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Reopening Petit Jean’s Mather Lodge

One of this state’s most historic buildings — Mather Lodge atop Petit Jean Mountain — reopened last week after having been closed since December 2010.

Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, this centerpiece of Petit Jean State Park is better than ever.

The 1960s-era dining room has been replaced with a more rustic-style design.

The kitchen has been expanded.

A 50-person meeting room was added.

The guest registration desk was relocated.

A new swimming pool was constructed.

Public restrooms were attached underneath the pool.

“The renovated portion now mirrors the Adirondack-style park architecture of the 1930s original parts of Mather Lodge,” says Greg Butts, the state parks director.

Petit Jean is Arkansas’ first and most famous state park. The Arkansas Legislature passed a bill in 1923 that authorized the state land commissioner to accept land donations for state parks. Land around Cedar Falls on Petit Jean Mountain then was acquired by the state.

Back in April 1907, a party of officers and stockholders of the Fort Smith Lumber Co. had come to Fowler Mill to inspect the mill and surrounding timber areas. It was supposed to be a business trip, but company officials found themselves enjoying horseback riding and other activities.

One day was devoted to exploring the Seven Hollows region, which was owned by the company. The men decided that the company would lose money trying to log the rugged terrain. Someone suggested that it be offered to the federal government as a national park.

Dr. T.W. Hardison, the company physician and an amateur naturalist, headed a campaign for years to get a national park established on Petit Jean Mountain. Hardison spent two hours one day meeting with Stephen Mather, the director of the National Park Service. He showed Mather photos of the area and answered questions.

Mather said the property was too small to be a national park. He suggested that Hardison convince the Arkansas Legislature to turn it into a state park. When the bill was being considered by the Legislature in 1923, the secretary of the Fort Smith Lumber Co. said the board had voted to give the Seven Hollows region to the government as a national park. He said a resolution to offer it to the Legislature as a state park would have to be passed at the next board meeting.

Meanwhile, six men in Morrilton and two men in Pine Bluff offered to donate 80 acres on Petit Jean for a state park. The land surrounded Cedar Falls. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature without a dissenting vote, and the area around Cedar Falls was the first land acquired for state park purposes.

During the Great Depression, CCC camps were established at Arkansas’ first six state parks. CCC Company V-1781 was formed on Petit Jean Mountain on July 15, 1933. The company employed World War I veterans. A rock bridge crossing Cedar Creek was built, and Mather Lodge was constructed. Also constructed were roads, hiking trails, cabins and two recreational lakes.

Mather Lodge, which was completed in 1934, is the only CCC lodge in an Arkansas State Park. In 1939, the WPA constructed an architecturally compatible addition to the lodge.

The dining room and kitchen were added in the 1960s.

Here’s how the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism describes the recent work: “The renovation was designed to have minimal impact on the original CCC and WPA work from the 1930s while providing an updated modern facility. Now, a new entrance, lobby and dining room waiting area provide improved access and increase the lodge’s capacity to welcome guests and operate efficiently.

“The previous dining room and kitchen, built around 1967-68, were demolished and replaced by a new lobby, restrooms, offices and full-service dining room. The lobby and restaurant feature exposed log construction, use of natural materials and extensive glass window walls that provide a full view of the natural beauty surrounding Mather Lodge.

“The new dining room has seating for 104 people. The design takes advantage of the lodge’s setting on Petit Jean Mountain, providing diners with seating near windows that are open to expansive views of the natural terrain. The additional natural light enhances the lodge’s dining experience far beyond what was provided by the ’60s addition. … The new kitchen facility features upgraded utilities and new equipment.

“The renovation included the construction of a fullly accessible lodge swimming pool. Due to the proximity to one of the park’s most popular hiking trails, public restrooms were added as part of the pool complex.

“Parking had been expanded from 44 spaces to 81, including four ADA accessible spaces. A new barrier-free walkway connects the parking area to the lodge’s new entrance.”

The cost of the project was $4.32 million.

Mather Lodge and a number of other structures at Petit Jean State Park were added in 1992 to the National Register of Historic Places.

After lodging upgrades in the 1950s and 1970s, state parks personnel decided in 1994 to begin an architectural investigation of the structure to determine what original materials existed. Work was done during the winters of 1994-95 and 1995-96 to restore the rustic charm of the lodging section.

The recent improvements to Mather Lodge add to the attractions atop Petit Jean Mountain. I’ve already written extensively on the Southern Fried blog about the wonders of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, the educational institute and conference center on 188 acres of Gov. Rockefeller’s former ranch.

When Winrock International moved its headquarters to Little Rock in 2004, the property reverted to the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust. The trust, in turn, leased the facility to the University of Arkansas System while pouring more than $50 million into a massive renovation of the facilities.

In January 2010, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas honored the institute for outstanding new construction in a historic setting. You can spend the night at either the institute or Mather Lodge. Regardless of where you stay, a trip to the institute’s outstanding gift shop and the museum section honoring the life of Gov. Rockefeller is warranted.

Just down the road, the Museum of Automobiles continues to operate.

“When Winthrop Rockefeller made Arkansas his home in 1953, he developed Winrock Farms on Petit Jean Mountain,” Young Orsburn writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1961, he purchased a collection of fine antique and classic cars from the James Melton Museum of Hypoluxo, Fla. He had a building constructed on Petit Jean Mountain to house the cars and named it the Museum of Automobiles. He opened the museum on Oct. 18, 1964, with 33 cars on display, some of them his own, along with others from the Rockefeller family.”

Following Rockefeller’s death in 1973, more than 4,000 people attended a memorial service in his honor at the Museum of Automobiles.

“The museum was closed in the fall of 1975, and the remaining cars, with the exception of the governor’s personal vehicles, were sold to Harrah’s Museum in Reno, Nev.,” Orsburn writes. “The 1951 Cadillac that Rockefeller drove to Arkansas when he made the state his home, his 1967 Cadillac limousine with a Santa Gertrudis bull sterling-silver hood ornament and his 1914 Cretors popcorn wagon all remain in the present museum collection.

“On June 6, 1976, the museum was reopened by 10 men, all Arkansans and antique car buffs; on June 16, 1976, they formed a nonprofit organization that leased the building from the state of Arkansas. This group became the board of directors, which manages the museum. Members of surrounding antique car clubs lent 33 of their cars for a new collection to exhibit at the museum. Herman ‘Buddy’ Hoelzeman, who had previously served as director of the museum under Rockefeller, was again appointed director.

“The museum is a magnificent building that is handicapped accessible. The roof, suspended by cables, provides an unobstructed view across the entire interior. Water fountains gracing the front of the building blend with the natural surroundings. The automobiles rest on a white graveled floor surrounded by carpeted isles. A placard by each car gives the precise history of that vehicle.”

Petit Jean Mountain long has been a special place in this state.

With the more than $4 million just spent at Mather Lodge, it has become even more special.

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