Archive for the ‘Little Rock’ Category

The bridge park

Monday, March 6th, 2023

The term “game-changer” is overused. But the bridge park proposed for downtown Little Rock truly will be a game-changer.

It was announced last month that the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded a $2 million planning grant for the city of Little Rock to design a deck park over Interstate 30 between Sixth Street and Ninth Street.

If you’ve ever experienced Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, you have a sense of what a great deck park can do for a neighborhood.

This park — with interstate traffic flowing underneath — will connect the new Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts on one side of the interstate with the Clinton Center, the Heifer International campus and the emerging East Village on the other side.

Once Lyon College opens dental and veterinary schools on the Heifer campus, almost 1,000 additional people (students, faculty, staff) will spend their days in the area. It will be their park of choice.

Guests at the high-rise Holiday Inn and Comfort Inn, which face a busy interstate, will soon look down on a park instead of concrete and cars. Hotel business will increase.

Property values will soar at the Quapaw Tower, a venerable condominium complex whose residents will look down at the park on one side and the arts museum on the other side.

I know what you’re saying: “This is only $2 million for a project that will cost $100 million or more. How do we know it will happen?”

I worked in government long enough to know that they’re not going to spend $2 million to plan something that’s never constructed. The park will be built through a combination of federal, state and city funds.

Remember that massive infrastructure bill that Congress approved? The U.S. Department of Transportation will award annual construction grants for such projects across the country during the next four years.

The deck park will complement a nearby 18.9-acre urban park. Space for the larger park, which borders the River Market District and the main campus of the Central Arkansas Library System, was created by the 30 Crossing project. Interested parties already are meeting on a regular basis to make plans for the larger park.

Two new parks, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (housed in a facility that has already received international media coverage), the dental school and the veterinary school should lead to additional residential complexes along with more restaurants, bars and retailers.

Things suddenly look favorable for downtown.

Downtown Little Rock

Thursday, March 2nd, 2023

In this Saturday’s column on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I’ll return to the subject of downtown Little Rock.

There’s a lot going on.

In the “coming soon” category, we have:

— Next month’s grand opening of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, the biggest thing to happen downtown since the Clinton Presidential Center opened in November 2004.

— The Artspace Windgate campus in the emerging East Village part of downtown. This is a $36 million project.

— The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s $9 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, which will be built between the Clinton Center and the Heifer International campus.

— Lyon College’s dental and veterinary schools in the Heifer International building.

— Expansion of the ambassadors program, which will make visitors to downtown feel safer.

— Lighting the Broadway Bridge, a project of the venerable Little Rock Rotary Club.

Now, here’s my list of things that also must happen for downtown to reach its potential:

— Fill the more than 80 Little Rock Police Department vacancies. That will allow the department to have officers who walk beats downtown. The biggest problem downtown is an image problem. People across the state don’t think it’s safe.

— Restore Capitol Avenue. The city has created a committee to make recommendations. City officials need to take those recommendations seriously. The road leading to the steps of the state Capitol should be the grandest urban boulevard in Arkansas.

— Attract developers to transform the empty Boyle and Donaghey buildings on Main Street into residential housing to serve the dental and veterinary schools.

— Convince the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to have a major downtown presence. How about moving the business school and associating it with the Little Rock Technology Park?

— Properly develop the urban greenspace adjacent to the River Market District that’s being created by the 30 Crossing project.

City of the arts

Wednesday, March 1st, 2023

For those of us who live in Little Rock, it’s easy to point out the problems. There are:

— The record murder rate.

— The large number of people who blatantly ignore traffic laws with virtually no enforcement from the chronically understaffed Little Rock Police Department.

— Aggressive panhandling that discourages people from going downtown.

— The graffiti epidemic that has scarred the city.

— The trash along roadways that isn’t picked up and the grass that isn’t mowed.

Want to feel better? Take a look at the major investments being made in the arts here in the capital city. To wit:

— The spectacular new Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, which is the subject of my column on the Voices page of today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. AMFA has raised more than $150 million for that project.

— The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s Stella Boyle Smith Music Center. The 20,000-square-foot facility will be between the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International campus. Earlier this year, ASO announced that the late Lee Ronnel left the largest individual gift in the organization’s 56-year history. The amount wasn’t disclosed, but it will allow development of the E. Lee Ronnel Music Academy. The academy will expand ASO’s capacity to serve children and adults through youth orchestras, strings classes, summer strings camps, children’s choirs and more.

— The $71 million renovation of downtown’s Robinson Center, which occurred from 2014-16.

— The Artspace Windgate campus in the emerging East Village part of downtown. Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects announced last fall that it has partnered with the Windgate Foundation to build a mixed-use project for the arts. The four-story, 94,000-square-foot development will have 60 live-work units for artists. Artists and their families will be actively recruited to the state. Completion of the $36 million project is projected for the fall of 2024.

This adds up to more than $250 million in capital investment for the arts in just one part of the city. That’s impressive for a city of 200,000 people.

The huge amount of money being spent on the arts is among the factors leading to renewed interest in downtown Little Rock. Other factors include:

— The nascent recovery of Capitol Avenue. There are new owners for Regions Center and the former Bank of America Plaza. There’s also a committee appointed by the mayor charged with spurring a revival of that corridor.

— Plans by Lyon College to open dental and veterinary schools in the Heifer International building.

— The planned bridge park over Interstate 30 and a nearby urban greenspace that’s being opened up by the 30 Crossing project.

A really big deal

Tuesday, February 28th, 2023

On April 22, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts will hold its grand opening. The AMFA debut in MacArthur Park is the biggest thing to happen in downtown Little Rock since the Clinton Presidential Center opened in November 2004.

Consider this fact: In 2021, Icon magazine published a piece headlined “Architecture To Look Forward To.” The eight projects in the story included only one in the United States — the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.

That’s a big deal for Arkansas.

“Another major cultural project for Jeanne Gang and her studio, AMFA provides a new public gallery and gathering space,” the magazine noted. “The project … also focuses on strengthening and clarifying connectivity with the broader AMFA campus.”

Gang, a MacArthur Fellow (commonly known as the genius grant) and a professor in practice at Harvard Graduate School of Design, heads Studio Gang. Her firm does work around the world.

Meanwhile, internationally known landscape architecture firm SCAPE designed 13 acres of MacArthur Park surrounding the museum. SCAPE has as sterling a reputation as Studio Gang.

“In working with Studio Gang and SCAPE, we’re realizing the most contemporary ideas about museums and public spaces,” says Victoria Ramirez, AMFA’s executive director.

Along with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AMFA will give this state two world-class art museums. That’s pretty amazing for a state of just more than 3 million people.

I’ll have more in my column Wednesday on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I hope you’ll take the time to read it.

Downtown Little Rock: Some thoughts

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

Downtown Little Rock is close to becoming a really nice place for entrepreneurs to live and work; so very, very close.

I guess that’s why I find the things holding the neighborhood back frustrating.

If Little Rock is to grow in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, it must have a downtown that’s viewed by young, talented people as one of the best neighborhoods in the South. These are folks who like to walk or take their bikes to work and to the places they hang out after work.

Downtown Little Rock is much closer to achieving that “wow factor” — with the kinds of amenities that draw entrepreneurs to places such as Austin and Nashville — than most of us realize.

Let’s start with the positives:

The Clinton Presidential Center and Park and Heifer International gave new life to neighborhoods on the other side of Interstate 30. The Lost Forty and Rebel Kettle brew pubs have now come along. It didn’t happen as quickly as people had hoped. The Clinton Center was dedicated on a rainy day in November 2004. Heifer International dedicated its headquarters in March 2006. In June 2009, Heifer added the Murphy Keller Education Center, a facility with interactive exhibits designed to educate visitors about self-sufficiency initiatives in countries around the world. For a time, Little Rock’s leaders envisioned a nonprofit corridor, but nothing along those lines developed. Heifer International never built what had been described as “a Third World version of Epcot Center,” and Lion World Services for the Blind never moved to the neighborhood. But now Cromwell Architects Engineers is putting its headquarters in what once was a paint factory. Loft apartments are part of the mix. Donnie Ferneau and Kelli Marks are set to open a restaurant later this year known as Cathead’s Diner, and it’s already receiving a tremendous amount of buzz. And eStem Public Charter Schools is transforming a 112,000-square-foot warehouse into a second campus for students from kindergarten through the ninth grade. The school eventually will serve 1,300 students. So instead of a nonprofit corridor, we’re about to have a 24-hour neighborhood with a public charter school, offices, restaurants, loft apartments and craft breweries. It’s exciting to watch the transformation.

The River Market District has grown up. It has the variety of restaurants, bars and live music venues needed to be a true entertainment district. Thanks to Bobby Roberts, the visionary who headed the Central Arkansas Library System for 27 years before retiring in 2016, there’s also a cultural aspect to the district. Roberts believed that a new main library in what had been a hardware warehouse would ensure that the River Market District would be about more than after-dark activities. It also would be the place to go during the day. Roberts not only moved the main library into the old Fones Brothers warehouse, he created an entire campus that includes the Cox Creative Center and what once was the Arkansas Studies Institute. Fittingly, the CALS board recently renamed the ASI after Roberts. It’s now the Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art. It’s the home of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Center for Arkansas History & Culture, the Arkansas Humanities Council, part of the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service and 4 Square Gifts. The complex combined new construction with the renovation of the 1882 Porbeck & Bowman Building and the 1914 Geyer & Adams Building. CALS then built the beautiful Ron Robinson Theater as part of the new Arcade Building. Add to this mix the fact that the Museum of Discovery and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center are in the River Market District.

Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker are still hard at work. Those of us who love downtown Little Rock will be quick to tell you that neither of these two men are allowed to retire. They had a vision for what downtown could be when no one else did. They continue to build the new residential complexes that are necessary to make downtown a 24-hour neighborhood. They’re responsible for several new hotels in the River Market District along with a hip bowling alley and a soon-to-open beer hall. Unlike many of the so-called developers who have set their sights on downtown Little Rock through the years, Moses and Tucker actually finish the projects they announce.

Dr. Dean Kumpuris is also still hard at work. The longtime member of the Little Rock Board of Directors has treated Riverfront Park as if it were his front yard. In fact, you can find Kumpuris every Saturday working in the park. He has seen to it that the park now includes everything from sculpture gardens to splash pads. A number of people have had a hand in the revitalization of the riverfront, which for decades was little more than an industrial wasteland. But no one has been quite as dedicated as Kumpuris.

Warren Stephens is still ensuring that the Capital Hotel is one of the finest hotels in America. The hotel itself, the restaurant One Eleven and the Capital Bar & Grill have the feel of something you would find in a city much larger than Little Rock. As long as we have the Capital, people will have a reason to come downtown.

Development has expanded to areas other than Markham Street/Clinton Avenue and is headed south on Main Street. One block on Main Street soon will have six restaurants — Samantha’s Taproom & Wood Grill, Bruno’s Little Italy and Soul Fish Cafe do good business on one side of the 300 block. On the other side of Main Street on the 300 block, Brewski’s opened last fall and apartments above that sports bar now are being marketed as Mulberry Flats. The adjacent Rose Building, a 1900 design by noted Arkansas architect George Mann, soon will be the home of a restaurant known as Ira’s and a downtown location of Asian restaurant A.W. Lin’s, which already does business at the Promenade in west Little Rock. On the other side of Capital Avenue, Main Street is the new home of Three Fold, a popular Asian restaurant that serves noodles, dumplings and steamed buns. It has added life during the day to a block that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre keeps busy at night. Meanwhile, the Virginia-based limited partnership that bought the 92-year-old Donaghey Building on Main Street for $5.7 million in November has announced that it will convert the 170,000-square-foot structure into 152 apartments. Work is expected to begin in the second quarter of this year and conclude in November 2019.

Anita Davis, the godmother of the South Main District, is still hard at work with her Esse Purse Museum and other projects. Jack and Corri Sundell, who opened The Root restaurant in June 2011 after three years of planning, continue to knock it out of the park. So do Matt and Amy Bell at South On Main. Midtown Billiards has reopened following a devastating fire, Raduno may be the most upscale pizza restaurant in the state and Phil Brandon has moved his Rock Town Distillery to what’s known as SOMA. It all adds up to one of the funkiest, most eclectic stretches of street in the state.

The $70.5 million renovation of downtown’s old Robinson Auditorium was an unqualified success. Unlike a lot of government projects, this one came in on time and on budget. What’s now known as the Robinson Performance Hall opened on Nov. 10, 2016, after having been closed since July 1, 2014. The facility was built in 1939 as a WPA project and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. An adjoining conference facility overlooking the river can accommodate 530 people. The performance hall is now at least equal to what can be found in other cities this size and superior to most.

The Arkansas Arts Center is about to embark on a $70 million renovation. Studio Gang, which has offices in Chicago and New York, is the project’s lead architectural firm. Todd Herman, the Arts Center’s executive director, calls the design “transformational” and “inspirational.” Arts Center officials hope to expand the facility by one-third its current size, upgrade existing elements and better tie together the various parts of the complex. In February 2016, Little Rock voters approved the sale of $37.5 million in general obligation bonds for this project. Funds come from a 2 percent tax on hotel and motel stays in the city. More than $1 million in work is also being performed on the adjacent MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History. The Arts Center renovation should make the MacArthur Park neighborhood more of a draw for potential residents.

The early success of the Little Rock Technology Park bodes well for the future. A consortium of banks came forward with a $17.1 million loan, and work on Phase 1 of the tech park began in April 2016. The grand opening was a year later. The 38,000-square-foot incubator on Main Street connects three existing properties. Discussions about a technology park had begun a decade ago, and the city of Little Rock, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences signed on as sponsors. Little Rock taxpayers are contributing $22.5 million as part of a 2011 sales tax initiative. The cost of the first phase was $12.6 million for property acquisition and $6.8 million for renovations. The park’s board is planning Phase 2, which will consist of construction on what’s now a parking lot between the current complex and the KATV, Channel 7, studios. The new facility will include not only office space but also labs for research. Brent Birch, the tech park director, says: “The research stage is when you’ll see UAMS and UALR enter the picture in a big way. They’ll be seeking grants to pay for the research they do here. We’re discussing strategies to raise capital for Phase 2. We plan to pay off the debt on the first phase during the next five years. We don’t intend to keep piling debt on top of debt.”

As you can see, there are a lot of positives downtown. Here are the steps that must occur to tie it all together and make sure that downtown Little Rock truly flourishes:

An expanded police presence. The problem with aggressive panhandlers in downtown Little Rock has become worse, and the shootings in the summer of 2017 at the Power Ultra Lounge gave downtown a black eye that will take time to heal. We’re about to have a heated race for mayor of Little Rock, and that’s a good thing. It will focus attention on issues such as this that must be discussed. The No. 1 issue for each candidate (there’s not even a close second in my mind) is to come up with a plan to fill the many vacancies in the Little Rock Police Department and then keep all of those positions filled going forward. This should allow the LRPD to increase the number of foot patrols downtown. Such a presence will make it a more appealing place for both visitors and residents. If Little Rock is to grow in the next decade, downtown will have to be the goose that lays the golden egg. Want to kill the goose? Refuse to put those foot patrols on the streets, let the panhandling continue to increase and watch momentum cease.

An expansion of what’s known as the ambassadors program of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. In February 2017, the private group announced the start of this program. Two employees walk the streets, help visitors and report various maintenance issues. The initiative needs to be expanded, and every business with a presence downtown should be willing to put money into it. Gabe Holmstrom, the executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, says: “It’s going to take money, but I would love to see the program expand. Kansas City has 75 ambassadors downtown. They do everything from picking up trash to removing graffiti to walking people to their cars.”

The renovation of the Boyle Building at the crucial intersection of Capitol and Main. We’re coming up on four years now since the Chi family of Little Rock announced that it would transform the building into an Aloft Hotel. The signs went up, and then they came down. Almost eight months ago, it was announced that owner Jacob Chi was considering 96 apartments for the building, whose condition continues to worsen. Everyone I speak to about downtown Little Rock says the Boyle Building is the key to future investors taking an interest in other projects on Main and Capitol. The perception of downtown as a place that hasn’t fully taken off won’t change until something has happened with this building. In a statement on my Facebook page recently, Jacob Chi said: “Plans for the Boyle Building’s redevelopment have been procured, redone and further refined nine times just in the time since my family purchased the building. There are structural modifications that need to be made to the building. Essentially the Boyle Building has to be rebuilt from the inside out. That takes time and money. But it also takes care, dedication and commitment to the structure instead of taking the easy way out and cheapening the end product of the development. … I will not under any circumstance allow the reconstruction of the Boyle Building to be cheapened or for corners to be cut. There are active plans for the Boyle Building, and they are being continuously developed.”

Additional projects on Main Street that must move forward. The condition of the aforementioned KATV building has become an embarrassment. KATV’s corporate parent — Sinclair — must make a decision whether to go ahead and sell the building or renovate it if the station is going to stay put. The status quo is unacceptable. Further south on Main, the renovation of the Donaghey Building also needs to happen.

The downtown revival moving west down Capitol Avenue. Good news came last week when it was announced that the renovation of the Hall-Davidson buildings on Capitol by VCC Construction of Little Rock will result in an AC Hotel by Marriott. There will be 112 rooms, a bar and an upscale restaurant that should bring new life to the intersection of Capitol and Louisiana. The five-story Hall building was built in 1923, and the three-story Davidson annex was constructed in 1947. Both structures are on the National Register of Historic Places. This hopefully will be the impetus for the development of what’s being called the Financial Quarter. Architects and planners have been meeting since 2015 and talking about about transforming this part of town, especially what Tucker calls the “mausoleum lobbies” of large bank towers. Glen Woodruff of Wittenberg, Delony & Davidson Architects told the Arkansas Times last year: “We’ve watched the street die in the sense that there’s no activity. We can be guilty of this. We drive up in the parking deck and come into our tower, and we might go downstairs for lunch or we might not. Then we’ll get back in our cars in the parking deck and drive home and literally never step on the street in downtown Little Rock. And we’re not alone in that.”

Holmstrom says: “There’s an unmet demand for places to live downtown. The city will soon complete the streetscape work on both sides of Main Street. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to walk from the River Market District all the way to South Main Street with plenty to do along the way. The gaps are slowly but surely being filled in. By January 2020, I think we’ll be close to having a true 24-hour downtown. Everybody loves to talk about what the millennials want, and the top thing they want is a walkable city. But they aren’t alone in that. We find that everyone from law school and medical school students to empty nesters want to live downtown and be able to walk to work, restaurants, concerts, museums and other attractions.”

Grady Manning and Southwest Hotels Inc.

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Monday’s sale of the Arlington Hotel at Hot Springs marked the end of hotel ownership for Southwest Hotels Inc., which once had a large portfolio of famous hotels in this region of the country.

The company, founded by H. Grady Manning, once owned the Arlington Hotel and the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs; the Marion, Grady Manning, Albert Pike and Lafayette in downtown Little Rock; and hotels in Memphis, Vicksburg and Kansas City.

Grady Manning was born in March 1892 in rural Scott County, attended a business college in Fort Smith and began working in the dining room of a Fort Smith hotel to help pay the cost of his education.

“Discovering he enjoyed working in the hotel business, he moved to Hot Springs, where he took a job at the Eastman Hotel,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “With the town’s thermal waters said to offer medical benefits, Hot Springs became known as the Spa City and was one of the premier resort destinations in the country during the early 20th century. Many of its visitors were affluent travelers who had taken the waters at the leading spas of Europe and expected superior service at lodgings in Hot Springs.

“Manning traveled to Niagara Falls, Canada, where he was employed as a clerk at the Queen Royal Hotel, which was said to be one of Canada’s most exclusive. Manning became renowned for his outstanding service and courtesy, a reputation that followed him when he returned to his home state of Arkansas.

“In 1917, he became assistant manager of the Marion Hotel in Little Rock. The hotel was named for the wife of its founder, Herman Kahn, who built the Marion in 1905. At eight stories high, it was the tallest building in Arkansas until 1911. In 1919, Manning became manager of the Basin Park Hotel in Eureka Springs, a popular summer resort. His success there led to his being named manager of the Goldman Hotel in Fort Smith. In the prosperity of the 1920s, Manning formed Southwest Hotels Inc, which then sought ownership of a number of landmark hotels. Manning married Ruth Seaman around this same time.”

Herman Kahn, the Marion Hotel founder, had moved to Little Rock from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1870. Kahn’s great-grandson, Jimmy Moses, has been the driving force behind many of the developments in downtown Little Rock in recent decades. Kahn and his sons, Sidney L. Kahn Sr. and Alfred G Kahn, were heavily involved in banking and real estate development. Sidney Kahn developed the Prospect Terrace neighborhood of Little Rock.

The 500-room Marion Hotel, designed by architect George Mann, had green carpets, bellboys in green uniforms and a marble fish pond in the lobby. The Marion billed itself as the Meeting Place of Arkansas. Indeed many of the state’s top organizations held their conventions at the Marion. Its bar was named the Gar Hole and featured a huge, mounted alligator gar. Well-known visitors to the Marion through the years included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, Helen Keller and Will Rogers. 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.

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. 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.”

Southwest Hotels owned the Marion in its final decades. The hotel closed in early 1980 and was demolished along with the Grady Manning Hotel (also owned by Southwest Hotels at the time) on Feb. 17, 1980, to make way for the Excelsior Hotel (which later became the Peabody and then the Marriott) and the Statehouse Convention Center. Little Rock television stations provided live coverage of the implosion of the two hotels on a cold Sunday morning.

The Grady Manning Hotel had opened in 1930 as the Ben McGehee Hotel. It was designed by architect Julian Bunn Davidson and originally was owned by Benjamin Collins McGehee.

The Lafayette Hotel in downtown Little Rock opened in 1925 and closed in 1973. Now known as the Lafayette Building, it houses offices and condominiums.

Little Rock was experiencing solid growth 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 $2.5o 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 hurt the hotel industry, and the Lafayette closed in 1933. The building remained vacant until a housing shortage due to 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. Southwest reduced the number of guest rooms 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 completely 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 period working on the lobby ceiling. Oehrlie had been Heerwagen’s foreman in 1925 so he was familiar with the hotel.

After the renovation by Southwest Hotels, the Optimist Club, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club and Civitan 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 yet 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 decor was changed to incorporate a red-and-white color scheme. The Lafayette closed as a hotel on Nov. 23, 1973. The Gazette described it as the “victim of more modern competition, one-way streets and no parking facilities.”

The Albert Pike, meanwhile, operated as a hotel from 1929-71 when Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church bought it for $740,000 and transformed it into a residence hotel. The block on which the hotel was built once had been occupied by a house constructed in 1827 for Robert Crittenden, the secretary of the Arkansas Territory. The Crittenden House was among the first brick residences built in Little Rock. Facing financial problems, Crittenden attempted to trade the house for 10 sections of undeveloped land, hoping the brick home would become the site of the territorial capitol. Foreclosure followed Crittenden’s death in 1834, and the house was sold to Judge Benjamin Johnson, whose heirs later sold it to Dr. E.V. Dewell. Dewell, in turn, sold it to Gov. James P. Eagle, and it was the official governor’s residence from 1889-93. The Crittenden House was razed in 1920.

The 175-room Albert Pike was constructed at a cost of almost $1 million. The hotel was built in the Italian-Spanish Revival style, which was popular in California at the time. It featured tiled roofs, exposed beams, decorative inside tile, iron work and stained-glass windows. The hotel is among Little Rock’s last remaining major examples of this type of architecture.

At the time the Farrell Hotel Co. opened it, the Albert Pike was considered to be one of the finest hotels in the South. Architect Eugene John Stern designed two main wings of eight stories each that extended toward Scott Street and were connected across the back by a 10-story section. Above the entries were terra-cotta medallions with heraldic shields and the initials “AP.” The two-story main lobby was overlooked by a mezzanine that featured a custom-made Hazelton Brothers grand piano designed to match the building’s interior features. Officials of the Farrell Hotel Co. decided to name the hotel after Albert Pike, a prominent lawyer who died in 1891. Pike, a central figure in the development of Freemasonry in the state, was a poet, writer and Confederate commander in the Indian Territory during the Civil War.

In Hot Springs, railroad executive Samuel Fordyce joined forces with Samuel Stitt and William Gaines to build the first Arlington Hotel as the area around the springs gained in popularity.

“The original hotel was located across Fountain Street from the current Arlington, a site that’s now a public park,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The first location was unique in that it was the only hotel property on the original Hot Springs National Reservation land. In 1893, to keep up with other nearby hotels such as the Eastman, Majestic and Park, the Arlington was razed and rebuilt on the same site with a more elegant design, a larger guest capacity and updated amenities.

“On April 5, 1923, an employee of the hotel noticed smoke coming from an electrical panel. Authorities were notified as a fire slowly began to spread. William Pinkerton, the founder of the famous security service and a guest at the hotel at the time, was so certain that the fire would be controlled that he sat on the veranda and smoked a cigar rather than retrieve his belongings, all of which he eventually lost to the fire that leveled the building.

“The owners had been discussing building an addition across Fountain Street. The plans for this now became plans for rebuilding the entire hotel on that site, thus removing it from reservation property. On Nov. 28, 1924, the third and current version of the Arlington Hotel was completed. Designed by George R. Mann, primary architect of the state Capitol, the building’s entrance faces the southeast corner of the intersection of Fountain Street and Central Avenue and includes two massive towers like its predecessor but designed in a Mediterranean rather than Spanish Revival style.”

Southwest Hotels purchased the Arlington in 1954.

What became the Majestic was built in 1882 on the site of the old Hiram Whittington House. It was known as the Avenue Hotel at the time. The name was changed to the Majestic in 1888. A yellow-brick building was added in 1892. The original hotel was razed in 1902 and a brick building with 150 rooms was added. A new restaurant known as The Dutch Treat was also added with a replica of a windmill over the door.

“In the prosperity of the 1920s, greater numbers of average Americans could visit the Majestic Hotel,” Hendricks writes. “In addition, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox stayed at the hotel for spring training and fitness programs. … During this era, the legendary Babe Ruth frequented the Majestic. The in-house thermal baths at the Majestic also appealed to notorious 1920s underworld figures who did not have to leave the hotel for their spa therapy.

“The year 1926 saw the addition of the eight-story annex (a red-brick building to the west of the yellow-brick building), which later housed the Grady Manning Dining Room. … Southwest Hotels purchased the Majestic in 1929. … In the 1940s, the U.S. Army used the Majestic to house World War II-era soldiers. On Dec. 15, 1945, the hotel reopened to civilians. It attracted celebrities such as actor Alan Ladd, comedian Phyllis Diller and orchestra leader Guy Lombardo.

“After Hawaii became a state in 1959, all things Hawaiian became popular. The Majestic opened the Lanai Tower in 1963. The Lanai suites were said to boast the first modern sliding-glass doors. The suites surrounded a waterfall and tropical-themed pool. With the completion of the Lanai Tower, the Majestic became an eclectic mix of architectural styles — traditional red brick, the yellow-brick building and the tropical-themed Lanai suites. As was the case with most of downtown Hot Springs, business at the Majestic steadily declined through the 1980s due to a combination of highway rerouting, medical advances that made spa bathing outdated and the cessation of illegal gambling in the city.”

Southwest Hotels closed the Majestic in 2006. The yellow-brick building burned in a huge fire in February 2014. The remainder of the hotel, which was boarded up and deteriorating badly, was torn down last year.

H. Grady Manning was only 47 when he died in Hot Springs on Sept. 4, 1939. He reportedly drowned. The Little Rock City Council passed a resolution saying that Manning would “always be remembered as a man of the highest integrity and devotion toward the welfare of his community, the state and the nation.”

His widow continued to operate Southwest Hotels before passing the company on to the couple’s only child, Joy Manning Scott, who died in June 2014. She grew up in her family’s hotels and later married Morin Scott, living in Austin, Texas. The couple was married for 55 years.

Control of the company passed to Monty Scott, the son of Joy and Morin Scott.

Monty Scott, who was born at Austin in 1949, worked for a time at the investment firm Goldman Sachs and in the oil and gas industry before joining Southwest Hotels. He died unexpectedly in January 2016. Soon afterward the Scott family began entertaining offers for the Arlington, the last hotel under the auspices of a company that once had owned 10 hotels.



Crisis in Little Rock

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Here’s my fear: That Saturday’s gang incident in downtown Little Rock that left 28 people injured was a tipping point for Arkansas’ capital city.

That the city I call home is about to enter into a long period of inexorable population loss and economic decline.

That we’re about to see happen here what happened in Memphis, Birmingham and Jackson, Miss.

The crisis began in December when a 2-year-old girl, Ramiya Reed, died after being shot while riding in the back seat of a vehicle with her mother. Police believe that event ignited a gang war that has caused violent crime in Little Rock to increase by 24 percent from the same six-month period last year.

The crisis escalated later in December with the murder of Acen King, a 3-year-old boy who was shot while riding in the back seat of his grandmother’s car. That incident received widespread media coverage across the country.

Even though they live in low-crime neighborhoods, Little Rock’s business owners and professionals — the doctors, bankers, lawyers and accountants — must realize that Saturday’s incident wounded the goose that lays their golden egg.

Will the wound ultimately prove fatal?

That depends on how the city and the state respond.

Let’s look at Memphis.

In 1960, the Bluff City had a population of 505,563.

By the 2010 census, there were only 298,645 people within the 1960 city limits (Memphis had maintained its overall population only through a series of annexations).

DeSoto County in north Mississippi grew rapidly as people fled Memphis.

Regional cities such as Jonesboro in Arkansas, Jackson in Tennessee and Tupelo in Mississippi also grew.

There was a time when residents of northeast Arkansas gravitated toward Memphis. They read Memphis newspapers. They watched Memphis television stations. They went to Memphis to visit the doctor, shop, eat out, attend concerts, etc.

Fueled in part by the public perception that Memphis has become a dangerous city, Jonesboro’s population has more than tripled since the 1960 census. Jonesboro has become the true regional center for northeast Arkansas. In 1960, Jonesboro had 21,418 residents. By the 2010 census, Jonesboro had 67,263 residents. That growth has continued with more than 75,000 people now calling the city home.

Here’s part of what happened to fuel the Jonesboro boom: People in small towns throughout northeast Arkansas turned their backs on Memphis. They now read the Jonesboro newspaper, watch Jonesboro television stations, listen to Jonesboro radio stations, go to Jonesboro to visit the doctor, shop, eat out, attend concerts, etc.

You get the picture.

Let’s also look at Birmingham.

In 1950, Birmingham had a population of 326,037, more than triple the size of Little Rock that year. In fact, Birmingham was about the same size as Atlanta (331,314) at the time. By the 2010 census, Birmingham’s population had fallen to 212,237. So Little Rock is now about the same size as Birmingham rather than a third its size.

Then there’s the state capital of Mississippi.

In 1980, Jackson had a population of 202,895. Little Rock was at 159,151. The current population of Jackson is about 170,000. Little Rock now has 30,000 more residents than a city that was larger by 40,000 people as recently as 1980.

We’ve certainly seen the growth of suburban cities in central Arkansas. But it hasn’t caused Little Rock to lose population — yet.

Conway’s population soared from 9,791 in the 1960 census to 58,908 in the 2010 census. Conway now has more than 65,000 residents.

During that same period, Benton grew from 10,399 to 30,681.

Cabot grew from 1,321 to 23,776.

Bryant grew from 737 to 16,688.

Little Rock also grew steadily (thanks in part to annexations), almost doubling from 107,813 in the 1960 census to about 200,000 residents today.

Is Little Rock growth about to stop while Conway, Cabot, Benton and Bryant continue to grow?

At a time when local television newscasts focus on crime stories — they’re easier to cover and more interesting to the average viewer than stories about government and public policy — people in the Little Rock television market increasingly view the capital city as a place they don’t want to visit.

Perception becomes reality.

Just as people in small towns in northeast Arkansas stopped going to Memphis on a regular basis and began going to Jonesboro instead, at some point those in the Little Rock television market will choose to go to the doctor, shop, eat out and attend events in Conway, Benton, Hot Springs, Russellville or Searcy.

They’ll stop short of the capital city.

So what does Little Rock city government do?

The first thing is to take whatever steps are necessary to fill the dozens of vacant Little Rock Police Department positions.

The Little Rock Board of Directors should declare an emergency and immediately approve across-the-board pay increases and signing bonuses for the LRPD. If it means slashing the budgets of other city departments, so be it. This is a crisis, and crises call for drastic measures.

The city also should hire a nationally recognized expert on dealing with gangs. That sends a message to the rest of the state and the rest of the country that Little Rock is serious about tackling this problem.

In an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story back on Dec. 19, Noel Oman reported: “Little Rock is looking at an array of options to more quickly fill the ranks of its depleted police force, including returning to patrol duty the nearly 20 officers now assigned to the city’s airport. … The 500-officer department has more than 60 vacancies, and the number of openings has been growing for the past six years. Having that many openings in the ranks has an effect on police response times and the overall visibility of officers in the city, Little Rock police chief Kenton Buckner has said. He said the vacancies leave fewer officers available to attend outreach events and force police to focus on their primary obligations, such as responding to 911 calls. The problem is more officers are leaving the force, for retirement and other reasons.”

There always will be high crime rates in neighborhoods where there are large numbers of young men raised in poverty in single-parent or no-parent households; young men for whom joblessness, hopelessness and violence have become a way of life. There are societal issues that go much deeper than the crime statistics.

The discussion about long-term solutions is one for another day. The focus now must be on IMMEDIATE steps that can be taken.

Filling the LRPD vacancies is one of those immediate steps.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola told Oman: “We’ve lost 37 officers on average over the last six years and have hired 31 officers on average over the last six years. That’s 36 positions less. That has to change.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

City government owes the people who live in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods this much: Drastic actions. The failure to fill the dozens of empty LRPD slots borders on outright negligence. If anyone should be mad at City Hall, it’s those who live in areas where gunshots are a nightly occurrence.

Doing more to fill the slots also would send this message to the rest of the state: Little Rock is serious about its gang problem.

Little Rock is the center of state government. So that means this is also a state problem.

There are several things the state can do.

The problem is serious enough for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to call a special legislative session. Hutchinson, once the country’s youngest U.S. attorney, understands these issues. He must push for laws that make it more difficult to parole felons. An inordinate number of those on parole wind up in Little Rock.

The second thing the state must do is fund at least 30 more parole officers for Pulaski County. The caseload for parole officers in Pulaski County is almost twice that of other counties.

“More and more people are being released without adequate supervision,” one Little Rock civic leader told me. “So even though the law allows parole officers to search a parolee’s house without notice if a search might reveal possession of a gun or other contraband, the parole officers don’t have the time to use this law effectively. If this were aggressively pursued, we would keep some of the guns out of the hands of the wrong people.”

The third thing the state must do is to give more tools to Alcoholic Beverage Control so ABC officers can more easily shut down clubs such as the one where Saturday’s incident occurred.

The clock is ticking.

The time for city government and state government to act is now.

Mayor Stodola is a former county prosecuting attorney.

Gov. Hutchinson is a former federal prosecutor.

It’s imperative that they lead the way before Little Rock goes the way of Memphis, Jackson and Birmingham.


Cafeteria fare

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

On his way back to Waco, Texas, following an Easter weekend visit to Little Rock, my oldest son stopped at Bryce’s Cafeteria in Texarkana for lunch.

It’s a stop he has been making most of his life.

My wife is from south Texas (Kingsville, Alice, Corpus Christi). On trips to visit her relatives, we usually timed our departures so we could eat at the venerable Texarkana restaurant, which closed its doors at the end of April after 86 years of serving customers.

When I was a boy in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was usually the first choice if we were going out of town for a special meal.

If shopping and doctors’ visits were involved, Little Rock was the destination.

But to change things up from time to time, my parents would choose Texarkana since both of them loved eating downtown at Bryce’s.

Downtown Texarkana was a busy place in those days. That was before restaurants and retailers moved north to Interstate 30. Shoppers from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, northwest Louisiana and southeast Oklahoma flocked to downtown businesses such as the Belk-Jones and Dillard’s department stores.

Earl Jones Sr., who was born in North Carolina where the Belk chain was founded, moved to Texarkana in October 1947 to open Belk-Jones.

Meanwhile, William T. Dillard, who had been born at Mineral Springs in 1914, opened his first store at Nashville in Howard County in February 1938. He sold the Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana after purchasing a 45 percent interest in Wooten’s Department Store. In 1949, Dillard purchased the remaining 60 percent of Wooten’s.

Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa once described Texarkana in the “Almanac of American Politics” as the heart of “populist country, a place where farmers producing cotton and other crops felt themselves at the mercy of Dallas cotton brokers, Wall Street financiers and railroad magnates who were grabbing all the gains of their hard work. Outside Texarkana, in a landscape littered with small houses and lazily winding rivers, there was little protection from the sun and wind, and precious little ornament; the reservoirs and motels and shopping centers one sees there now are signs of an affluence still only beginning to penetrate what was a zone of subsistence if not poverty.”

Bryce’s fed those who came to Texarkana from the small towns of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The cooking was consistent, and it was good.

As my son paid his bill that Monday following his final meal at Bryce’s, he told the cashier of his first visit there. Like a lot of smart, high-strung boys, he was slow in getting potty trained. Austin was obsessed in those days with trains and airplanes, and my mother came up with an idea. She told Austin that if he would get potty trained, the two of them would take a trip on a real train.

It worked, though it was a short journey. They boarded an Amtrak train at Arkadelphia and took it only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his Oldsmobile and picked them up at the Texarkana depot. The three of them then had a big lunch at Bryce’s. My parents later told me that Austin slept soundly on the way back to his grandparents’ home.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of stories along those lines,” the cashier told Austin, who’s now 24.

Bryce Lawrence opened his cafeteria in 1931 during the Great Depression. It remained downtown until February 1989 when it moved near Interstate 30 and Summerhill Road on the Texas side of the state line.

A Chicago Tribune writer once declared that Bryce’s “may have better food for the money than anyplace on earth.”

During his 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot, a Texarkana native, was asked to list his favorite restaurant in the world. His choice was Bryce’s, of course.

I would always start meals there with tomato aspic (I suspect I was the youngest person to purchase that old-school dish) and finish with egg custard pie in honor of my mother, who enjoyed both.

Jane and Michael Stern, who became famous for the “Roadfood” series of books, once wrote of Bryce’s: “Going through the line takes you past an array of swoonfully appetizing food — food that has made this place famous since it opened for business in 1931. There are more vegetables than most Yankees see in a year — purple-hulled peas, fried green tomatoes, red beans, turnip greens cooked with chunks of ham and a full array of potatoes, cheesy macaroni casseroles, rice casseroles, buttered cauliflower, sauced broccoli, etc.

“Among the main courses, fried chicken is stupendously crunchy and big slabs of sweet ham are sliced to order. For dessert, we like Karo-coconut pie, hot cobbler with an ethereal crust and banana pudding made with meringue and vanilla wafers. The entire experience is a culinary dream, including a smartly uniformed dining room staff (to help old folks and invalids with their trays, and to bus tables) and servers who address all men as ‘sir’ and ladies as ‘ma’am.'”

One of their readers wrote: “I’m not customarily a fan of cafeterias. Multiples of food behind glass covers bring back not-so-pleasant memories of school cafeterias and unappetizing food. But Bryce’s could make a convert out of me. Here everything looks so good that it is hard to make a choice. We were hungry so it was tempting to order one of everything. As it was, we selected a gracious plenty. The fried chicken is very good and still crisp even though it has been sitting under a heat lamp for a while. The turnip greens, black-eyed peas, squash and coleslaw are well-seasoned and delicious.”

Richard Lawrence, the son of Bryce Lawrence, died in February at age 65.

His obituary read in part: “Richard was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He went to St. James Day School and Allen Academy. He graduated from Texas High School, where he was an outstanding football player and loved his days playing football for Watty Myers. He went on to play college football at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. After that, he earned a culinary degree from Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. … Richard was best known for his role in Bryce’s Cafeteria, the family business that was started in 1931 by his father, Bryce Lawrence. He worked there tirelessly for most of his life with his brother, Bryce.

“Richard loved and was loved by all his employees, some of whom worked for Richard and his father for more than 50 years. They all loved to call him Big Daddy. Richard adored his family and extended family, especially the time he spent with them at his cabin at Lake Greeson, teaching all his nieces and nephews how to water ski. Richard’s favorite thing was to cook and entertain, which usually meant telling funny stories about himself. But more than anything else he enjoyed spending time with his family at their summer home in Charlevoix, Mich.”

Shortly before Bryce’s closed, Greg Bischof of the Texarkana Gazette wrote about two veteran employees.

“Leo McCoun and Pearlene Jennings loved working for Bryce’s Cafeteria so much they each worked there for more than a half-century,” he wrote. “Even though the cafeteria will see its last tray full of cuisine slide before the cashiers at the end of April, McCoun’s and Jennings’ memories of working there will likely live on as long as they do. For 86 years, one of Texarkana’s most renowned eateries, founded by local resident Bryce Lawrence in 1931, not only pulled off an entrepreneurial miracle by surviving all 10 years of the Great Depression, it went on to become one of the most popular non-franchised businesses in the region, attracting customers from as far away as Dallas.

“Both McCoun and Jennings were not only eyewitnesses but major contributors to that success — as well as being veteran employees long enough to work at both the cafeteria’s original and current locations. For McCoun, born in 1935 and raised in Lewisville, his employment started Nov. 10, 1958, at Bryce’s original setting at 215 Pine St. with a starting income of $15 a week.”

McCoun told Bischof: “Guys got $15 a week while the girls got $12.50. I loved every one of my jobs here. I enjoyed all 58 years because I just liked being around people. Moving to the north side of town was different and a good move because Interstate 30 pulled business northward, but I think I will always like the look of the old place we had at 215 Pine. It just had a vintage atmosphere about it. At the time we were downtown, there was only one other cafeteria nearby, and that was in Wake Village.

“Bryce’s was a popular place the whole time. We had customers from as far away as Nashville, Ashdown, El Dorado, Magnolia, Camden and, yes, even as far away as Dallas. I got to know customers that were as young as five years old. Now they have grown up and have had children and grandchildren of their own. I got to know so many families and customers from all over. I’ll never forget this. I’m 81 years old, and it’s finally time to retire.”

Bischof wrote: “McCoun, who was 23 years old at the time, began as a pot washer, which he did for three years before becoming a silverware roller for another three years. He eventually became a dining room cleaning attendant as well as an occasional meat slicer in the customer serving line. He still performed both those tasks when the cafeteria made its move from 215 Pine St. to its current location near Interstate 30 in February 1989. Starting in 1996, McCoun became the dining room manager.”

Jennings began working at Bryce’s in May 1965.

“As a 17-year-old Macedonia High School student, she was looking for part-time work as a waitress during the summer of 1965,” Bischof wrote. “Upon graduating the following year, she went full time and made a career of it.”

Jennings told the newspaper: “I started out getting paid $17 a week as take-home pay, which came in a brown envelope. We had an upstairs as well as a downstairs dining room, and we helped customers carry their trays upstairs. I stayed with Bryce’s because I just liked the place, all the friendly customers and the employees. Waitressing was my only job. I loved both locations, but I do miss going up those stairs downtown. I think I got to know hundreds, maybe thousands, of customers through the years.”

Mother’s Day was the busiest day of the year, followed by Easter.

“Both of those holidays drew the crowds,” Jennings said.

Bryce’s is gone, but at least we still have Franke’s at two locations in Little Rock.

But death also has rocked the Franke family of Little Rock. Bill K. Franke died in Little Rock just 12 days after Richard Lawrence died in Texarkana.

Franke’s obituary noted that he “spent the majority of his life serving Arkansas food to Arkansas people at his family business, Franke’s Cafeteria. He was known for his strong presence and was the definition of honor and integrity. … A man of many hobbies, he loved most what nature had to offer. Astronomy, hunting, fishing, cooking and riding motorcycles were among his favorites.”

The death came just more than three months after his daughter, Christen Franke, died suddenly at age 37.

Fortunately, Bill’s widow, Carolyn Cazort Franke, and other family members plan to keep the restaurants going.

Here’s how the Franke’s website describes the history of the company: “In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Little Rock’s West Capitol Avenue. After a few short years, it became a thriving business, and in 1922, Franke built a large bakery at 111 W. Third St. Soon a fleet of trucks, nicknamed ‘wife savers,’ could be seen delivering fresh baked goods door to door in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“In 1924, Franke opened the original Franke’s Cafeteria at 115 W. Capitol. The cafeteria was near the major department stores and businesses in downtown Little Rock, and the eatery prospered in this vital commercial area of downtown. A separate dining room was opened around the corner at 511 Louisiana and shared the same kitchen, preparing food for both locations. C.A.’s son, W.J. Franke, worked with his father and eventually became the second generation to run the cafeteria. W.J.’s son, Bill Franke, learned the business from his father and took the reins as the third generation to run the cafeteria in 1983.

“In 1960, the original cafeteria closed its doors but not before inspiring newer locations around the state. Franke’s has had many locations, including Hot Springs, Fort Smith, North Little Rock’s McCain Mall and Little Rock’s University Mall. Today the cafeteria has come full circle with a location on West Capitol in the Regions Bank building and our newest addition, the Market Place location on Rodney Parham.

“Some of Franke’s menu items are legendary, led by the eggplant casserole and egg custard pie. The sliced roast beef, candied sweet potatoes, hand-breaded fried okra and Karo-nut pecan pie continue to be customer favorites. Most recipes have remained unchanged from the originals and are often the subject of recipe duplication debates. The food line at Franke’s, with its array of cold dishes, steaming meats, assorted vegetables and mouthwatering desserts, has kept customers coming through the doors for many decades.

“Franke’s success and longevity are due to consistently serving good food at reasonable prices, a long history of staff who have served the people of Arkansas with a full heart and loyal customers who have become a part of our family. As an Arkansas tradition, Franke’s offers more than just a home-cooked meal. It’s a place for older generations to remember and a home for younger generations to begin making memories.”

I eat lunch often at the downtown Little Rock location and always study the framed black-and-white photo of Capitol Avenue looking west toward the state Capitol. It was taken decades ago. You can see the Franke’s sign on the left and the sign for the Capitol Theater on the right. There’s also a framed gavel that was used by Lee Cazort when he was the Arkansas House speaker in 1917, the Arkansas Senate president in 1921 and the state’s lieutenant governor from 1929-31 and 1933-37.

Cafeterias were once common across the state. My family often would eat in the 1960s at a downtown Arkadelphia cafeteria called Homer’s.

Now locally owned cafeterias are becoming hard to find.

Bryce’s is but a memory. Here’s hoping that Franke’s will flourish for many years to come.


A War Memorial vision

Friday, November 4th, 2016

My wife constantly reminds me that I get involved in too many crusades.

There are worse things in life, I suppose, than having multiple passions.

And I was passionate about trying to save Ray Winder Field, which was one of the 10 oldest professional baseball parks in America. I knew that if the Arkansas Travelers were to retain their big league affiliation, they had to move out of the crowded old park in the middle of Little Rock. But it could have — should have — been saved for amateur baseball.

Some of us tried.

We lined up high school, college and American Legion teams to play there. We formed a nonprofit organization to operate the ballpark.

But the city of Little Rock barely gave us the time of day. Our “city leaders” sold the iconic Arkansas structure to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to turn into a parking lot.

To this day, I can’t bear to look when driving down Interstate 630.

Jay Jennings, a Little Rock-based writer and editor who once was a reporter for Sports Illustrated, put it this way in a beautifully written essay for Arkansas Life magazine back in 2012: “Ray Winder Field is now flattened, no mound in its middle, its concrete rubble hauled away, its fences knocked down, its I-beams only a ghostly memory. I mourn its demise and can conjure up my youthful summer nights there, chasing down foul balls through empty rows of seats, rushing to the dugout fence to ask for a broken bat, reveling in the varying textures of a Drumstick ice cream cone. Baseball has always been about nostalgia and fungible time.

“Maybe it’s the absence of Ray Winder Field that is causing me to think about its bigger, younger sibling just down the road, its seeming opposite: War Memorial Stadium. Even the names are a contrast: One the home of bucolic and breezy summer languidness (rays, wind, a field), the other evoking martial battles, death and enormity. A field is where games are played; a stadium is where crowds assemble.

“But there’s something about War Memorial that’s also worthy of nostalgic reflection, of civic affection. As a child (too young or too unruly for my parents to consider taking me to a game), on fall Saturdays, I would take my radio out on the front porch to listen to the game, and though I was more than two miles away, I could hear the roar from the crowd not only through my radio but from the stadium itself. But more than gratuitous self-reflection led me to consider War Memorial anew. Since it hosts Razorback games, high school football games (preseason, Catholic High and state championships), University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff games, band competitions, concerts and various other events, it’s possible that War Memorial Stadium is the most visited site in the state.”

In all of the statewide debate in recent years as to whether the University of Arkansas should continue playing football games in the capital city, one thing has been forgotten: War Memorial Stadium is one of this state’s top public works projects and also its largest memorial to the veterans of World War I and World War II.

It deserves to be preserved and treasured as we hopefully atone for the sin of allowing Ray Winder Field to be demolished — for a parking lot, for gosh sakes.

On Sept. 18, 1948, the University of Arkansas brought its football team to Little Rock to play Abilene Christian at the new stadium. Maurice “Footsie” Britt, who would be elected lieutenant governor 18 years later, led the dedication ceremonies.

Britt was the first person to earn all of the U.S. Army’s top awards, including the Medal of Honor, while fighting in a single war. Born in 1919 at Carlisle, Britt later moved to Lonoke and became a high school sports star. Because he wore size 13 shoes, he became known as “Footsie.” Britt was the captain of the football, basketball and track teams at Lonoke. He also was elected class president and was the valedictorian of his senior class.

Following his graduation in June 1937, Britt received an athletic scholarship to Arkansas, where he played football and basketball for the Razorbacks in addition to serving as the sports editor of the student newspaper.

After college, Britt signed a contract to play professional football for the Detroit Lions. His professional career was cut short when he joined the Army at the outset of World War II. He received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in a battle near Mignano, Italy, on Nov. 10, 1943.

On Feb. 12, 1944, Britt lost his right arm when an artillery shell landed near him.

War Memorial Stadium was built to honor Arkansans such as “Footsie” Britt.

We forget that, don’t we?

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s announcement at the state Capitol last month was significant. Hutchinson proposed that the stadium become a part of the state Department of Parks & Tourism, a move that could at last take the spotlight off the issue of Razorback games and put it back where it should be — the protection of an Arkansas shrine.

The War Memorial Stadium Commission — under the leadership of Little Rock attorney Kevin Crass and his predecessor as chairman, Little Rock businessman Gary Smith — has done an outstanding job updating the facility since the turn of the century.

The stadium that Britt helped dedicate in 1948 had 31,000 seats. A major expansion project occurred in 1967 as interest in Razorback football reached a fever pitch following the 22-game winning streak in 1964-65. The stadium now holds almost 54,000 people.

In the past 15 years, virtually every area of the stadium has been updated — new lights, new artificial turf, a restoration of the outside of the structure, new scoreboards and video boards.

In 2010, the commission completed a $7.3 million project that included a three-story press box and additional club seats.

If there’s an area in which the commission has fallen short, it’s probably in properly informing Arkansans about those improvements. Each time the debate about Razorback games in Little Rock rages, uneducated Hog fans and message board trolls post comments on social media that paint the picture of an aging, municipal-owned stadium (think Legion Field in Birmingham) that has been allowed to deteriorate.

The truth is that it’s a state-owned facility that looks better than it ever has.

“Maybe the state doesn’t completely understand that 250 days out of the year, we have one or more events that are at War Memorial Stadium,,” says Jerry Cohen, the stadium manager. “We’re an event center as well as a football stadium. We look at this as a chance for growth. … There are only two bathrooms and a kitchen that haven’t been redone. We’re basically a new structure other than the concrete and the bleachers.”

Regardless of whether the University of Arkansas continues playing games at War Memorial Stadium past 2018 or not, this is a story that could have a happy ending for the stadium. With the inherent strengths of the Department of Parks & Tourism — think sports and veterans’ exhibits around the concourse, a gift shop, a small theater, maybe even a restaurant — some of the beloved memorial’s best days could be ahead.

“War Memorial Stadium is a critical part of our lifeblood,” Hutchinson says.

Jennings wrote in the 2012 magazine story: “I usually park for free on Kavanaugh’s commercial strip in Hillcrest and walk past modest houses to Markham, where the stadium suddenly rises in front of me. It’s a neighborhood stadium. That charm may be one reason the Bleacher Report website named War Memorial one of the top 50 stadiums in college football last year. … She’s an old lady who has aged well. Look closely at the architecture, which you may never have done before.

“The main facade’s portal is a lovely piece of postwar simplicity, an example of a trend that one contemporary critic has described as ‘the postwar revolt against the stylistic clutter of traditional moldings and ornamentation.’ Over an aluminum canopy covering the entrance are three large windows made of translucent glass bricks (as are all of the external windows in the stadium), and these in turn are covered by an aluminum grill of six long horizontal bars and six shorter vertical bars, similar to what you might see on the front of cars of that vintage.

“The architects, Burks and Anderson, were liberal in their use of aluminum because at the time, Arkansas produced more of it than any other state in the country, and they wanted to showcase Arkansas materials. Above the grilled windows are three enormous aluminum plaques depicting football players in stylized action poses. I don’t know who the artist is, but they’re quite striking. … Above them is a terrific mid-century-modern sans-serif font spelling out War Memorial Stadium. All of these elements speak of a thoughtful and sensitive public building.”

The director of the state Department of Parks & Tourism, Kane Webb, is a former sports reporter like Jennings and also a fan of the stadium.

“I love War Memorial Stadium,” Webb says. “I saw my first college football game there in 1972. My dad took me to see Joe Ferguson and the Hogs. Unfortunately, they lost to Rice that day, but he gave me a souvenir on the way home to make me feel better. I played there at Catholic High for the Rockets. I covered dozens of high school and college games there as a sportswriter. Now on Friday night, when the Rockets are home, I’m out there watching my daughter perform as a Mount St. Mary Rockette. It means a lot to me.”

Members of the commission overseeing Webb’s department seem excited about the opportunity to have a flagship facility in the middle of the state’s largest city. They already operate 52 state parks, and Arkansas’ parks system is recognized as being among the best of the country.

Envision this:

— The concourse open to the public six or seven days a week so visitors can see displays on those who served in World War I and World War II along with displays on the state’s sports history.

— A gift shop filled with Arkansas-made items.

— A small theater where visitors can watch short films about the state.

— High school games there every Thursday and Friday night during the season, more soccer events, maybe even a college bowl game.

“It’s in our wheelhouse,” Webb says. “It’s what we do in the hospitality and tourism business. We run facilities. We put on events. We serve the public, and we know how to get the good word out about Arkansas and its many attractions. … We have an established record of getting things done, taking care of business, doing right by the taxpayers. Our team is ready for the challenge.

“I had a small group go out and meet with Jerry Cohen the other day. They speak the same language. It just seems like a natural fit for us. I really like the governor’s idea of a feasibility study. It always helps to have an objective, outside look at something, especially when it comes to such an emotional and cultural touchstone for so many of us in Arkansas.”

What would be even more exciting is if the city of Little Rock, which owns the land around the stadium, would hire a team of landscape architects and transform War Memorial Park into all it can be.

When the golf course at what was then Fair Park was built in 1931, it was on the far western edge of the city. Now, it’s in the middle of town. Frankly, the city already has too many holes of municipal golf given the declining number of golfers.

It’s time to transform the valuable greenspace in War Memorial Park into a place that will attract a broad segment of the city’s population — a place where residents of the city can run, walk, bike, fish, have picnics, play soccer, etc.

Great cities have great parks.

War Memorial Park — despite city government’s disastrous decision to sell Ray Winder Field so it could be turned into a parking lot — holds the potential of being a great park.

“One morning, I decided to take advantage of my right as a taxpayer to run some bleachers,” Jennings wrote for Arkansas Life. “It was a day forecast to reach 110 degrees, so it wasn’t a surprise that no one else was there, except for one unlucky worker who was repainting the stadium aisles red for the start of the football season. I began on the north side of the west stands and traversed them north to south, up one aisle, across the top, down the next, over and up again. In the center at the highest point, there are 62 rows, and the steps near the top are taller than the rest. Burks and Anderson must have had a good reason for doing that.

“At the other end, I paused at the top to catch my breath and could hear the call of some wild bird from the zoo piercing the morning air. In one direction, I could see the rolling fairways of the War Memorial Golf Course, and in the other the ever-growing campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. In addition to the long-distance views, there’s something expansive to the imagination about being alone in a stadium intended for 55,000.”

Community developers talk a lot these days about creating “great places.” Great places, you see, can attract talented young people to live and work.

If the state of Arkansas (the owner of War Memorial Stadium) and the city of Little Rock (the owner of War Memorial Park) will work together, we could have one of the state’s great places right in the middle of the capital city. And that would be true regardless of what the Razorbacks do.

Anita Davis and the South Main renaissance

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

The original version of this story ran in the May-June issue of Talk Business & Politics magazine.

Anita Davis never set out to rehabilitate part of downtown Little Rock.

She wasn’t a historic preservation activist or one of those people who write letters to the local newspaper.

She describes herself as shy.

She simply likes walkable neighborhoods and felt it was time to give back to the city she has called home since the late 1980s.

“I started thinking one day about the fact that I had never really been involved in the community or given anything back,” Davis says during breakfast at the Capital Hotel. “I had a bunch of stuff that I needed to store and began looking for a place to put everything. What I found was a building on South Main Street.”

A love affair with the neighborhood ensued.

Davis, a Murfreesboro native, purchased the Bernice Building at 1417 S. Main St. in 2004.

A year later, she bought an empty lot at 1401 S. Main St.

She admits now that she viewed the neighborhood as dangerous and ran back to her car following her first visit there. But she was captivated by the Bernice Building, constructed in 1923, and soon was reading everything she could get her hands on about the concept of “placemaking.”

Davis found herself attending conferences from Boston on the East Coast to Seattle on the West Coast in an effort o learn more about building walkable neighborhoods.

One of Davis’ daughters lived in New York City in the Chelsea neighborhood. She could easily walk to restaurants, grocery stores, boutiques and entertainment venues from her home. Davis wanted to see if she could bring a touch of Chelsea to South Main Street.

She also wanted to bring a touch of Murfreesboro.

Yes, Murfreesboro.

“When I was growing up in Murfreesboro in the 1950s, we had three drugstores downtown, a hardware store, a movie theater and a lot more,” Davis says. “We could walk to all of those places. You didn’t have to get in the car and drive from place to place. Anyone who grew up in a thriving Arkansas town in the 1950s and 1960s knows what I’m talking about. I had seen it work in a town as small as Murfreesboro, and I had seen it work in a city as big as New York.”

Davis’ parents, Clarence and Bennie Sue Anthony, were well-known in their corner of southwest Arkansas. Davis had a maternal grandmother named Bernice (who once had worked at Franke’s, the venerable Little Rock cafeteria), which was another part of the attraction of the Bernice Building on South Main.

The empty lot adjacent to the building once had been the site of a Captain D’s fast-food restaurant, which had burned. The restaurant’s owners decided not to rebuild in a neighborhood that was becoming increasingly downtrodden. There were still crepe myrtles on the lot. Davis began bringing in plants and benches. A sculpture competition was held. In 2011, a wooden structure was built to serve as a shelter.

The Bernice Garden was born.

It’s now the home of everything from Mardi Gras celebrations to beard-growing contests to farmers’ markets to the annual Arkansas Cornbread Festival each fall.

Prior to Captain D’s opening in January 1981, the lot long had been the home of a tiny restaurant known as the Little Rock Inn. Suddenly, there was life again at 1401 S. Main St. after Anita Davis stepped in.

By 2006, Davis was ready to make another purchase. This time it was the Lincoln Building at 1423 S. Main St., which had been built in 1906.

In 2006 on the other side of Main Street, she bought the property that once had housed a popular dairy bar known as the Sweden Crème.

Now, the Bernice Building houses the downtown location of Boulevard Bread Co.

The Lincoln Building houses the Green Corner Store and the soda fountain that has helped make Loblolly Creamery’s products well known across Arkansas.

The old Sweden Crème is now an innovative restaurant known as The Root Café, which has received national attention.

All of these businesses attract people from throughout central Arkansas and even out-of-state visitors to South Main Street on a daily basis.

Between Boulevard Bread and the Green Corner Store is the home of studioMAIN, a nonprofit organization that brings architects and others in the design community together to introduce urban design concepts for Little Rock. Exhibitions sponsored by studioMAIN have included everything from the work of students to professional designers. An architectural film was produced for the Little Rock Film Festival, and pop-up events are held throughout the city to show what neighborhoods can become. Design awards are given and partnerships have been established with organizations such as the Arkansas Arts Center.

Boulevard Bread began serving customers in 2000 at its flagship location at the corner of Kavanaugh Boulevard and Grant Street in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. Attracted by the South Main vibe, Boulevard’s owners decided to open a downtown location with an expanded bakery that’s open from Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m.

The nearby Green Corner Store describes itself as “Arkansas’ first eco lifestyle store” since products sold there are made from natural, organic, recycled or reclaimed materials. Many of the products — ranging from bath and beauty items to apparel to packaged food — are made in Arkansas. Owner Shelley Green calls it a chance to “showcase the array of green products that are both beautiful and functional.”

The soda fountain portion of the building, which had housed the C.H. Dawson Drugstore from 1905-67, became the home in 2012 of Loblolly Creamery, founded by Sally Mengel and Rachel Moore. They debuted their ice cream samples at the 2011 Arkansas Cornbread Festival. Loblolly ice cream initially was sold at only the Green Corner Store. Now, Loblolly products, which often are seasonal and use local ingredients as much as possible, can be found in numerous locations, from Little Rock restaurants such as Big Orange and Graffiti’s to retailers such as Whole Foods and Stratton’s Market.

With the success of its ice cream, Loblolly diversified into drinks and syrups. The ice creams have names such as Rock Town Bourbon Pecan, Little Rocky Road and Earl Grey Lemon.

On the other side of Main Street, Jack and Corri Sundell opened The Root in June 2011 after three years of planning. They featured everything from burgers to homemade bratwurst to vegetarian dishes and soon gained a dedicated following.

In December 2014, The Root won an award from the HLN cable television network’s program “Growing America: A Journey to Success.” The honor came with a $25,000 check. Soon afterward, it was announced that The Root had been awarded a $150,000 Mission Main Street grant from JPMorgan Chase Bank. The Root was among just 20 small businesses nationally to get a grant.

Using shipping containers, the Sundells are expanding the restaurant. Three containers are being used for additional dining space, three containers are being used to expand the kitchen and one is being used as a walk-in cooler.

The premise of the HLN program won by The Root was that teams of MBA graduates and students from top business schools across the country would help three small businesses become more efficient. Also featured were a disaster-relief company in Denver and a barbershop in Detroit. The team that came to Little Rock helped the Sundells improve their website and their social media efforts.

While the Green Corner Store, Loblolly Creamery, Boulevard Bread and The Root Café were achieving acclaim in the neighborhood she adopted, Davis had her own expansion plans. She has always enjoyed collecting items, and purses became a specialty. Davis was intrigued as a child by her mother’s and grandmother’s purses, considering them a reflection of the individuals. She was part of a group that put together a traveling exhibit titled “The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses” that stopped in cities across the country, including the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock in 2006. Among the cities where the purses were exhibited were Dallas, Seattle and Sacramento.

Davis eventually decided to create the Esse Purse Museum at 1510 S. Main St. in a building that had been constructed in 1946. The museum opened in June 2013.

Davis says she started collecting purses more than three decades ago, but having one of the premier collections in the country was “not intentional. It was kind of my way of honoring women. There just aren’t a lot of things in this country that honor women.”

Davis believes the museum complements her vision for the rest of South Main Street, which she likes to describe as the “feminine side of Little Rock,” not because men aren’t welcome but because she sees it as an area that’s open to new ideas. The purses on display — more than 250 of them — are arranged by decade beginning in 1900. Davis views the collection as not only a look at the history of fashion but also as something that gives insight into the history of women. Photos and accessories accompany the purses.

Davis’ collection grew to more than 3,000 handbags, most of which were stored in her attic before the traveling exhibition, which toured the country for three years. Davis is hopeful that the museum will lead to additional restaurants and shops along South Main Street.

Though she’s a collector, Davis has a more muted personal style. She admits that she carried the same shoulder bag for a decade prior to opening Esse.

In 2014, The Huffington Post included Esse on its list of the “World’s Hottest Museums.”

It wrote: “Set in an emerging neighborhood filled with boutiques and trendy eateries, Esse Purse Museum celebrates the art and history of women’s handbags. And the best part is that it sells purses too.”

Also on the list were the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. Among the other museums on the list were the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway.

Anita Davis was in very good company.

“When I first got involved with this neighborhood, I asked myself, ‘What do you want it to be?'” Davis says. “I fell in love with the area, and I’m constantly looking for ways to bring more people here. I also feed off the energy and ideas of people like Corri and Jack Sundell. I like people who make things happen, and they know how to make things happen.”

Davis is quick to give credit to other people and entities who have helped spur development along South Main Street. They include:

— Joe Fox and his Community Bakery at 12th and Main. The bakery began in the Rose City area of North Little Rock in 1947 but moved to its current location when Fox purchased it in 1983. Fox moved to Little Rock from Boston in the 1970s and says he yearned for a place where he could read The New York Times and get a bagel and a good cup of coffee early in the morning. Fox became the Little Rock distributor for The New York Times. At the bakery, he has more than a dozen bakers who work through the night.

— The nationally award-winning literary quarterly Oxford American, which moved its offices to South Main Street several years ago and then teamed up with Matt and Amy Bell for a restaurant and entertainment venue known as South On Main, which is in the building once occupied by the popular Tex-Mex restaurant Juanita’s. South On Main has received acclaim for its food and the quality of its concert series.

— Midtown Billiards, which made Esquire magazine’s 2007 list of Best Bars in America. Midtown holds a private club license so it can stay open until 5 a.m. It’s a favorite haunt of musicians, restaurant workers, newspaper reporters and others who work late.

The South Main Street scene received another boost in February 2015 when Bart Barlogie Jr., Eric Nelson and Jason Neidhardt opened what’s now Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom, which features Neapolitan pizzas from a double-deck, brick-lined gas oven that can reach temperatures of 650 degrees. To keep things in the South Main family, the owners announced from the first that they would use products from Loblolly and Boulevard.

Davis calls her involvement along South Main Street “the best thing that has ever happened to me.” She said it was “an area that needed some love, and I love it. What’s funny is that I had once been warned by my dad to never buy a building with a flat roof. All the buildings I’ve bought down here have flat roofs. What would he think?”

Davis says she has learned through the years to “figure out what you like and go for it.”

So what does the future hold for Davis?

“I don’t really have firm plans right now,” she says. “I’ve found that running a museum is a full-time job.”

Davis would like to see the Southside Main Street organization, a nonprofit entity that promotes economic development on Main Street between Interstate 630 and Roosevelt Road, continue to grow. Southside Main Street is affiliated with Main Street Arkansas and the National Main Street Center.

She also wants the Arkansas Cornbread Festival to grow. This year’s event will be held Oct. 29 with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and Our House as beneficiaries. The stated goal of the festival, which began in 2011, is to raise awareness and funds for worthy nonprofit organizations while celebrating Southern culture and heritage through food, crafts and music.

“If you grew up in Arkansas, you grew up eating cornbread,” Davis says. “I see it as a link to our shared history and our grandmothers who would make cornbread. What better way to pull in a diverse audience is there than food? I know I grew up on cornbread. We had it about every day with our vegetables.”

These days, there are plenty of food, shopping and entertainment options along South Main Street in Little Rock, thanks in large part to a lady who remembers what it was like to grow up in Murfreesboro.