The grand hotels

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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