Little Rock’s Lafayette Hotel

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

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

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

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

We both worked for Gov. Mike Huckabee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I enjoy old hotels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lafayette closed on Nov. 23, 1973.

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

Soon, the Grady Manning also was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bit of background on Jon Brittenum is in order.

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

When Jon Brittenum was a little bitty boy,

Sittin’ on his mammy’s knee,

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

Big Frank’ll make a quarterback o’ me …

Big Frank’ll make a quarterback o’ me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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