A new preservation ethos

Raised in a small home near Dyess in the cotton fields of Mississippi County, Joanne Cash Yates made it clear Friday night at the Clinton Center that she’s proud to be from Arkansas.

You might have heard of Joanne’s older brother.

He was known in his adult years as Johnny.

I was at the Clinton Center to serve as the master of ceremonies for the annual awards banquet of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. As I pointed out in my opening remarks last Friday night, this was my kind of crowd: People who love Arkansas, its history, its culture, its places and its people.

The preservation movement in the state has taken off in recent years. When the HPAA was formed in 1981, most Arkansans believed in tearing down old buildings rather than renovating them. It was economic development via a wrecking ball.

One old example: The beautiful Carnegie Library in Little Rock, which was replaced by a downtown architectural monstrosity that thankfully no longer serves as the main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System.

A more recent example: Replacing Ray Winder Field with a parking lot. That tells me we still have a long way to go. But nights like last Friday make me an optimist. There are so many exciting projects that are ongoing across Arkansas. The Johnny Cash boyhood home restoration at Dyess stands at the forefront of the current projects right now. It was the winner of the award for Excellence in Preservation through restoration. Ruth Hawkins and her staff at the Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites Program have worked wonders across the Arkansas Delta, from the Lakeport Plantation at Lake Village in the southeast corner of the state to the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum at Piggott in the northeast corner of the state. In between there are the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza and the Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center.

ASU has joined forces with the city of Dyess and the Rural Heritage Development Initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to make this project a reality. Ray and Carrie Cash moved their family from the piney woods near Kingsland in south Arkansas to Dyess in 1935. It was during the Great Depression and the Cash family was among those chosen to live in this federal resettlement project for poor white farmers. Late each night, young J.R. (only later to be known as Johnny) would listen to country and gospel music on the radio.

He graduated from Dyess High School in 1950, and the family continued to live in the house until 1954. By 2006, the HPAA had placed the home on its list of the state’s most endangered places. ASU purchased the house in 2011.

During the restoration process, the Cash home was lifted off its original site. Soil underneath was removed and replaced with fill dirt. Only then could exterior and interior restoration work begin. Extensive research was done on similar New Deal homes. With the foundation stabilized, the original floor plan was restored and railings and porches were rebuilt.

This is, of course, far from the only project of this type taking place across Arkansas. Here are the other award recipients:

— The Delta Cultural Center at Helena was presented the award for Excellence in Heritage Preservation for the work it has done through the decades. It has been a key player in the effort to preserve and interpret the Delta’s history and heritage. The restored 1912 Missouri-Pacific Railroad depot opened to the public in 1990 with a number of museum exhibits. Since then, the Delta Cultural Center has expanded down Cherry Street while also restoring the city’s former synagogue into the Beth El Heritage Hall and restoring the 1859 Moore-Hornor House as part of the Helena’s effort to capitalize on its rich Civil War history.

— The Boone-Murphy House at Pine Bluff received an honorable mention for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation. The house was built in 1860 by Thomas Boone. During the Union occupation of Pine Bluff from 1863-65, it served as the federal headquarters. The house was moved in the 1890s so a larger structure could be built on the site. Boone-Murphy served as servants’ quarters and later as a storeroom. The house was moved twice more during the 20th century. It’s amazing that it even survived. The house had been vacant for years when Pine Bluff city staff member Robert Tucker began pushing for its restoration. The restoration effort began in 2008. Rotten floor joists were removed, the metal shingle roof was repaired and hardwood floors, windows and doors were restored. The house is now the home of the Pine Bluff Historic District Commission. Last year, a Civil War marker was erected at the site to commemorate the role the house played during the federal occupation of Pine Bluff.

— An award for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation went to the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum. The structure, built in the middle of the previous century as a bank, had been gutted and been empty for several years. It was situated among nondescript retail buildings from the 1960s. The architectural firm Polk Stanley & Wilcox then stepped in and worked wonders. The monumental stairway was saved and usable spaces were created for art exhibits. A lantern atop the building that changes colors is now a beacon in Fort Smith, drawing people to the galleries inside.

— An award for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation for a large project went to the Mann on Main in downtown Little Rock. The 1913 Blass Department Store building was designed by George Mann, the architect for the state Capitol. In 1999, Batesville developer Doyle Rogers Sr. purchased the building and an adjoining annex. In 2012, the Doyle Rogers Co. partnered with Moses Tucker Real Estate in a mixed-use project that has resulted in office space, 20 residential units and the resurrection of one of my favorite restaurant’s, Bruno’s Little Italy. The Mann on Main is a cornerstone of the ongoing rebirth of Main Street in the state’s largest city.

— An award for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation for a small project went to the Lesmeister Guest House in downtown Pocahontas. Henry Lesmeister built this commercial structure near the downtown square in 1902, and it served as the home of various businesses. Many people in northeast Arkansas remember it as the Bennett & Rice Grocery. Following a year of rehabilitation, the building now provides overnight accommodations for visitors to Randolph County. A 1910 photo was used to make decisions about the rehabilitation. Contemporary walls and ceiling layers were demolished to expose the building’s earliest features. A large cistern was discovered in the basement and is now glass-covered and visible from one of the bedrooms.

— The award for Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Advocacy went to the Newport Economic Development Commission and the Clinton School of Public Service for work on the White River Bridge project at Newport. Constructed in 1930, what’s known locally as the Blue Bridge will be replaced. Jon Chadwell of the Newport Economic Development Commission worked with Clinton School students Foster Holcomb, Abby Olivier and James Stephens to come up with a plan to reuse the old bridge. The students surveyed area leaders and conducted interviews with preservation experts. They then recommended adaptive reuse scenarios. A final decision has not yet been made on the future of the Blue Bridge.

— The award for Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Education went to Nancy Lowe, who was the principal design consultant for Main Street Arkansas from the program’s inception in 1984 until last August. Her experience with Main Street programs across the country made her an asset to the Arkansas program as it got off the ground. She has conducted hundreds of meetings across the state through the years to train directors, board members and volunteers for local Main Street restoration efforts.

— An honorable mention for Outstanding New Construction in a Historic Setting went to the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock for the blacksmith shop at the Plum Bayou Homestead. The blacksmith shop was designed and built to reflect the 1840s and 1850s when the services of a blacksmith would have been in high demand. Designed by Ruby Architects, the blacksmith shop includes a fully functioning forge with authentic leather bellows and a rocker arm for stoking the fire. No nails were used in the timber frame.

— The award for Outstanding New Construction in a Historic Setting went to Ozark Hall on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Constructed in the 1940s in the collegiate gothic style, Ozark Hall is in the historic core of the university just south of Old Main. The building was envisioned in the 1925 university master plan as a U-shaped facility but only one side was ever completed because the school ran out of money. This project included complete exterior and interior renovation along with a multistory addition. That addition completed the U-shaped configuration imagined in the 1925 master plan. Limestone was selected from the original quarry. Renovated spaces include classrooms, laboratories, offices and an auditorium. A new courtyard ties together the historic and new parts of the building. WD&D Architects and VCC Construction worked on the building.

— The award for Outstanding Service in Neighborhood Preservation went to Anita Davis for her work along South Main Street in Little Rock. When she saw an empty lot at 1401 S. Main St. several years ago, she envisioned a gathering spot for local artists, visitors and those who lived in the neighborhood. The lot had been part of the 1873 Garland-Mitchell House. In the 1940s, the lot was split, and a drive-in restaurant was built facing Main Street. A small motel and later a fast-food restaurant occupied the corner. A fire in 2005 left only a concrete pad and a few crepe myrtles. Davis bought the lot in 2006 and founded the Bernice Garden, which now hosts a farmers’ market, an annual cornbread festival and additional efforts to foster community involvement. Other Davis properties in the area serve as a home for the Green Corner Store, the Root Café, Boulevard Bread Co. and the Esse Purse Museum.

— The award for Outstanding Work by a Craftsperson went to Danny Ball Sr. for his work on the New Hope School near Wynne. New Hope was built in 1903 as a one-room school. A second room was added a few years later, and the building remained in use as a school until 1951. In 2001, the Cross County Historical Society began efforts to preserve the building. Ball was chosen to complete the window restoration and replacement. He began by researching the original details and then determined that almost all of the window components would have to be replicated. The originals had either been lost or severely damaged. He wanted the lumber to be locally milled and finally found a source of Arkansas cypress at Powhatan. The lumber was hand-planed to the original size and dimension. Ball spent dozens of hours ensuring that every original detail was replicated.

— The award for Excellence in Personal Projects went to the Connelly-Harrington House at Siloam Springs and its owners, Ron and Christina Drake. The house was constructed in 1913 for a local banker. It later was used as a hospital and then was divided into apartments. In January 2012, a fire destroyed the third floor and caused smoke and water damage on the other flowers. The Drakes decided to rehabilitate the structure. The third floor was reconfigured as a two-bedroom apartment with views of downtown Siloam Springs. The building also is home to the Windgate Foundation and has been a catalyst for additional developments in downtown Siloam Springs.

— An honorable mention for Excellence in Preservation through Restoration went to the Tushek Building in Lake Village. The building was constructed in 1906 and occupies a prominent corner of downtown Lake Village. It sat vacant for years before the mayor of Lake Village, JoAnne Bush, led an effort to restore the building and consolidate city offices into one facility. The structure was donated to the city and funding was provided by the state, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Delta Regional Authority and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The rehabilitation effort has spurred even more investment in downtown Lake Village.

— The Ned Shank Award for Outstanding Preservation Publication went to authors Cheryl Batts, Janis Kearney and Patricia McGraw for “John Lee Webb, the Man and His Legacy.” Born in Alabama in 1877 as the oldest of 10 children, John Lee Webb was educated at the Tuskegee Institute. He later worked as a general contractor in Mississippi and Arkansas. In 1913, he joined a fraternal organization known as the Supreme Lodge of the Woodmen of the Union. He was living in Hot Springs by 1930. He became head of the fraternal organization and the president of a large insurance company. He also led the effort to build what would become the National Baptist Hotel in downtown Hot Springs. The book outlines how Webb made Hot Springs a center of black tourism during a time of segregation.

— The Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement went to Missy McSwain of Lonoke, who was hired in 1987 as the HPAA executive director. She later purchased her grandmother’s house, the 1885 Trimble-McCrary House at Lonoke. She left the HPAA staff in 1993 but went on to lead the Main Street program at Lonoke while being involved in other preservation efforts. She would later manage federal programs for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program (an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage) for 10 years. In 2007, she was appointed to serve as the director of that agency.

“Through Missy’s work with the AHPP, she has been a part of some of the state’s most recognizable preservation projects such as the Jacob Wolf House in Baxter County, the Lakeport Plantation in Chicot County and the Drennen-Scott House in Crawford County,” says HPAA executive director Vanessa McKuin. “As deputy state historic preservation officer, Missy serves not only as the voice for the agency in Arkansas but also as Arkansas’ voice in the national preservation forum. Elected by her peers, Missy now serves on the board for the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers.

“Missy is a tireless advocate in her outreach to local, state and federal officials, always beating the drum of how preservation ties into quality of place and how building places where people want to live is the key to 21st century economic development.”

Missy and Vanessa are my kinds of Arkansans.

Like I said at the outset, this was my kind of crowd.

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