The Fragile Five (and the shame of Hot Springs)

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.

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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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2 Responses to “The Fragile Five (and the shame of Hot Springs)”

  1. Ardee Eichelmann says:

    Thank you for bringing the announcement about “The Fragile Five” to those of us who missed this piece of news. Also, thank you again for holding the delinquent property owners in Hot Springs feet to the fire about the way they have allowed downtown Hot Springs to go to seed.

    It is time for the government to act to preserve this Arkansas treasure before it becomes even more degraded. Thank you for using your voice to “rally the troops.”

  2. Tim Stone says:

    It is an absolute disgrace that we have allowed this great city to deteriorate like this. Hot Springs should be one of the jewels of the South where visitors from all over the country come for vacations. It has all of the resources going for it from history, mountains, lakes, and its people.

    Thanks for continuing the spotlit on this subject. Hopefully things will turn around soon.

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