Archive for the ‘Little Rock’ Category

Anita Davis and the South Main renaissance

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

The original version of this story ran in the May-June issue of Talk Business & Politics magazine.

Anita Davis never set out to rehabilitate part of downtown Little Rock.

She wasn’t a historic preservation activist or one of those people who write letters to the local newspaper.

She describes herself as shy.

She simply likes walkable neighborhoods and felt it was time to give back to the city she has called home since the late 1980s.

“I started thinking one day about the fact that I had never really been involved in the community or given anything back,” Davis says during breakfast at the Capital Hotel. “I had a bunch of stuff that I needed to store and began looking for a place to put everything. What I found was a building on South Main Street.”

A love affair with the neighborhood ensued.

Davis, a Murfreesboro native, purchased the Bernice Building at 1417 S. Main St. in 2004.

A year later, she bought an empty lot at 1401 S. Main St.

She admits now that she viewed the neighborhood as dangerous and ran back to her car following her first visit there. But she was captivated by the Bernice Building, constructed in 1923, and soon was reading everything she could get her hands on about the concept of “placemaking.”

Davis found herself attending conferences from Boston on the East Coast to Seattle on the West Coast in an effort o learn more about building walkable neighborhoods.

One of Davis’ daughters lived in New York City in the Chelsea neighborhood. She could easily walk to restaurants, grocery stores, boutiques and entertainment venues from her home. Davis wanted to see if she could bring a touch of Chelsea to South Main Street.

She also wanted to bring a touch of Murfreesboro.

Yes, Murfreesboro.

“When I was growing up in Murfreesboro in the 1950s, we had three drugstores downtown, a hardware store, a movie theater and a lot more,” Davis says. “We could walk to all of those places. You didn’t have to get in the car and drive from place to place. Anyone who grew up in a thriving Arkansas town in the 1950s and 1960s knows what I’m talking about. I had seen it work in a town as small as Murfreesboro, and I had seen it work in a city as big as New York.”

Davis’ parents, Clarence and Bennie Sue Anthony, were well-known in their corner of southwest Arkansas. Davis had a maternal grandmother named Bernice (who once had worked at Franke’s, the venerable Little Rock cafeteria), which was another part of the attraction of the Bernice Building on South Main.

The empty lot adjacent to the building once had been the site of a Captain D’s fast-food restaurant, which had burned. The restaurant’s owners decided not to rebuild in a neighborhood that was becoming increasingly downtrodden. There were still crepe myrtles on the lot. Davis began bringing in plants and benches. A sculpture competition was held. In 2011, a wooden structure was built to serve as a shelter.

The Bernice Garden was born.

It’s now the home of everything from Mardi Gras celebrations to beard-growing contests to farmers’ markets to the annual Arkansas Cornbread Festival each fall.

Prior to Captain D’s opening in January 1981, the lot long had been the home of a tiny restaurant known as the Little Rock Inn. Suddenly, there was life again at 1401 S. Main St. after Anita Davis stepped in.

By 2006, Davis was ready to make another purchase. This time it was the Lincoln Building at 1423 S. Main St., which had been built in 1906.

In 2006 on the other side of Main Street, she bought the property that once had housed a popular dairy bar known as the Sweden Crème.

Now, the Bernice Building houses the downtown location of Boulevard Bread Co.

The Lincoln Building houses the Green Corner Store and the soda fountain that has helped make Loblolly Creamery’s products well known across Arkansas.

The old Sweden Crème is now an innovative restaurant known as The Root Café, which has received national attention.

All of these businesses attract people from throughout central Arkansas and even out-of-state visitors to South Main Street on a daily basis.

Between Boulevard Bread and the Green Corner Store is the home of studioMAIN, a nonprofit organization that brings architects and others in the design community together to introduce urban design concepts for Little Rock. Exhibitions sponsored by studioMAIN have included everything from the work of students to professional designers. An architectural film was produced for the Little Rock Film Festival, and pop-up events are held throughout the city to show what neighborhoods can become. Design awards are given and partnerships have been established with organizations such as the Arkansas Arts Center.

Boulevard Bread began serving customers in 2000 at its flagship location at the corner of Kavanaugh Boulevard and Grant Street in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. Attracted by the South Main vibe, Boulevard’s owners decided to open a downtown location with an expanded bakery that’s open from Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m.

The nearby Green Corner Store describes itself as “Arkansas’ first eco lifestyle store” since products sold there are made from natural, organic, recycled or reclaimed materials. Many of the products — ranging from bath and beauty items to apparel to packaged food — are made in Arkansas. Owner Shelley Green calls it a chance to “showcase the array of green products that are both beautiful and functional.”

The soda fountain portion of the building, which had housed the C.H. Dawson Drugstore from 1905-67, became the home in 2012 of Loblolly Creamery, founded by Sally Mengel and Rachel Moore. They debuted their ice cream samples at the 2011 Arkansas Cornbread Festival. Loblolly ice cream initially was sold at only the Green Corner Store. Now, Loblolly products, which often are seasonal and use local ingredients as much as possible, can be found in numerous locations, from Little Rock restaurants such as Big Orange and Graffiti’s to retailers such as Whole Foods and Stratton’s Market.

With the success of its ice cream, Loblolly diversified into drinks and syrups. The ice creams have names such as Rock Town Bourbon Pecan, Little Rocky Road and Earl Grey Lemon.

On the other side of Main Street, Jack and Corri Sundell opened The Root in June 2011 after three years of planning. They featured everything from burgers to homemade bratwurst to vegetarian dishes and soon gained a dedicated following.

In December 2014, The Root won an award from the HLN cable television network’s program “Growing America: A Journey to Success.” The honor came with a $25,000 check. Soon afterward, it was announced that The Root had been awarded a $150,000 Mission Main Street grant from JPMorgan Chase Bank. The Root was among just 20 small businesses nationally to get a grant.

Using shipping containers, the Sundells are expanding the restaurant. Three containers are being used for additional dining space, three containers are being used to expand the kitchen and one is being used as a walk-in cooler.

The premise of the HLN program won by The Root was that teams of MBA graduates and students from top business schools across the country would help three small businesses become more efficient. Also featured were a disaster-relief company in Denver and a barbershop in Detroit. The team that came to Little Rock helped the Sundells improve their website and their social media efforts.

While the Green Corner Store, Loblolly Creamery, Boulevard Bread and The Root Café were achieving acclaim in the neighborhood she adopted, Davis had her own expansion plans. She has always enjoyed collecting items, and purses became a specialty. Davis was intrigued as a child by her mother’s and grandmother’s purses, considering them a reflection of the individuals. She was part of a group that put together a traveling exhibit titled “The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses” that stopped in cities across the country, including the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock in 2006. Among the cities where the purses were exhibited were Dallas, Seattle and Sacramento.

Davis eventually decided to create the Esse Purse Museum at 1510 S. Main St. in a building that had been constructed in 1946. The museum opened in June 2013.

Davis says she started collecting purses more than three decades ago, but having one of the premier collections in the country was “not intentional. It was kind of my way of honoring women. There just aren’t a lot of things in this country that honor women.”

Davis believes the museum complements her vision for the rest of South Main Street, which she likes to describe as the “feminine side of Little Rock,” not because men aren’t welcome but because she sees it as an area that’s open to new ideas. The purses on display — more than 250 of them — are arranged by decade beginning in 1900. Davis views the collection as not only a look at the history of fashion but also as something that gives insight into the history of women. Photos and accessories accompany the purses.

Davis’ collection grew to more than 3,000 handbags, most of which were stored in her attic before the traveling exhibition, which toured the country for three years. Davis is hopeful that the museum will lead to additional restaurants and shops along South Main Street.

Though she’s a collector, Davis has a more muted personal style. She admits that she carried the same shoulder bag for a decade prior to opening Esse.

In 2014, The Huffington Post included Esse on its list of the “World’s Hottest Museums.”

It wrote: “Set in an emerging neighborhood filled with boutiques and trendy eateries, Esse Purse Museum celebrates the art and history of women’s handbags. And the best part is that it sells purses too.”

Also on the list were the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. Among the other museums on the list were the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway.

Anita Davis was in very good company.

“When I first got involved with this neighborhood, I asked myself, ‘What do you want it to be?'” Davis says. “I fell in love with the area, and I’m constantly looking for ways to bring more people here. I also feed off the energy and ideas of people like Corri and Jack Sundell. I like people who make things happen, and they know how to make things happen.”

Davis is quick to give credit to other people and entities who have helped spur development along South Main Street. They include:

— Joe Fox and his Community Bakery at 12th and Main. The bakery began in the Rose City area of North Little Rock in 1947 but moved to its current location when Fox purchased it in 1983. Fox moved to Little Rock from Boston in the 1970s and says he yearned for a place where he could read The New York Times and get a bagel and a good cup of coffee early in the morning. Fox became the Little Rock distributor for The New York Times. At the bakery, he has more than a dozen bakers who work through the night.

— The nationally award-winning literary quarterly Oxford American, which moved its offices to South Main Street several years ago and then teamed up with Matt and Amy Bell for a restaurant and entertainment venue known as South On Main, which is in the building once occupied by the popular Tex-Mex restaurant Juanita’s. South On Main has received acclaim for its food and the quality of its concert series.

— Midtown Billiards, which made Esquire magazine’s 2007 list of Best Bars in America. Midtown holds a private club license so it can stay open until 5 a.m. It’s a favorite haunt of musicians, restaurant workers, newspaper reporters and others who work late.

The South Main Street scene received another boost in February 2015 when Bart Barlogie Jr., Eric Nelson and Jason Neidhardt opened what’s now Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom, which features Neapolitan pizzas from a double-deck, brick-lined gas oven that can reach temperatures of 650 degrees. To keep things in the South Main family, the owners announced from the first that they would use products from Loblolly and Boulevard.

Davis calls her involvement along South Main Street “the best thing that has ever happened to me.” She said it was “an area that needed some love, and I love it. What’s funny is that I had once been warned by my dad to never buy a building with a flat roof. All the buildings I’ve bought down here have flat roofs. What would he think?”

Davis says she has learned through the years to “figure out what you like and go for it.”

So what does the future hold for Davis?

“I don’t really have firm plans right now,” she says. “I’ve found that running a museum is a full-time job.”

Davis would like to see the Southside Main Street organization, a nonprofit entity that promotes economic development on Main Street between Interstate 630 and Roosevelt Road, continue to grow. Southside Main Street is affiliated with Main Street Arkansas and the National Main Street Center.

She also wants the Arkansas Cornbread Festival to grow. This year’s event will be held Oct. 29 with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and Our House as beneficiaries. The stated goal of the festival, which began in 2011, is to raise awareness and funds for worthy nonprofit organizations while celebrating Southern culture and heritage through food, crafts and music.

“If you grew up in Arkansas, you grew up eating cornbread,” Davis says. “I see it as a link to our shared history and our grandmothers who would make cornbread. What better way to pull in a diverse audience is there than food? I know I grew up on cornbread. We had it about every day with our vegetables.”

These days, there are plenty of food, shopping and entertainment options along South Main Street in Little Rock, thanks in large part to a lady who remembers what it was like to grow up in Murfreesboro.

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The Greek connection

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

It’s May, the month for what’s now known as the International Greek Food Festival at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock.

The festival long has been among my favorite annual events in Arkansas.

Almost 30,000 people turn out each May for the three-day event (May 20-22 this year), which began in 1984 to raise money for the church.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church was founded in 1913 to serve a growing Greek population in the state. The congregation purchased its first building (at 15th and Center streets) a few years later from Winfield Methodist Church and stayed at that location until moving to the current location at 1100 Napa Valley Drive in west Little Rock in 1983.

“Thanks in part to the money we raised from the food festival, we had the mortgage paid off on the new building by 1989,” said Little Rock construction executive Gus Vratsinas, one of the event’s founders. “At that point, we began giving to various charities. Those charities, in turn, started supplying us with volunteers for the festival.

“We’ve got this thing pretty well figured out after 32 years, but you’re always tweaking things. When we designed the current church, we put in a big kitchen that could handle our baking needs. The ladies who make the pastries now start work in December. Last year, we made 24,000 pieces of baklava and sold out. This year, we’ll have 30,000.”

In addition to food, there’s music, dance and other activities. It’s a way to celebrate the rich Greek heritage in Arkansas.

Vratsinas’ father came to the United States in 1912 at age 12 but later went back to Greece. He eventually returned to the United States and wound up in Little Rock, where an uncle operated a downtown café. Vratsinas’ mother came to this country from Greece in 1939. Gus Vratsinas is quick to list the Little Rock restaurants once owned by those who came from Greece — the Post Office Café, the Maxell House Café, Miller’s Café, the Palace and others.

Helen Hronas has a well-documented history of Greeks in Arkansas on the website of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

“Though small in number compared to other immigrant groups, Greeks and Greek-Americans in Arkansas have had a notable impact upon the state,” she wrote. “From their beginnings as laborers, Greeks in Arkansas quickly became entrepreneurs and business owners, and many of the children and grandchildren of these original immigrants went on to business, academic and medical careers. Many Greeks who come to Arkansas today are in the medical or research fields. Emblematic of the acceptance of Greeks by the state has been the popularity of the Greek Food Festival, one of the most well-attended culinary fetes in the state.

“Immigrants from Greece began arriving in Arkansas in the late 19th century. Most were single young males who left their homeland for the United States full of hope for a more prosperous life. Greece was very poor at the time, and some parts of northern Greece had not yet won their freedom from the Turkish Ottoman yoke. It was a dangerous and difficult three-week voyage, and many left with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few coins. The first priority of those who were married was to earn enough money to send for their wives and children. Most immigrants became permanent residents, but others saved their money and returned to Greece.

“Most families settled in Little Rock. The earliest immigrants to Little Rock came mostly from villages and small towns of the Peloponnesus (southern Greece), particularly from Olympia and Sparta, and usually headed to places where they knew someone who could help them get established. The first to reach Little Rock was Anastasios Stathakis, who arrived in 1892 from Sparta. In 1902, Pete Peters was the first child born of Greek immigrants in Little Rock. Pelopida and Eugenia Kumpuris frequently housed new immigrants at their Little Rock home.”

The Stathakis family name is still well known in Hot Springs.

And the Kumpuris family name is still well known in Little Rock.

“The newly arrived usually worked for a time for those who came earlier while picking up enough English to get by,” Hronas wrote. “Few had an opportunity for formal schooling, although some were well educated in Greece before immigrating. Many did hard labor such as building railroad tracks, and as was common with immigrants who spoke little or no English, sometimes the employer refused to pay once the job was done. Such discrimination and abuse provided the Greeks an incentive to go into business for themselves as well as educate their children. The Greeks were soon running fruit and vegetable markets, hot dog stands, candy shops, grocery stores, cleaners and shoeshine parlors. Most gravitated toward food service.”

In 1905, a group of Greek immigrants in Arkansas created the Homer Society, which served both religious and cultural purposes.

Hronas wrote: “At first, visiting priests from Memphis were invited to celebrate the divine liturgy and perform sacraments. In 1913, members arranged for a permanent priest, Father Kallinikos Kanellas, and services were held in an upstairs meeting hall over a high-end grocery store near Ninth and Main streets for the next eight years. A small chapel was arranged for liturgies and sacraments, and another area was used for social gatherings. Research by Rev. Father George Scoulas in the 1960s indicated that Kanellas probably was the first Orthodox priest of Greek ancestry to come to the United States. He died in 1921 and is buried in the historic Oakland Cemetery in Little Rock, where most of the early Greek immigrants were interred. Early church leaders included P.G. Johnson, Pelopida (Peter) Kumpuris, Joe Stathakis, Anastasios Stathakis, Peter Stathakis, George Lianos, Basil Peters, Sam Stathakis, George Stathakis and Harry Hronas.”

A 1952 story in the Arkansas Democrat stated that the first Orthodox church in Arkansas was a Russian Orthodox church at Slovak in the southern part of Prairie County. Two Russian priests founded the church in 1894.

“Annunciation in Little Rock is the oldest continuous Orthodox church in Arkansas,” Hronas wrote. “The parish of the Annunciation, under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Detroit, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, received a state charter on June 8, 1920. A church building at 1500 Center Street was purchased from the Winfield Methodist congregation in 1919. The parish outgrew this building.”

Now, only about 30 percent of the Annunciation congregation is of Greek ancestry. Other members are descended from immigrants from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Russia, Romania and elsewhere.

The chairman of this year’s food festival is Jason Chacko, a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley whose name central Arkansas residents will recognize from his morning financial reports on the radio.

Chacko’s family came to this country from India. The family history has been traced back to the first century when the apostle Thomas converted the Pakalomatom family to Christianity.

“I’m standing on the shoulders of the giants who built this festival,” Chacko said during a recent breakfast. “I was five months old when the first festival was held. It has changed a lot since then. Our goal is to be among the best family events of the spring in Arkansas.”

With 22 nationalities represented at Annunciation, the name word “international” was added to the International Greek Food Festival.

“It has truly become an international event,” Chacko said. “You can eat Mediterranean food while watching Russian dancing.”

Vratsinas was the president of the parish council at Annunciation when the new facility was built in 1983.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said of the decision to create the food festival. “This kind of thing had been going on in other cities for decades. Our church had been selling gyros since they started Riverfest so we decided to create our own festival. We bounced around with the dates on which to hold the event and finally settled on the weekend before Memorial Day weekend. It keeps getting bigger. Last year was our largest event yet with about 30,000 turning out over three days. That’s obviously more than a 200-family church can handle, so now we rely a great deal on volunteers.”

Chacko said the organizers like to “show off the church.”

“We have icons painted by priests out of Greece,” he said. “People can walk through on their own, and we also offer formal tours during the festival.”

The hours for this year’s festival are from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Friday, May 20; 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 21; and 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 22.

Food can be eaten at the festival or picked up at a drive-through location. The foods offered range from gyros to calamari to Armenian pizza.

There’s also a market at which visitors can buy items such as Greek olive oil, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, salad dressing and cheeses. The market also will offer Russian collectibles such as nesting dolls and eggs along with ceramics, scarves, stained-glass lamps, jewelry, Middle Eastern coins, European artwork, wooden toys, rolling pens and other gift items.

Do you know what pastitsio is (long macaroni layered with seasoned ground beef and then topped with a thick cheese sauce)?

Do you know what tiropeta is (cheese puffs)?

Do you know what spanakopita is (spinach cheese puffs)?

You can learn all of that at the festival.

The festival again will team up with Chef Shuttle, which will allow people to have meals delivered to their homes and offices. The menu will be posted at chefshuttle.com the weekend of the festival.

Volunteers for the festival, such as ROTC students from Catholic High School for Boys (who clean the grounds), will earn about 4,000 hours of volunteer credits.

Among the charities that will benefit from this year’s event are Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arkansas, Community Connection, Easter Seals of Arkansas, the Harmony Health Clinic of Little Rock, Literary Action of Central Arkansas, Youth Home and the Wolfe Street Foundation.

“It’s truly a community event,” Vratsinas said.

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HAM: Celebrating our state’s past

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

I recently attended my first meeting as a member of the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission and was given the honor of sitting in the chair long occupied by Parker Westbrook.

Westbrook, who died last November at age 89, was an icon to those who love our state’s history.

Jamie Brandon, the president of Preserve Arkansas, wrote after his death: “If you ever met Parker Westbrook, you know that he was an Arkansan through and through with roots deep in southwest Arkansas. His home in Nashville and Washington, Ark., was very dear to him. … Westbrook was front and center for the formation of most of the infrastructure of Arkansas’s historic preservation movement.

“Aside from being the founding president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, now called Preserve Arkansas, he was a founding board member — or at least a board member — of virtually every historic preservation body in the state. The list includes the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation (the oldest historic preservation organization in the state), the Department of Arkansas Heritage Advisory Board, the Main Street Arkansas Advisory Board, the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission, the Arkansas State Capitol Association and the Arkansas State Review Board for Historic Preservation.”

Westbrook was born at Nashville in Howard County. When he was living in Virginia and working as an assistant to U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, he bought and restored an 1807 Quaker cottage. After 26 years of work in the nation’s capital, Westbrook returned to Arkansas in 1975 to work for a fellow south Arkansas native, newly elected Gov. David Pryor of Camden.

In 2007, Westbrook was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame. The National Trust for Historic Preservation declared him to be a “national treasure.”

As I sat having lunch at Westbrook’s former spot at the table, I looked up at portraits of two other people who played key roles in preserving our state’s past — Louise Loughborough and Edwin Cromwell.

Loughborough was born in 1881, the daughter of Louisa Watkins Wright and William Fulton Wright. Her father was a Confederate veteran.

“She could trace her family lineage through state leaders such as Arkansas Supreme Court Justice George Claiborne Watkins and William Savin Fulton, Arkansas’s last territorial governor and later a U.S. senator,” Bill Worthen writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “She was educated in Little Rock schools and married J. Fairfax Loughborough on Oct. 21, 1902. He was an attorney with Rose Hemingway Cantrell & Loughborough, which later became the Rose Law Firm.

“The Loughboroughs moved to the new Pulaski Heights suburb, and she engaged herself in civic activities. She was a charter member of the Little Rock Garden Club, a member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America and served as vice regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, the organization that restored and maintains the home of George Washington.

“Loughborough’s involvement in historic structures in Little Rock began when the Little Rock Garden Club sought to improve the appearance of the War Memorial Building (Old State House) and its grounds in 1928. The grounds were littered with signs and monuments, and the roof of the Greek Revival building sported figurative statues of Law, Justice and Mercy, which had been installed above the pediment after being salvaged from the Arkansas exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. To take the façade of the edifice back to its original 1830s appearance, Loughborough had the statues removed, without the permission of the War Memorial Commission, which had legal authority over the building.”

Loughborough was appointed to the Little Rock Planning Commission in 1935 at a time when few women served on public boards and commissions. She was disturbed when she heard of plans to condemn a group of old homes at the intersection of Third and Cumberland streets in downtown Little Rock.

Worthen writes: “Although the neighborhood had fallen on hard times, becoming a red-light district and slum, Loughborough feared the loss of several historic structures, including the Hinderliter House, the oldest building in Little Rock and thought to be Arkansas’ last territorial capitol. She mobilized a group of civic leaders to save these buildings. She enlisted the aid of prominent architect Max Mayer and coined the term ‘town of three capitols’ to try to capture the imagination of potential supporters, grouping the ‘territorial capitol’ with the Old State House and the state Capitol.

“In 1938, Loughborough secured a commitment from Floyd Sharp of the federal Works Progress Administration to help with the project, on the condition that the houses be owned by a governmental entity. She persuaded the Arkansas General Assembly to create and support, with general revenues, the Arkansas Territorial Capitol Restoration Commission, which was created by Act 388 of 1939. This satisfied Sharp’s condition, and the WPA provided labor and material for the new historic house museum. A private fundraising campaign brought in the remaining monetary support necessary for the completion of the project.”

Like Loughborough, Sharp was an interesting figure. He was born in 1896 in Tennessee. His family later lived in Idaho and then moved to Arkansas in 1907. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, Sharp got a job as a printer for the New Era, the afternoon newspaper at Hot Springs. He later worked at the Arkansas Gazette while studying law. He received his law degree in 1925. He was a statistician for the state Department of Labor and later moved to the federal Emergency Relief Commission.

“W.R. Dyess was the original head of the Arkansas WPA, which began operation in July 1935,” William H. Pruden III writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Serving as Dyess’ executive secretary, Sharp traveled around the state assessing the devastation wrought by the Great Depression. … In 1936, Sharp became Arkansas administrator of the WPA after Dyess died in a plane crash.

“As state administrator, Sharp oversaw the allocation and implementation of millions of dollars of federal funds, adapting the responsibilities and mission of the WPA to the state’s distinctive and predominantly rural and agricultural economy. The agency had to utilize some of that agricultural labor for things like improved roads leading to markets, which in turn helped stimulate the agricultural economy. Under Sharp’s direction, the WPA completed 11,000 miles of country roads. In addition, local schools were improved, and all of the WPA’s efforts contributed to a psychological revival for Arkansas’ citizens. The WPA infused the state with significant capital, spending just under $117 million in the state by the time it ceased operation in 1943.”

Gov. Carl Bailey disliked Sharp. He believed Sharp was using the WPA to undermine him politically. Bailey tried to institute an investigation of the Dyess Colony in Mississippi County in 1939, but Sharp’s legislative allies fended off that effort. Loughborough, however, got along well with Sharp and knew how to get money out of the WPA. What was known as the Arkansas Territorial Restoration opened on July 19, 1941.

“The project was the first Arkansas agency committed to both the restoration of structures and the interpretation of their history,” Worthen writes. “It served as a model and inspiration for historic preservation in the state. Loughborough provided daily direction for the museum house complex through the first 20 years of its existence, yielding her authority to architect Edwin B. Cromwell only as her health began to fail.”

Cromwell graduated from Princeton University in 1931 with a degree in architecture. He moved to Little Rock in 1935 to take a job with the federal Resettlement Administration. After a year with the agency, he left to practice architecture on a full-time basis. He would continue to practice until 1984.

In 1938, Cromwell was invited to join a firm that had been started in 1885 by Benjamin Bartlett and his draftsman son. They had been selected to design the Arkansas School for the Blind.

In 1886, Charles Thompson, a 17-year-old draftsman from Illinois, had seen Bartlett’s advertisement in a lumber journal and contacted Bartlett.

“Bartlett recognized the talent of his new draftsman, and the firm became Bartlett & Thompson within two years,” Charles Witsell Jr. writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Bartlett moved to Mississippi in 1890, where he was retained for the design of a county courthouse. He withdrew from the firm, and 21-year-old Thompson was on his own. The Little Rock City Directory of 1890 ran his advertisement: ‘Charles L. Thompson, Architect and Superintendent.’

“The following year, Thompson joined forces with Canadian-born civil engineer Fred Rickon and began a very productive relationship. In the 1895 promotional piece ‘A New Year’s Greeting,’ Rickon and Thompson listed 45 buildings they had designed, 24 of which were in Little Rock. The two men dissolved their partnership in 1897, however, and Thompson went the next 19 years without a business partner, although there were a number of talented employees, beginning with Thomas Harding Jr., son of the well-known Arkansas architect of the late 19th century, who was hired in 1898 at the age of 14. Like Thompson himself, Harding acquired most of his education through experience, reading and correspondence courses. By 1916, the firm had completed hundreds of buildings, and Thompson invited him to be his partner that year. The firm name became Thompson & Harding.”

Gifted architects such as Theo Sanders and Frank Ginocchio later went to work for the firm. Sanders and Ginocchio created their own firm after World War I but a merger resulted in the Thompson Sanders & Ginocchio firm in 1927. Thompson retired in 1938. When Sanders withdrew from the partnership, Cromwell (Thompson’s son-in-law) was invited to succeed him.

“Ginocchio and Cromwell divided the office duties,” Witsell writes. “Cromwell assumed the responsibility for the inside work — design, drafting and business management — while Ginocchio stayed with construction supervision. The pair designed the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, which opened in 1950. The Governor’s Mansion was built on the site of the Arkansas School for the Blind, which was razed in 1939. The firm prospered under Cromwell’s leadership. The late 1940s to the 1970s constituted a period of growth. In 1954, engineering services in addition to architecture began to be offered.”

It was Cromwell who had the vision for Maumelle, a planned community on 5,000 acres of land along the Arkansas River owned by Arkansas insurance executive Jess Odum. He also was the man who saved the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock and began promoting the idea of riverfront development. After becoming commission chairman, Cromwell began expanding the Arkansas Territorial Restoration.

“With federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds, matched by the state Legislature, the adjoining half-black was acquired with the old Fraternal Order of Eagles building, which became the museum’s reception center,” Worthen writes. “The expansion to its current size used federal highway enhancement funds and state and private sources. The Hinderliter House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 5, 1970. In 1972, the museum began to move toward a professional staff and began re-examining its mission and programs in light of continuing museum and preservation standards. Resarch found only circumstantial evidence for the association of the Hinderliter House with the last Territorial Assembly.”

Worthen, a Little Rock native, graduated from Little Rock Hall High School and Washington University in St. Louis. He taught high school in Pine Bluff for three years and then became director of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration in 1972. In 1981, it became the first history museum in the state to be accredited by the American Association of Museums.

Worthen is still directing the museum after all these years. During the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism earlier this year, he was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame.

Cromwell and Worthen made quite a pair in the 1970s as they professionalized the museum’s operations. In 1976, the antebellum Plum Bayou log house was moved from its original location near Scott. And in 2001, the name of the complex was changed to the Historic Arkansas Museum as the size of the former reception center was doubled.

Loughborough died in 1962, Cromwell died in 2001 and Westbrook died in 2015.

Sitting in Westbrook’s old seat while Loughborough and Cromwell watch over me, it’s an honor to serve on the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission. The history of Arkansas hangs heavily in that room

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Chris Beard and the UALR Trojan miracle

Friday, March 18th, 2016

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s double-overtime victory over Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday was a win for the little guy.

As someone who has spent decades writing about and broadcasting small college sports, I was delighted last April when UALR hired the head coach from Angelo State in Texas, an NCAA Division II school.

Not everybody in Little Rock was happy.

Joe Kleine, the former Razorback and NBA star who had been Steve Shields’ top assistant at UALR, wanted the job and had broad support in the community. You say “Big Joe” around Little Rock, and people immediately know who you’re talking about. Great man. Great family. I’m among the many people who consider him a friend.

Others (including key executives at Stephens Inc.) were pushing for another former Razorback and NBA star, Darrell Walker. Walker served as the head coach of two NBA teams, the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards.

But the school’s first-year athletic director, Chasse Conque, wanted someone who not only was a proven head coach at the college level but also was young and hungry.

Conque was castigated in the days that followed the announcement of Beard’s hiring. He was too young and too inexperienced, they said of Conque. He just “didn’t know how Little Rock works.”

Conque, the son of former University of Central Arkansas head football coach Clint Conque (who is now the head football coach at Stephen F. Austin University in the piney woods of east Texas), actually knew the UALR program inside and out. He had worked for four years under the previous athletic director, Chris Peterson, as the department’s development director before spreading his wings a bit in 2011 when he went to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to raise money for the UAMS Medical Center.

Having worked at both UALR and UAMS, Conque indeed knew how Little Rock worked.

Having grown up as the son of a college coach, he also knew what he wanted in a coach.

When Conque was hired as athletic director in January 2015, UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson said: “Chasse represents an unusual opportunity to hire someone who is both an insider and an outsider, and I believe he’s the right person for this department at this time. He knows the challenges and the opportunities of Trojan athletics very well, and he brings particular strength in the critical area of fundraising. After growing up living and breathing intercollegiate athletics, Chasse proved himself as a person and as a professional when he was here.”

One important move that Conque made was to rebrand the school’s teams simply as Little Rock. UALR means nothing to a national audience. Little Rock is an existing brand.

He came up with the hashtag #LittleRocksTeam to take advantage of a metropolitan area of 730,000 people.

He made sure there was a contract extension for women’s basketball coach Joe Foley (who, with all due respect to Beard, just might be the best college coach for any sport in the state), already an inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

He renewed the school’s contract with Nike.

He started the aggressive “I’ve Got Mine” season ticket campaign.

And he hired Chris Beard.

Beard was a guy who spent seven seasons learning the game under Bobby Knight at Texas Tech. When Knight’s son Pat was named Tech’s head coach in 2008, Beard became the associate head coach. In Beard’s 10 years on the Tech staff, the Red Raiders made it to the NCAA Tournament four times and made it to the NIT three times. There was a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2005.

Beard was born at Marietta, Ga., and raised in the Dallas suburb of Irving. He’s a 1995 University of Texas graduate (he was a student assistant for the basketball program) who started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Incarnate Word in San Antonio, spent a season at Abilene Christian and then spent a couple of seasons in Denton at the University of North Texas.

It would have been easy for Beard to have been a career assistant, but he wanted to be a head coach. He started his head coaching career at the junior college level at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas in 1999-2000 and then moved to Seminole State College in Oklahoma in 2000-01 before going to Texas Tech. His Fort Scott team won 19 games and went to a regional tournament. His Seminole State team was 25-6 and finished No. 14 in the junior college national rankings.

After that decade at Texas Tech, the head coaching bug bit again.

Beard worked in 2011-12 as the head coach of the South Carolina professional team in the ABA (remember when the Arkansas Rimrockers were in that league?), where finances are always shaky. The first-year franchise posted a 31-2 record under Beard’s leadership.

He then returned to Texas to serve as the head coach at Division II McMurry for the 2012-13 season. Success there (McMurry was 19-10 in its first season as a Division II member) led to the offer to be the head coach at another Division II program, Angelo State in San Angelo.

The Rams, who had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons, went 19-9 in Beard’s first season. Angelo State won its first 10 games that season and found itself ranked for the first time since 2009.

The next season saw Beard lead Angelo State to a school-record 28 victories and the Division II Sweet 16. The Rams were 17-0 at home and finished the year ranked No. 19 nationally in Division II. They led the nation in scoring margin, were third in field goal percentage, fifth in assists and in the top 10 in total rebounds, assist-to-turnover ratio and assists per game.

So you had a coach who had gone 47-17 in two seasons at Angelo State.

Here’s what the Kansas head coach, Bill Self, had to say at the time: “I think it’s a great hire. He had the chance to learn under one of the all-time pillars in our game in Bob Knight. He’ll bring energy, he’ll bring excitement and he’ll bring a work ethic and recruiting knowledge that will be very beneficial to the Little Rock program.”

Here’s what the Tennessee head coach (and former Texas head coach), Rick Barnes, had to say: “Chris has an incredible work ethic and has won at every level he has ever been. I’m very confident that he’ll accomplish great things at Little Rock.”

Here’s what Kent Hance, the former Texas Tech chancellor, had to say: “I think Chris Beard is the finest young coach in America, bar none. He’s a great recruiter and coach, but the thing that I like most about him is that he cares about the kids. He graduates players and makes sure they’re good citizens and complete student-athletes. I’m thrilled for him and Little Rock. Get ready because you’re about to move up.”

Still, there were those in Little Rock who complained.

I liked Beard the first time I met him. Soon after the coach arrived in Little Rock, my friend Kevin Crass invited me to Doe’s Eat Place to share a steak with Beard. Kevin and I have been friends since we were students at Ouachita Baptist University. Kevin’s son Ted was the only member of Shields’ staff that Beard retained.

Beard told stories of how Bobby Knight would drive two hours to try out a new barbecue joint for lunch. I certainly thought more highly of Knight after learning he was a fellow barbecue aficionado.

Beard was witty. He also struck me as intense, maybe even someone with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. In other words, exactly what UALR needed.

That attitude was evident in this quote Beard gave to USA Today earlier this week: “Me personally, I’ve been overlooked my whole life. I wake up every day with an edge. Guys like me get one chance. I wasn’t a great player. I don’t have a famous grandfather. I get up every day, surround myself with winners. Every day I feel like I’m an underdog.”

That newspaper story told how Beard took his team up on Petit Jean Mountain to Camp Mitchell, the old camp operated by the Episcopal Church in Arkansas.

The players slept in bunk beds and talked late into the night, getting to know their coaches and each other much better.

Senior Roger Woods told the newspaper: “We had a lot of players with a lot of different stories that were really impressive. … We all wanted to come together and get something going in Little Rock.”

Conque liked what he saw in Beard.

And Beard liked what he saw in Little Rock. He saw a chance to build something special at the Division I level.

“We have everything we need to build a successful program,” Beard told interviewer Greg Henderson last year. “We have the best facility in college basketball, a great capital city, a great university, history. I don’t see any reason we can’t get it done. Our mission is ‘why not us’ from the first recruiting call.”

He also took Conque’s rebranding as “Little Rock’s team” to heart, saying his players took pride in having the name of the state’s largest city on their jerseys.

I have to believe that this is what the late Jack Stephens had in mind when he gave that $22.4 million gift to UALR to build what’s now the Stephens Center, which is a perfect size for a mid-major program (seating 5,600 people) and is as fine an area as there is in the country.

“We’re not done yet,” Beard said after Thursday’s win over Purdue. “We came to this tournament to win two games in Denver and try to advance to the Sweet 16, just like everybody else.”

Now, some of those same people who were criticizing Conque’s choice in a coach a year ago are worrying that Beard’s stay in Little Rock might be a short one.

Even if it is, he has given basketball fans in this state a season they’ll always remember.

Why not us indeed.

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The 1836 Club

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

The best thing for me when three business partners purchased the historic Packet House on Cantrell Road was that the large wooden RPM sign that misspelled the name of this Little Rock landmark finally came down.

Each morning as I would drive by that sign on the way to work, the old editor in me wanted to scream.

Others with a strong sense of Arkansas history told me that they felt the same way.

Mark Camp is an investment banker who worked as a trader for Crews & Associates of Little Rock until 2014.

Rod Damon is a Little Rock-based mortgage trader for the Bank of Oklahoma.

Jeremy Hutchinson is a state senator, attorney and business investor.

Over drinks at the bar of one of their favorite steakhouses — Arthur’s in west Little Rock — they would discuss how Little Rock needed a private dining club that served dinner. The Little Rock Club on the top floor of the Regions Building downtown serves lunch five days a week, but dinner is only offered about twice a month.

“Every city of significant size has something like this,” Camp says. “I began searching online for a location. At first, they were asking too much for the Packet House for us to make it work. When they lowered the price, we got involved. They spent $1.3 million on renovations back in 2012 so we won’t have to do much beyond some new flooring, painting, new art for the walls and leather furniture.”

The 1836 Club was born.

It’s a nod to history since 1836 was the year Arkansas became a state.

Few structures are more historic in the capital city than the Packet House, one of the 15 oldest buildings in Pulaski County.

“We could go in there and serve dinner tonight if we wanted to,” Hutchinson says. “It has a great kitchen, among the best in the state.”

And it’s about to have a great chef since the three partners hired Donnie Ferneau, who will shut down his Good Food on Main Street in North Little Rock to devote full time to the 1836 Club.

Ferneau will serve meals on the first floor, which will include a private dining room known as the Governor’s Room. The main dining area will be known as the Caucus Room.

The second floor will be the home of the Pilots’ Lounge, which will include large television screens for watching sporting events, pool tables and card tables. Fine cigars will be available upstairs in the Humidor Lounge.

Charter applications are still being accepted with an opening planned for later this spring. The partners make clear that this is not just a club for male Republicans. Both men and women — and people of all political persuasions — are being encouraged to join.

So how did the partners end up with a well-known chef such as Ferneau?

“He heard that we were going to do this and reached out to us,” Camp says. “He will let us worry about the business end of things, so now he will be able to do what he really likes to do — create, cook and cater.”

Hutchinson admits: “I never thought we would have a chance to get him.”

Icing on the cake, to use the cliché.

The house, built in 1869, has 12,000 square feet of space. A proposed menu in the private club application includes seared scallops, seared duck breast with jalapeno corncakes, braised short ribs and the like.

The house was built by Alexander McDonald, who was born in 1832 in Pennsylvania. McDonald was a driven man with a shrewd business sense. He headed west to the Kansas Territory in 1857 to seek his fortune. He and his brother ran a sawmill and later became bankers.

McDonald was living in Fort Scott, Kan., with his wife and two daughters when the Civil War began. He helped organize Union forces in the area but later resigned so he could make money as a supplier for Union troops. It was that effort that brought him to Fort Smith in the fall of 1863. He not only supplied the Union troops there but organized a bank.

Steven Teske picks up the story from there for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Under the reign of McDonald and his partner, Perry Fuller, corruption at the fort was rampant, to the extent that Gen. James G. Blunt was widely regarded as subservient to the company directors. McDonald arrived in Little Rock not long after it had been taken by Union forces and, before the end of the war, McDonald had organized the Merchants National Bank in Little Rock, of which he was president. McDonald worked actively to rebuild the industry and economy of Little Rock and of the state of Arkansas after the Civil War. In addition to his banking efforts, he was also vice president of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad and president of the Arkansas Bridge Co., which was organized to construct a bridge across the Arkansas River at Little Rock. This was one of at least three competing companies seeking both private investments and government funding. Their efforts in 1869-70 led indirectly to the construction of the Baring Cross Bridge in 1873.

“Later, McDonald also served as president of the Little Rock & Fort Towson Railroad. At one point, he was considered the richest man in Arkansas. … McDonald also served in the state’s constitutional convention of 1868. Following this convention, the newly assembled state Legislature named him, along with Benjamin Franklin Rice, to represent Arkansas in the U.S. Senate. McDonald and Rice were sworn in as senators on June 22, 1868, but McDonald’s term was to end at the conclusion of 1871. During his short term, McDonald’s greatest contribution was probably his support for the impeached President Andrew Johnson. Not only did McDonald vote against conviction, but he spoke to persuade other senators to do the same, allowing Johnson to complete his term.

“Although McDonald hoped to be re-elected by the Legislature to a full term in the Senate, politics back in Little Rock intervened. McDonald was associated with the Brindletail faction of the Republican Party, which was resisting the efforts of Gov. Powell Clayton to dominate state politics. When Clayton announced his intention to run for McDonald’s Senate seat, the Brindletails chose to cooperate, hoping to replace Clayton with Lt. Gov. James Johnson, one of their allies in state government. The resulting confusion ended with Clayton as senator, Ozra Hadley as acting governor, Johnson as secretary of state and McDonald outside of the government. Discouraged by his failure to continue in politics, McDonald sold his large house and eventually relocated to the New York area around 1874.

“McDonald continued to pursue his interest in railroads, and he was commissioned by President Chester Arthur in 1885 to examine the finances of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1900, McDonald was living in the New York area house of his daughter, Tacie Harper. McDonald died on Dec. 13, 1903, at his daughter’s house and was subsequently buried at Highland Cemetery in Lock Haven, Pa.”

The houses erected by McDonald and others during the Reconstruction period on the north side of Cantrell — then known as Lincoln Avenue — were built by men who had been Union supporters during the war. Because of that, the area became known as Carpetbaggers’ Row and Robbers’ Row.

The home McDonald built later was owned by William Wait, a president of Merchants National Bank, and Ann McHenry Reider, who moved in with her two daughters and their husbands. The husbands were twins, Tom and Robert Newton. The house would serve as the Newton family home for several decades.

In the 1940s, the name was changed to the Packet House as a nod to the packet boats that once plied the Arkansas River.

The house later was converted into apartments and fell into a period of decline.

The Packet House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, rehabilitated and used for offices and a restaurant. It later became vacant and began deteriorating again, to the point that it was placed on the Historic Preservation of Arkansas’ (now Preserve Arkansas) list of the most endangered structures in the state in 2011.

The HPAA wrote that year: “The house, which is zoned for commercial use, has been vacant and for sale for several years. Recently, a prospective developer seeking to purchase the house applied for a permit to use the Packet House as a restaurant. This is a positive turn for the Packet House. However, years of vacancy have taken their toll on the house and the future of the building remains uncertain.”

The house was purchased, more than $1 million was spent and chef Wes Ellis opened his Packet House Grill in 2012.

By the spring of 2014, Ellis was out, and it was announced that James Beard Award nominee Lee Richardson would take over as executive chef and owner. Foodies across Arkansas (including yours truly) rejoiced that the New Orleans native would be returning to a Little Rock restaurant kitchen.

Richardson said at the time: “For more than six years, I’ve driven by the Packet House almost daily, and I’ve always felt like it fit my vision for the ultimate in fine dining in Little Rock. I came to Little Rock and took over a well-known and well-respected restaurant at Ashley’s, and that’s exactly what I’m excited to be doing at the Packet House.”

Unfortunately for central Arkansas diners, the deal fell through.

The Packet House Grill closed and the building was put up for sale. And we spent almost two years having to look at that misspelled for-sale sign.

 

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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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