The preservationists

Earlier this month, people from across the state gathered in Little Rock as the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas presented its annual Arkansas Preservation Awards.

These are my kind of people: Architects, academicians, lawyers, you name it. What they have in common is a love for this state, an appreciation of its history and a determination to preserve those things that have made us who we are as Arkansans.

For decades, Arkansas did a poor job of preserving its past. There’s no need to pretend otherwise.

When you’re one of the poorest states in the country, historic preservation becomes a luxury rather than a necessity.

During the past couple of decades, as the state has become wealthier, Arkansans have done a better job protecting and celebrating their colorful heritage.

The highlight of the awards ceremony each year is the presentation of the Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement, named after the alliance’s founding president. No one loves Arkansas and its history more than Parker Westbrook, who has devoted much of his life to preserving the community of Washington in Hempstead County.

Past winners of the award include such well-known Arkansas figures as Richard Mason, David Pryor, Jane Ross, Dorothy Moore and her son Robert Moore Jr., Charles and Becky Witsell, Theodosia Murphy Nolan, Bobby Roberts and Bill Worthen.

This year’s honoree was my friend Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas State University, who has done more to preserve important sites in the Arkansas Delta than anyone I know.

Here’s how the event’s program described Ruth: “For Dr. Ruth A. Hawkins, historic sites are the key to the future of the Arkansas Delta. The list of historic landmarks and preservation projects in which Ruth has played a significant role in the Arkansas Delta is unparalleled.

“Ruth knows that distinctive history draws people and dollars. Years ago she began working to protect and preserve the natural beauty of the east Arkansas landscape through the National Scenic Byways program. Under the federal byways designation received in 1998, Crowley’s Ridge Parkway became eligible for interpretive markers and other improvements. A segment of the Great River Road in Arkansas was also designated a National Scenic Byway in 2002 through Ruth’s efforts.

“ASU’s Arkansas Heritage Sites program was developed beginning in 1999. Under Ruth’s leadership, the program has grown to encompass seven historic sites that illustrate many facets of Arkansas’s rich history and culture, including the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, the Arkansas State University Museum and the historic V.C. Kays House in Jonesboro, Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, the Rohwer Japanese-American Relocation Center near McGehee and the historic Dyess Colony and boyhood home of Johnny Cash in Dyess. Ruth also serves as the executive director for Arkansas Delta Byways, the regional tourism promotion association for the 15-county Delta region. Dr. Hawkins and the Arkansas Heritage Sites program gained national recognition in 2008 with an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”

Ruth worked closely with the Sam Epstein Angel family of Lake Village and secured the 1859 Lakeport Plantation home as a gift to ASU. Six years and more than $9 million later, the state’s only remaining antebellum plantation home on the banks of the Mississippi River was opened to the public.

Ruth wasn’t finished, though.

“Everyone thought that the Lakeport project would be Ruth’s crowning achievement, but it’s the Johnny Cash boyhood home and the Dyess Colony that now take the cake,” the program said. “The Cash home and the Dyess Colony administration building opened to the public in August. Dyess city offices are now in the administration building, the center of a redevelopment plan for the town of Dyess.

“Ruth sees preservation as not just a tool through which to teach history but as an economic development catalyst as well. Since 1999, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott has served not just as a museum but as a draw to the community. Piggott has seen nearly a 75 percent increase in state tax revenues from travel and tourism expenditures. Similar growth is projected for Dyess. The Cash boyhood home is expected to bring 50,000 visitors annually who spend about $10 million in the region and create more than 100 tourism-related jobs.”

Ruth is not shy about approaching famous people for help.

She brought in George Takei, who was interned in Arkansas as a child, to record the audio tours for Rohwer.

She has attracted the likes of Rosanne Cash, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Reba McEntire and Willie Nelson to the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro.

She teaches courses in ASU’s doctoral program for heritage studies and is the author of one of the best Hemingway books out there, “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway Pfeiffer Marriage.”

Throw in her work for the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Arkansas History Commission, and you get a sense of how busy she is.

Among this year’s other honorees were:

— The William F. Laman Public Library System of North Little Rock, which received the Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation Award in the public sector for its work to restore the vacant post office on Main Street in downtown North Little Rock. The 1931 Georgian Revival structure was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson.

— Paula Dempsey and the folks at Dempsey Bakery in downtown Little Rock, who received the Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation Award in the private sector for turning a building built in 1948 as an automobile dealership into a modern bakery.

— The Delta Cultural Center at Helena, which received the Excellence in Preservation through Restoration Award for turning Helena’s Temple Beth El into a public events center. The Delta has a strong Jewish heritage, though the number of Jews in the region has declined significantly. Temple Beth El was constructed in 1915 with an imposing stained class dome. The building was designed by Mann & Stern, the same architectural partnership that designed the state Capitol, Little Rock Central High School, the Arlington Hotel, the Fordyce Bath House and other buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The congregation deconsecrated the temple in 2005 and donated the building to the Delta Cultural Center for public use.

— Charles Witsell and Gordon Wittenberg, who received the Ned Shank Award for Outstanding Preservation Publication for their book “Architects of Little Rock: 1833-1950.” This book from the University of Arkansas Press provides biographical sketches of the architects at work in Little Rock during that period. The authors, both noted architects, profile 35 architects including such key figures in Arkansas architectural history as George Mann, Thomas Harding, Charles Thompson, Max Mayer, Edwin Cromwell, George Wittenberg and Lawson Delony.

— ASU emeritus professor Scott Darwin, who received the Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Advocacy Award for his work to save the V.C. Kays House on the ASU campus. The Tudor-style home was built in 1936 by the school’s founding father and one of its most influential presidents. After Kays’ presidency ended in 1943, he continued working as the school’s business manager. The home faced demolition before Darwin got involved.

— Visit Hot Springs and all of those involved in the creation of the Hot Springs Baseball Trail. They received the Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Education Award for creating a trail of historic markers to celebrate the fact that Hot Springs is the birthplace of spring training for professional baseball. Players ranging from Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson trained in Hot Springs.

— Jennifer Carman and Donna Thomas of Little Rock, who received the Outstanding Service in Neighborhood Preservation Award for their work restoring homes in the Central High School Neighborhood Historic District. Since 2010, they have completed more than 10 rehabilitation projects and have encouraged others to do the same. In the words of Carman: “If you had asked me 10 years ago why I thought these sorts of preservation projects were important, I might have waxed poetic about architectural styles and beautification and cultural heritage. Today, however, I will tell you that my dedication stems from seeing firsthand the positive changes that rehabilitation can spark within a city or a neighborhood, or even a single residential block. Ultimately, I’ve learned that preservation isn’t really about improving buildings. It’s about improving lives and nurturing communities.”

— Clancy McMahon, who received the Outstanding Work by a Craftsperson Award for his efforts to restore the A.R. Carroll Drugstore in the Washington County community of Canehill. The building was constructed in 1900 and is the last remaining example of the stone buildings that once made up Canehill’s commercial district. McMahon was able to re-create the composition and form of historic soft mortar in the building, which will serve as a community center.

Honorable mentions in various categories went to:

— CareLink, the architectural firm Polk Stanley Wilcox and East Harding Inc. for taking an abandoned building along Pike Avenue in North Little Rock, which had once been a Safeway grocery store, and turning it into a headquarters for the nonprofit organization.

— The state of Arkansas, the architectural firm Hight-Jackson Associates and Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. for their work restoring the inside of the dome at the state Capitol.

— The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, WER Architects/Planners and Kinco Constructors for their work restoring the cemetery at the Rohwer Relocation Camp in Desha County.

— Keith Newton for his craftsmanship in the restoration of the Frank Gibb House in Little Rock. Gibb was an architect, and the home was constructed in the 1890s.

In a state that needs more preservationists and more of a preservation ethos, these people, companies and other entities are all heroes in my eyes.

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