make the Lafayette the gathering spot it was in its hotel days with the restaurant, retail establishments and additional private functions.

With nearby Main Street now filled with ongoing developments that promise an increased number of people on the sidewalks at all hours, they might just pull it off.

If so, I will come by and sit in the lobby, hoping to see everybody who’s anybody in Little Rock.

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War Memorial Stadium memories

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

I look forward to the first two weekends of December.

It has become a tradition of mine to spend large parts of those weekends at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, watching the state high school championship games.

This year, Mother Nature did her best to ruin that tradition. The ice storm that hit just before the first weekend in December pushed the games back a week.

There were three state title games played the second weekend of the month and three played the weekend before Christmas. The first of those six games — the Class 7A title contest between Bentonville and Cabot on the evening of Friday, Dec. 13 — was played in a steady rain with temperatures in the 30s.

A week later, the Class 4A title game between Booneville and Warren finished at 11:45 p.m. after two lengthy lightning delays.

The next afternoon, the Class 2A title game between Junction City and Des Arc was played in a downpour with heavy winds throughout the contest.

I shouldn’t complain. I was in the press box for all six championship games. Hats off to those fans who survived the elements in the outdoor seats.

Between games this past Saturday, I hung out in the swank, multimillion-dollar press box that was added three years ago. The comfortable leather couches and flat-screen television sets on which we watched the season’s first college bowl games were reason enough to stay put.

The bad weather this month gives me more War Memorial Stadium memories. I have so many.

I have played on that field (Arkadelphia vs. Cabot in the state semifinals in 1976).

I have watched countless games from the stands.

I have covered numerous games from the press box as a newspaper reporter.

I have broadcast games on radio and television.

The old stadium is special to me.

War Memorial Stadium opened in 1948 — 11 years before I was born — with a natural grass surface, open end zones and about 31,000 seats. The changes of recent years have been drastic. In the past decade, we’ve seen new lights, a new artificial playing surface, renovated rest rooms and concession stands, the addition of large video screens in both end zones, the renovation of the outside of the stadium and the new press box.

War Memorial Stadium, which is owned by the state of Arkansas, still stands as a tribute to those Arkansans who have given their lives to defend our country. The Sturgis Plaza was added in 2008 to further honor those who served America. It was built as part of the celebration of the stadium’s 60th anniversary.

The first event at the stadium in 1948 was a University of Arkansas Razorback football game. Some of the most memorable games in program history have taken place in that stadium. I’m glad that I’ll always be able to say that I was there for the Miracle on Markham in 2002. We know Arkansas will continue to play games there the next five seasons. I hope that tradition will continue far into the future.

My memories go beyond Hog games, though. As I said, I played a game there back when the artificial turf was as hard as concrete. The Arkadelphia team for which I was the center recovered a fumbled punt and scored late to defeat an outstanding Cabot team. During this year’s Class 5A state championship game between Morrilton and Batesville, I sat in the press box with two close friends who just happened to be the quarterback and star receiver on that Cabot team 37 years ago. We didn’t know each other at the time. We became friends in college.

Arkansas is a small state, isn’t it?

I saw the first (and last) Bicentennial Bowl in the stadium in 1975 (the game did not survive until the actual bicentennial year) as Henderson took on East Central Oklahoma.

I’ve broadcast several Ouachita games from there.

I’ve seen Arkansas State play there and have enjoyed the UAPB and Grambling bands at halftime of games between those teams.

I go to most of the Little Rock Catholic home games and try to attend the annual Salt Bowl between Benton and Bryant, which draws the biggest crowd of any high school game in the state each year.

The Rev. Billy Graham once attracted 270,000 people to War Memorial Stadium during the course of a week.

Elton John, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, George Strait and many others have played outdoor concerts there.

This past weekend, several people asked me what I thought would happen to the stadium if the Razorbacks cease playing games there after 2018. As a state facility dedicated to those who have served our country, I’m convinced the stadium will be just fine.

This is the final Southern Fried blog post of 2013. In the comments section below, I invite you to give us your favorite War Memorial Stadium memory. This is NOT a place for the Great Stadium Debate. There are other outlets for that. This is for memories. I hope to hear from many of you.

I’ve been writing a weekly newspaper column for almost five years. One of the most requested columns is the one I wrote about watching my son during Arkansas’ victory over LSU at War Memorial Stadium in 2010. As my Christmas gift to you (a needed gift after two bleak seasons for the Hogs), here again is that column.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Published Dec. 4, 2010:

Sugar fell from the sky in Little Rock shortly after 6 p.m. last Saturday.

You couldn’t see it, but you can bet it was there.

I glanced over at my 13-year-old son, who had yelled himself to the point of exhaustion during the previous four hours, and I hoped he would remember this moment.

I could feel my eyes misting up as the memories came flooding back — memories of the drive from Arkadelphia to Little Rock in my father’s big Oldsmobile to attend games at War Memorial Stadium, the anticipation building with each passing mile; memories of watching the crowd simply refuse to leave following Arkansas’ victory over Texas in 1979; memories of looking over at my older son (who was 9 at the time) following the Miracle on Markham in 2002 and hoping that he would cherish the moment.

Isn’t that one of the reasons for attending such events?

We’re there not only to enjoy the moment but hopefully to create memories along the way, perhaps even picking up a new story to tell around the dinner table 10 or 20 years from now.

Arkansas’ 31-23 win over LSU last Saturday afternoon was one of those memory-making games. I’ve been attending games at War Memorial Stadium for more than 40 years and can never remember when the fans stood for every play. We only sat during television timeouts, and goodness knows CBS requires plenty of those.

There can be magic in late November games – the ones that start in the sunlight and end under the lights.

As was the case after the wins over Texas in 1979 and LSU in 2002, no one wanted to leave. The stadium remained packed 10 minutes after the game had ended. I hope my son remembers that.

In the north end zone, motorcycle officers in their helmets from the Little Rock Police Department protected the goal post from being torn down. In the south end zone, the goal post was protected by troopers from the Arkansas State Police. I hope he remembers that.

Coach Bobby Petrino was surrounded by troopers (the more troopers around a Southern football coach, the bigger the game) and television cameramen as he exited the field, smiling more than I’ve ever seen him smile. I hope Evan remembers that, too.

The weather had cooperated fully on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It was a gorgeous November day for college football. We parked in Hillcrest and walked down Harrison, Lee and Van Buren streets. I knew immediately this wasn’t an average contest when I saw people who had charged $10 to park for the Louisiana-Monroe game now charging $30. There were dozens of fans at the intersection of Van Buren and Markham wanting tickets. No one was selling.

The policeman signaled for us to cross Markham Street. We walked into War Memorial Park for what would turn out to be an afternoon never to be forgotten.

I’ve never made a secret of my fondness for Little Rock games. I cherish those traditions that make our state unique, and having the state’s largest university play its home football games in two places sets us apart in an era when Alabama no longer plays at Birmingham and Ole Miss no longer plays at Jackson.

After entering the park, we made our way to stadium commissioner Brenda Scisson’s tailgate party in the lot directly behind the new press box. I can think of few things better than this: A beautiful November afternoon, good friends, what promises to be a great college football game, fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches.

An integral part of a Little Rock game day for me is the time spent watching the fans walk by. I greeted friends from all sections of our state. It was, in a sense, a large family reunion.

When it was over after almost four hours of pressure-packed action, I looked at Evan as he joined thousands of his fellow Arkansans in chanting, “BCS! BCS!”

I’ve never been in this stadium when it was louder. We returned to Brenda’s tailgate party after the game and listened to the Hog calls, yells and whoops that were coming from the now dark golf course.

It was a happy night in Arkansas.

Remember this sweet November day, Evan.

Remember that you sat between your mother and father.

Remember how you screamed at the top of your lungs each time LSU came to the line, feeling as if your effort were playing a role in the game.

Remember that touchdown as time expired in the first half.

Remember that fourth-down play that resulted in a touchdown right in front of you in the fourth quarter.

Remember the smile on the coach’s face and the fans who didn’t want to leave, staying in their seats to savor it all for a few more minutes.

Remember the day sugar fell from the sky.

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Happy birthday Brooks Robinson

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Brooks Robinson turns 76 Saturday.

Perhaps you can wish him a belated happy birthday when he returns home to Arkansas next month.

Robinson, the Little Rock native who was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, will be at Lamar Porter Field on June 15 to draw attention to revitalization efforts at the historic complex.

The field is owned by the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas. Those associated with it want to make sure it doesn’t meet the same fate as nearby Ray Winder Field.

Do you get as sick as I do each time you travel down Interstate 630 and see the ghastly UAMS parking lot that occupies the site that was long the home of Ray Winder Field?

“The sadness of witnessing the demise of Ray Winder fills me with gratitude that Lamar Porter doesn’t suffer the same fate,” says Little Rock businessman Jay Rogers. “Lamar Porter is now the oldest usable field in the state of Arkansas.”

In late 2011, the Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee was formed. In addition to renovating the baseball field, the committee hopes to fund improvements at the Billy Mitchell Boys and Girls Club, the Woodruff Gardens and adjoining recreational areas.

Lamar Porter Field was built between 1934 and 1937 by the Works Progress Administration as part of the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to put people to work during the Great Depression. It was an impressive concrete-and-steel facility that could seat 1,500 people. It was also the only baseball field in the state that had electric lights at the time.

The 10-acre site that includes the baseball field was given to what was then known as the Little Rock Boys Club in honor of Lamar Porter. The Little Rock native was a junior at Washington and Lee University in Virginia when he was killed in an automobile accident on May 12, 1934.

In addition to donating the land, the family contributed money for construction. The first anniversary of Porter’s death coincided with Mother’s Day. The donation was announced that day by his mother, Louise Skillern Porter.

Lamar Porter’s nephew, who shares his name, is among the trustees for the revitalization committee.

“A memorial serves no purpose if it ceases to exist,” says the younger Porter. “This complex needs revitalization soon or it will meet the same fate as Ray Winder Field.”

The June 15 event will begin at 5:30 p.m. and is scheduled to end by 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and are available at The SportStop on Rodney Parham Road. The business is owned by Rogers. Each ticket will be good for admission to the event, a hot dog, a soft drink, popcorn and a chance to get Robinson’s autograph.

Robinson remains a legendary figure in Baltimore, where he spent his major league career. Following his retirement at the end of the 1977 season, Robinson began a 16-year career as a television announcer for the Orioles. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He’s one of only six former Orioles to have had a number retired by the team.

Was Brooks Robinson the best third baseman ever to play the game?

Many baseball historians think so. He began playing baseball almost as soon as he could walk. Robinson’s father, a fireman, had played semipro baseball and also was a member of the 1937 International Harvester softball team from Little Rock that played in the finals of the World Softball Championship in Chicago.

“Brooks Robinson began playing baseball at the grammar school level as a catcher for the Woodruff School,” Jeff Bailey wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He spent much of his time practicing at the facilities of the Arkansas School for the Deaf, which was across the street from his home. He also worked the scoreboard and sold cold drinks during games played at Lamar Porter Field. While a student at Pulaski Heights Junior High, Robinson played quarterback for the 1951 junior high state championship football team and was an honorable mention on the all-state team.”

Robinson played basketball and ran track at Little Rock High School. During the summer, he played American Legion baseball for the M.M. Eberts Post No. 1’s team, the Doughboys. The Doughboys won American Legion state championships in 1952 and 1953.

As soon as Robinson graduated from high school in 1955, he signed a contract with the Orioles. Having just turned 18, he first played for the Orioles’ farm team in York, Pa., in the Piedmont League. Late in the season, Robinson earned a promotion to the big leagues. By the 1958 season, he was the Orioles’ regular third baseman.

Known as the Human Vacuum Cleaner, Robinson won an amazing 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards (1960-75). His best season offensively came in 1964 when he batted .317 with 28 home runs and 118 RBI. He was the Aemrican League MVP that year, receiving 18 of the 20 first-place votes. Mickey Mantle was second in the voting.

In 1966, Robinson was the MVP at the All-Star Game. He finished second that year behind teammate Frank Robinson in the American League MVP balloting as the Orioles defeated the Los Angeles Dogers in the World Series.

The Orioles would win two World Series while Brooks Robinson was playing for them. The second came in 1970 when he was the World Series MVP against the Cincinnati Reds.

The Orioles had lost the World Series to the New York Mets the previous season. In 1970, however, it was almost as if Robinson willed them to a championship.

Robinson had a .583 batting average in the 1970 American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins. In the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, Robinson had a .429 batting average with two home runs and some incredible defensive plays.

“I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep,” Reds Manager Sparky Anderson said. “If I dropped this paper plate, he would pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

As the World Series MVP, Robinson was awarded a new Toyota.

Reds catcher Johnny Bench said, “Gee, if we had known he wanted a new car that bad, we would have chipped in and bought him one.”

Robinson played in his last World Series in 1971 as the Orioles lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games. Baltimore would win division titles in 1973 and 1974 but lose in the American League Championship Series.

Robinson was selected for the American League All-Star team for 15 consecutive years from 1960-74. His career batting average was .267 with 2,848 hits, 268 home runs and 1,357 RBI. He led the American League in fielding percentage 11 times. He retired with a .971 fielding average, the highest ever for a third baseman.

At the time of his retirement, Robinson also had the records for a third baseman for games played at third (2,870), putouts (2,697), assists (6,205) and double plays (618). Only Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial played more games during their careers for one franchise.

Yet another Robinson record came from hitting into four triple plays during his career.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing someone erase my record of hitting into triple plays,” he later said.

How popular was Brooks Robinson in Baltimore, even after he retired?

In 1982, WMAR-TV’s on-air announcers had been on strike for two months leading into the baseball season. When Robinson refused to cross the picket line as opening day approached, station executives began new negotiations. The strike ended the next day, and Robinson was on the air for the season opener.

Robinson and Baltimore Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas had plaques in their honor in Balimore’s venerable Memorial Stadium. The two men were saluted on the field when the Orioles played their last game there on Oct. 6, 1991.

In 1999, The Sporting News placed the native Arkansan on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. He also was named to the All-Time Rawlings Gold Glove team.

Veteran Associated Press sportswriter Gordon Beard was the emcee for the ceremony that marked Robinson’s last game at Memorial Stadium in 1977. Beard reminded the crowd of Reggie Jackson’s remark: “If I played in New York, they would name a candy bar after me.”

“Around here,” Beard said, “nobody has named a candy bar after Brooks Robinson. We name our children after him.”

Now, Robinson is coming back to Little Rock to lend a hand to those who are saving Lamar Porter Field.

Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys and Episcopal Collegiate High School use Lamar Porter Field for home games. The field and an adjoining space also are the Arkansas home of a national program known as Reviving Baseball in the Inner City, which is sponsored by Major League Baseball.

Portions of the movie “A Soldier’s Story,” starring Denzel Washington, were filmed at the field in 1984. In December 1990, the facility was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are other positive things going on in the neighborhood.

The Woodruff Community Garden allows novice and experienced gardeners to have plots in the city. The renovation project will add lights, security updates, a more secure gardening shed, a gate and fencing to the community garden.

There also will be restoration work on historic stone walls and bridges.

Other improvements will take place at the Billy Mitchell Boys & Girls Club, which is named after the man who became associated with the club in 1922 and began heading the organization in 1928. Mitchell, who had played basketball at Texas A&M, was connected with the club for more than 50 years. Construction of the current facility was completed in 1982.

In December 2011, the revitalization committee announced that an anonymous donor had given a significant gift to begin the process of planning the renovation effort.

In January 2012, representatives of the Little Rock architectural firm Witsell Evans Rasco met with the committee. Last August, the firm’s initial renderings for renovating the complex were approved.

Robinson agreed in September to become the honorary chairman of the revitalization committee.

“Not only did I sharpen my baseball skills at Lamar Porter, I even once won a bubble-blowing contest there and proudly rode a new bicycle home,” he said. “The memories of playing there and the friendships that I made have lasted all my life.”

In October, the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas and the Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee announced a partnership with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation of Baltimore. The foundation was founded in 2001 by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother, Bill Ripken, who also played for the Orioles.

Cal Ripken Sr., who died in 1999, had a 37-year career working for the Orioles. The Ripken Foundation seeks to help kids from low-income families, using baseball as the hook to reach boys and softball to reach girls.

The revitalization committee’s website contains the words “heading for home.”

With a master plan now in place, it’s a fitting motto as the great Brooks Robinson heads home to Little Rock, determined that the city won’t see another historic treasure turned into a parking lot.

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10 must-have dishes before you die

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

You’ll have to pick up the May edition of Soiree magazine for the full story (and photos that will make your mouth water).

But here’s what happened: Jennifer Pyron, the magazine’s editor, called and asked if I would come up with a list of the 10 restaurant dishes in the Little Rock area that you simply must have before you die.

I like a lot of things. And Little Rock has a good restaurant scene. This was not an easy assignment.

Here’s what I decided: I would go with the tried and true, the kinds of food that longtime Little Rock residents find themselves craving as they drive home at night.

There are finer restaurants than the ones I put on my list.

There are fancier dishes.

I decided to stay away from new recipes. No foam. No molecular gastronomy. The restaurants needed to have been around for several decades to prove their staying power.

Look, Little Rock is becoming one of the best places to dine out in the South. The city is now filled with exciting restaurants, food trucks, talented food bloggers and ambitious chefs. It’s quite a food scene.

I’m energized by that.

Yet the list I came up with spoke to my heart; the heart of a country boy who doesn’t want sugar in his cornbread, wants his country ham to be fried, wishes his wife would let him join the Bacon of the Month Club and could stand to lose a few pounds.

Here goes:

1. Ribs at Sims with a side of greens and cornbread — Sims just screams “quintessential Little Rock” to me. Little Rock is a true Southern city, and it doesn’t get more Southern than ribs, greens and cornbread. I miss the old location on 33rd Street, but the fact remains that this is a place that has been around since 1937. In a city that loves its barbecue, Sims is a shrine.

2. Chopped pork plate at the White Pig Inn — Here we go with the barbecue again. There’s a reason that a photo of the White Pig’s sign is at the top of this blog. This restaurant has been around since 1920, when U.S. Highway 70 was one of the main east-west routes in the country. I like family places, and the White Pig has been in the Seaton family for three generations. The current building is fairly new (built in 1984), but take a look at all the history on the walls.

3. Eggplant casserole and egg custard pie at Franke’s — I know, I know. You’re going to order more than just eggplant casserole and egg custard pie as you go through that line. There’s fried chicken, roast beef, chicken livers, fried okra, turnip greens and more to eat. But I consider the above two dishes the ones that most define this Arkansas classic. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop in downtown Little Rock in 1919. By 1922, it was a full bakery. In 1924, he opened Franke’s Cafeteria on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock. The original cafeteria closed in 1960, but two Little Rock locations remain. You will find me at the downtown location often.

4. Buffalo ribs at the Lassis Inn — You Yankees think this is a four-legged mammal, right? You’re wrong. You’re the same people who refuse to believe us when we tell you that rice and gravy and macaroni and cheese are classified as vegetables here in the South. This buffalo is the bottom-dwelling fish pulled by commercial fishermen from the slow-moving rivers of east Arkansas. The ribs are about five inches in length. Tell my friend Elihue Washington that I sent you.

5. Tamales at Doe’s — I realize that you’re likely to order a steak if you’re going to Doe’s for dinner. Still, you must have an appetizer of tamales. If it’s lunch, the tamales can be your meal. George Eldridge has been operating the Little Rock location of Doe’s since 1988. Was it Hunter S. Thompson or P.J. O’Rourke who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on when they came to Doe’s to interview Bill Clinton in 1992?

6. The hubcap burger at Cotham’s — The Little Rock location will suffice (though I always have a fern bar flashback to TGI Friday’s and my younger days when I’m in there), but it’s better to be out in the 1917 building at Scott, which has been serving food since 1984. Politicians such as the aforementioned Bill Clinton and David Pryor made the Scott location of Cotham’s famous. What’s that? You say you cannot eat an entire hubcap burger? Then you’ve come to the wrong blog.

7. Gumbo at the Oyster Bar — The Oyster Bar has been around since 1975, but it looks like it has been there since 1924, when the building it occupies in Stifft Station was built to house a grocery story. Yes, it’s a dive. I especially like the fact that they saved the old refrigerator door with memorable bumper stickers attached. Check out the one dealing with that pass interfence call against SMU. Some of us still remember that call. The Hogs wuz robbed.

8. Smoked turkey sandwich and a cherry limeade at Burge’s — The original Burge’s in Lewisville is outside the geographic scope of this assignment, but the Heights location in Little Rock will do since it has been around for 36 years. Lots of rich, tanned Heights moms and their spoiled kids will be running around on Saturdays to take part in what’s a family tradition for many Little Rockians. After moving to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953, Alden Burge began smoking turkeys in the back yard for friends and family members. Soon, he was selling smoked turkey and chicken dinners before Friday night football games. He bought a dairy bar in 1962 at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 29 and U.S. Highway 82 in Lewisville. The folks who work for Burge’s in Little Rock follow Mr. Burge’s 1950s instructions for smoking those turkeys.

9. Pimento cheese at the Capital Bar & Grill — Sometimes a Southerner simply must have pimento cheese, and no one does it better than the folks at the Capital. Get it as an appetizer with those homemade soda crackers, order a pimento cheese sandwich or have it on the burger. I’m craving it right now.

10. The foot-long chili dog at the Buffalo Grill and the chopped steak at the Faded Rose — OK, I cheated. I listed two restaurants. Here’s why: I first moved to Little Rock in late 1981 to work as a sportswriter at the Arkansas Democrat. I moved into the Rebsamen Park Apartments (cheap and already furnished, along with very thin walls). The Buffalo Grill opened just down the street in 1981. The Faded Rose was opened by New Orleans native Ed David the next year. I would work in those days until about 1 a.m., get something to eat at Steak & Egg (where the Red Door is now), go home and read and then sleep until the crack of noon. Then I would go to one of those two restaurants. I often would have that gut bomb they call the Paul’s chili dog at Buffalo Grill with chili, cheddar cheese, mustard, onion and slaw. On the days when I went next door to the Faded Rose, I would start with the Creole soaked salad (mixed lettuce, chopped tomatoes and green olives tossed in a garlic vinaigrette just like the Creole Sicilian joints do it in New Orleans). That would be followed by the chopped sirloin, which comes in a lemon butter sauce with a big slice of grilled onion on top. Of course, there were potato wedges with buttermilk dressing to dip them in.

Like I said, no foam or molecular gastronomy on this list.

What dishes make your list in Pulaski County?

Let me hear from you in the comment section below.

Meanwhile, I’ll see you in Soiree along with the “beautiful people” who are holding wine glasses and forcing a smile in a too-tight tux.

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KAAY — The Mighty 1090

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

I can’t remember when I’ve had as much fun as I had last week attending the 50th anniversary party for the radio station that was such a key part of my youth — KAAY-AM, the Mighty 1090.

Thank you, Barry McCorkindale, for including me.

As I pointed out in a newspaper column earlier in the week, there’s still a Little Rock radio station with the call letters KAAY. And it’s still at 1090. But the Mighty 1090 has been gone for more than a quarter of a century, having died on April 3, 1985, when the station switched from its mix of Top 40 music, news and Razorback sports to paid religious programming.

We were in the side room of the Little Rock Oyster Bar for the anniversary party. The Oyster Bar long has been among my favorite dives, and it was probably fitting that we were in a room with cheap wood paneling from the 1970s and a sagging roof. That’s because the memories that came rushing back that night were from the 1960s and 1970s.

Bob Robbins, who went on to become one of the nation’s top country DJs at KSSN-FM, first came to Arkansas because of KAAY. Born in Florida in 1944, Bob was the youngest of 13 children. He was living in Americus, Ga., when the job offer came from the 50,000-watt Little Rock station.

“I drove through the night from Georgia, and I listened to KAAY the entire way,” he said. “I never lost the signal. Somehow, I found out where the studio was. I remember thinking, ‘My gosh, what is this place?’ Jonnie King was on the air as I pulled up.”

King would go on to a long radio career in the St. Louis market.

Sharing the stage with Robbins at the anniversary party was Sonny Martin, who handled the morning-drive shift for many years with legendary newsman George J. Jennings.

Bob and Sonny talked about heavily promoted events during KAAY’s heyday that would draw thousands of people — the cow chip throwing contest, the skunk festival, etc.

The late Pat Walsh, who was the station’s general manager in those days, was a marketing genius. He also was able to mold a group of eclectic characters into a team.

“The way we lived back then, it’s amazing that any of us got to this age,” Robbins said. “We cared for each other. We were a family. Radio has changed in so many ways. I wish I could live long enough to see radio stations be like they were back then.”

In an age of massive corporations, satellite programming and an eye only on the bottom line, it’s unlikely there will ever be anything again like the Mighty 1090.

It was an interesting mix. There was Top 40 music during the day. There was “Beaker Street” and its so-called underground music late at night. There was a solid local news operation. There were Razorback football games. There were the Marvin Vines farm reports early in the morning and during the noon hour.

Vines had started at KAAY’s predecessor, KTHS, in 1953.

“He was one of the few people and the only on-the-air person to make the change to KAAY in 1962,” wrote A.J. Lindsey, whose on-air name was Doc Holiday. “Marvin’s talent was not so much on the air as it was driving 64,000 miles a year and speaking everywhere he could.

“My memory of Marvin was his terrible coffee. He arrived at the station early — like 4 a.m. — to prepare his show. The all-night jock wasn’t interested in making coffee, so the first pot of the day was made by Marvin, and it was terrible.

“I arrived at 6 a.m. as Marvin was doing the farm reports. By then, the coffee was old. But Marvin was always in a good mood.”

Vines was killed in May 1978 in a tractor accident on his farm. Lindsey, a Little Rock native, died in May 2009.

Speaking of KTHS, the station signed on in 1924 with studios in the Arlington Hotel at Hot Springs.

“KTHS began broadcasting on Dec. 20, 1924, at 8:30 p.m. with an inaugural program originating from the ballroom,” Bud Stacey writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “On Jan. 1, 1925, the Arlington opened for hotel guests. KTHS programs consisted mainly of live big band music from the ballrooms. … In August 1928, the Arlington Hotel presented KTHS to the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce as a gift; the station was shut down during the week of Aug. 13 to move its facilities to the Chamber of Commerce building at 135 Benton St.”

It was in April 1931 that Lum and Abner were invited to perform on KTHS for a flood relief benefit, helping launch what would be remarkable broadcast (and movie) careers.

An email from Scott Lauck arrived after this week’s newspaper column was published.

“My grandfather was Chet Lauck, and he played Lum,” Scott said. “He told me about those first broadcasts that he and Tuffy Goff (who played Abner) made on KTHS before the show was quickly picked up by NBC and moved to Chicago. Those were the golden years of radio, and they had so much fun doing that show for 25 years. They also made six movies for RKO.”

KTHS was granted permission by the Federal Communications Commission in 1951 to move from Hot Springs to Little Rock. A new transmitter was set up at Wrightsville.

Randy Tardy, with whom I once worked at the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, remembers that last day before KTHS became KAAY in 1962.

“I was news director for KTHV, Channel 11, whose companion radio station was KTHS,” Tardy says. “I had somehow inherited the night news reporter’s job for radio since their man was out sick or on vacation. It was Labor Day weekend 1962. I had wrapped up preparing the 10 p.m. news for the television side and put together some wire copy and local stuff for the 10 p.m. radio news on KTHS. As I entered the booth a few minutes before the top of the hour, the engineer in the control room said: ‘You know, this is the last KTHS 10 p.m. newscast. Next time around it will be the new folks.’

“I was anxious to leave Eighth and Izard, where the studios were, so that the secretary to the program director, Miss Elizabeth Timmel, and I could drive all night in my 1955 Pontiac to Kentucky Lake near Murray, Ky., to meet her mom and dad. She had prepared sandwiches for us to nibble on overnight as we made our way east on U.S. 70. Interstate 40 was a few years in the future.

“I wrapped up the final newscast, and off we went. While at Kentucky Lake with her parents, I proposed to her on their lake dock. Fortunately for me, she said ‘yes.’ So as the Mighty 1090 celebrates its 50th anniversary, Elizabeth T. Tardy and I are approaching our 50th anniversary on Oct. 12. We were married on Oct. 12, 1962, in the chapel of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. We had the weekend off but were both back at work on Monday at the television station.”

KTHS had been purchased by the LIN Broadcasting Corp. and changed its call letters to KAAY on Sept. 3, 1962 (the day after my third birthday).

“Labor Day weekend listeners were teased by a new, temporary format: that of radio announcers reading names and addresses out of the Little Rock phone book and welcoming them to The Friendly Giant over Henry Mancini’s ‘Baby Elephant Walk,'” Stacey writes.

Tardy remembers listening to that on the way back from Kentucky with his new finacee.

“The only thing that sounded the same was Marvin Vines, whose format did not change,” he says. “In fact, I think he still said KTHS rather than the new call letters. The newscasts were delivered by George J. Jennings and B. Bruce Jenkins, two pretty darned good radio newsmen.

“It was a good time to be where I was, especially watching and listening to Howard Watson and others prepare for ‘Ear on Arkansas’ as I watched Bob Hicks, Evelyn Elman and Steve Stephens do ‘Eye on Arkansas’ on KTHV.”

“Eye on Arkansas” was a true magazine-style television show.

“Ear on Arkansas” was satire and comedy, far ahead of its time.

On-air names were taken from the real names of LIN board members.

“As DJs left for other markets, their air names were dropped to the bottom of a list and the next new announcer would pick up the air name at the top of the list,” Stacey writes. “These names were trademarked by the station so that they could not be taken to competitors’ stations. In some cases, a former announcer would be hired again by KAAY while his original air name was being utilized, so he used his real name. This happened with Wayne Moss in later years since a ‘Sonny Martin’ was on the air at the time.”

The “Sonny Martin” at last week’s event is really Matt White. He runs the Pot O’ Gold Restaurant at Lindsey’s Rainbow Resort on the Little Red River near Heber Springs and has a show on KWCK-FM, 99.9, in Searcy. White was the last Sonny Martin from 1966-77.

KAAY stories often revolve around the Funmobile, the trailer used for remote broadcasts.

David B. Treadway, a familiar voice in Arkansas radio, once wrote of White: “The Funmobile was parked in a huge field some miles south of Little Rock for a big music festival headlined by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. We were all doing our shows live from the event that day, and it was well after dark when Sonny showed up demanding my belt and KAAY buckle. Yes, he had been there all day.

“A fan had admired Sonny’s buckle, so naturally he had given it to her, belt and all. He was due onstage to introduce the Dirt Band in a couple of minutes, and his jeans were in danger of going south. Reluctantly, I gave him my belt and, of course, never saw it again. But that’s how we did it back in the day — everything for the station, all glory to the call letters.”

I hear there’s a book in the works on the Mighty 1090.

I hope so.

There are enough stories out there to fill several volumes.

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