HAM: Celebrating our state’s past

I recently attended my first meeting as a member of the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission and was given the honor of sitting in the chair long occupied by Parker Westbrook.

Westbrook, who died last November at age 89, was an icon to those who love our state’s history.

Jamie Brandon, the president of Preserve Arkansas, wrote after his death: “If you ever met Parker Westbrook, you know that he was an Arkansan through and through with roots deep in southwest Arkansas. His home in Nashville and Washington, Ark., was very dear to him. … Westbrook was front and center for the formation of most of the infrastructure of Arkansas’s historic preservation movement.

“Aside from being the founding president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, now called Preserve Arkansas, he was a founding board member — or at least a board member — of virtually every historic preservation body in the state. The list includes the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation (the oldest historic preservation organization in the state), the Department of Arkansas Heritage Advisory Board, the Main Street Arkansas Advisory Board, the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission, the Arkansas State Capitol Association and the Arkansas State Review Board for Historic Preservation.”

Westbrook was born at Nashville in Howard County. When he was living in Virginia and working as an assistant to U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, he bought and restored an 1807 Quaker cottage. After 26 years of work in the nation’s capital, Westbrook returned to Arkansas in 1975 to work for a fellow south Arkansas native, newly elected Gov. David Pryor of Camden.

In 2007, Westbrook was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame. The National Trust for Historic Preservation declared him to be a “national treasure.”

As I sat having lunch at Westbrook’s former spot at the table, I looked up at portraits of two other people who played key roles in preserving our state’s past — Louise Loughborough and Edwin Cromwell.

Loughborough was born in 1881, the daughter of Louisa Watkins Wright and William Fulton Wright. Her father was a Confederate veteran.

“She could trace her family lineage through state leaders such as Arkansas Supreme Court Justice George Claiborne Watkins and William Savin Fulton, Arkansas’s last territorial governor and later a U.S. senator,” Bill Worthen writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “She was educated in Little Rock schools and married J. Fairfax Loughborough on Oct. 21, 1902. He was an attorney with Rose Hemingway Cantrell & Loughborough, which later became the Rose Law Firm.

“The Loughboroughs moved to the new Pulaski Heights suburb, and she engaged herself in civic activities. She was a charter member of the Little Rock Garden Club, a member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America and served as vice regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, the organization that restored and maintains the home of George Washington.

“Loughborough’s involvement in historic structures in Little Rock began when the Little Rock Garden Club sought to improve the appearance of the War Memorial Building (Old State House) and its grounds in 1928. The grounds were littered with signs and monuments, and the roof of the Greek Revival building sported figurative statues of Law, Justice and Mercy, which had been installed above the pediment after being salvaged from the Arkansas exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. To take the façade of the edifice back to its original 1830s appearance, Loughborough had the statues removed, without the permission of the War Memorial Commission, which had legal authority over the building.”

Loughborough was appointed to the Little Rock Planning Commission in 1935 at a time when few women served on public boards and commissions. She was disturbed when she heard of plans to condemn a group of old homes at the intersection of Third and Cumberland streets in downtown Little Rock.

Worthen writes: “Although the neighborhood had fallen on hard times, becoming a red-light district and slum, Loughborough feared the loss of several historic structures, including the Hinderliter House, the oldest building in Little Rock and thought to be Arkansas’ last territorial capitol. She mobilized a group of civic leaders to save these buildings. She enlisted the aid of prominent architect Max Mayer and coined the term ‘town of three capitols’ to try to capture the imagination of potential supporters, grouping the ‘territorial capitol’ with the Old State House and the state Capitol.

“In 1938, Loughborough secured a commitment from Floyd Sharp of the federal Works Progress Administration to help with the project, on the condition that the houses be owned by a governmental entity. She persuaded the Arkansas General Assembly to create and support, with general revenues, the Arkansas Territorial Capitol Restoration Commission, which was created by Act 388 of 1939. This satisfied Sharp’s condition, and the WPA provided labor and material for the new historic house museum. A private fundraising campaign brought in the remaining monetary support necessary for the completion of the project.”

Like Loughborough, Sharp was an interesting figure. He was born in 1896 in Tennessee. His family later lived in Idaho and then moved to Arkansas in 1907. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, Sharp got a job as a printer for the New Era, the afternoon newspaper at Hot Springs. He later worked at the Arkansas Gazette while studying law. He received his law degree in 1925. He was a statistician for the state Department of Labor and later moved to the federal Emergency Relief Commission.

“W.R. Dyess was the original head of the Arkansas WPA, which began operation in July 1935,” William H. Pruden III writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Serving as Dyess’ executive secretary, Sharp traveled around the state assessing the devastation wrought by the Great Depression. … In 1936, Sharp became Arkansas administrator of the WPA after Dyess died in a plane crash.

“As state administrator, Sharp oversaw the allocation and implementation of millions of dollars of federal funds, adapting the responsibilities and mission of the WPA to the state’s distinctive and predominantly rural and agricultural economy. The agency had to utilize some of that agricultural labor for things like improved roads leading to markets, which in turn helped stimulate the agricultural economy. Under Sharp’s direction, the WPA completed 11,000 miles of country roads. In addition, local schools were improved, and all of the WPA’s efforts contributed to a psychological revival for Arkansas’ citizens. The WPA infused the state with significant capital, spending just under $117 million in the state by the time it ceased operation in 1943.”

Gov. Carl Bailey disliked Sharp. He believed Sharp was using the WPA to undermine him politically. Bailey tried to institute an investigation of the Dyess Colony in Mississippi County in 1939, but Sharp’s legislative allies fended off that effort. Loughborough, however, got along well with Sharp and knew how to get money out of the WPA. What was known as the Arkansas Territorial Restoration opened on July 19, 1941.

“The project was the first Arkansas agency committed to both the restoration of structures and the interpretation of their history,” Worthen writes. “It served as a model and inspiration for historic preservation in the state. Loughborough provided daily direction for the museum house complex through the first 20 years of its existence, yielding her authority to architect Edwin B. Cromwell only as her health began to fail.”

Cromwell graduated from Princeton University in 1931 with a degree in architecture. He moved to Little Rock in 1935 to take a job with the federal Resettlement Administration. After a year with the agency, he left to practice architecture on a full-time basis. He would continue to practice until 1984.

In 1938, Cromwell was invited to join a firm that had been started in 1885 by Benjamin Bartlett and his draftsman son. They had been selected to design the Arkansas School for the Blind.

In 1886, Charles Thompson, a 17-year-old draftsman from Illinois, had seen Bartlett’s advertisement in a lumber journal and contacted Bartlett.

“Bartlett recognized the talent of his new draftsman, and the firm became Bartlett & Thompson within two years,” Charles Witsell Jr. writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Bartlett moved to Mississippi in 1890, where he was retained for the design of a county courthouse. He withdrew from the firm, and 21-year-old Thompson was on his own. The Little Rock City Directory of 1890 ran his advertisement: ‘Charles L. Thompson, Architect and Superintendent.’

“The following year, Thompson joined forces with Canadian-born civil engineer Fred Rickon and began a very productive relationship. In the 1895 promotional piece ‘A New Year’s Greeting,’ Rickon and Thompson listed 45 buildings they had designed, 24 of which were in Little Rock. The two men dissolved their partnership in 1897, however, and Thompson went the next 19 years without a business partner, although there were a number of talented employees, beginning with Thomas Harding Jr., son of the well-known Arkansas architect of the late 19th century, who was hired in 1898 at the age of 14. Like Thompson himself, Harding acquired most of his education through experience, reading and correspondence courses. By 1916, the firm had completed hundreds of buildings, and Thompson invited him to be his partner that year. The firm name became Thompson & Harding.”

Gifted architects such as Theo Sanders and Frank Ginocchio later went to work for the firm. Sanders and Ginocchio created their own firm after World War I but a merger resulted in the Thompson Sanders & Ginocchio firm in 1927. Thompson retired in 1938. When Sanders withdrew from the partnership, Cromwell (Thompson’s son-in-law) was invited to succeed him.

“Ginocchio and Cromwell divided the office duties,” Witsell writes. “Cromwell assumed the responsibility for the inside work — design, drafting and business management — while Ginocchio stayed with construction supervision. The pair designed the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, which opened in 1950. The Governor’s Mansion was built on the site of the Arkansas School for the Blind, which was razed in 1939. The firm prospered under Cromwell’s leadership. The late 1940s to the 1970s constituted a period of growth. In 1954, engineering services in addition to architecture began to be offered.”

It was Cromwell who had the vision for Maumelle, a planned community on 5,000 acres of land along the Arkansas River owned by Arkansas insurance executive Jess Odum. He also was the man who saved the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock and began promoting the idea of riverfront development. After becoming commission chairman, Cromwell began expanding the Arkansas Territorial Restoration.

“With federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds, matched by the state Legislature, the adjoining half-black was acquired with the old Fraternal Order of Eagles building, which became the museum’s reception center,” Worthen writes. “The expansion to its current size used federal highway enhancement funds and state and private sources. The Hinderliter House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 5, 1970. In 1972, the museum began to move toward a professional staff and began re-examining its mission and programs in light of continuing museum and preservation standards. Resarch found only circumstantial evidence for the association of the Hinderliter House with the last Territorial Assembly.”

Worthen, a Little Rock native, graduated from Little Rock Hall High School and Washington University in St. Louis. He taught high school in Pine Bluff for three years and then became director of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration in 1972. In 1981, it became the first history museum in the state to be accredited by the American Association of Museums.

Worthen is still directing the museum after all these years. During the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism earlier this year, he was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame.

Cromwell and Worthen made quite a pair in the 1970s as they professionalized the museum’s operations. In 1976, the antebellum Plum Bayou log house was moved from its original location near Scott. And in 2001, the name of the complex was changed to the Historic Arkansas Museum as the size of the former reception center was doubled.

Loughborough died in 1962, Cromwell died in 2001 and Westbrook died in 2015.

Sitting in Westbrook’s old seat while Loughborough and Cromwell watch over me, it’s an honor to serve on the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission. The history of Arkansas hangs heavily in that room

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