Little Rock Look Back: Plans for new City Hall go on trial

The 1906 plans for City Hall with the Municipal Auditorium on the left portion.

The 1906 plans for City Hall with the Municipal Auditorium on the left portion.

The Little Rock City Council approved Charles Thompson’s plans for a new city hall, auditorium and jail on July 9, 1906, by the adoption of Resolution 281 and Ordinance 1,295.  This did not set well with the powers that be at the Arkansas Gazette.  A lawsuit was filed against the City. The lead plaintiff was J. N. Heiskell, the owner and editor of the Gazette.  From July 24 through July 27, the Arkansas Gazette featured stories and editorials on its front page decrying the action.  (It most likely stems from the fact that the editor was trying to get the City Council to construct a public library.  He ostensibly felt that money spent on a new city hall and auditorium would divert funds from construction of a library.)

In response to the lawsuit, a temporary restraining order was issued on July 24 stopping the City from any further action on the new building plans until the trial had taken place.  The plaintiffs’ four main points were that state law did not authorize a city government to construct an auditorium, that the contract exceeded the amount authorized by the City Council, that the City did not own the land on which the city hall and auditorium would be built, and that “the city of Little Rock now has a city hall sufficient for all necessary purposes.”

The trial started on Friday, July 27, 1906.  Among the legal team for the plaintiffs were J. H. Harrod and former Arkansas Governor Daniel Webster Jones.  The City’s legal team included City Attorney W. Burt Brooks joined by three attorneys from prominent Little Rock families: former City Attorney Ashley Cockrill, John Fletcher and Thomas Mehaffy.

The trial began on a Friday, continued on Saturday (!) and concluded on a Monday.

Architect Frank W. Gibb (who had applied for but not been selected to design the new city hall and auditorium) was called as a witness by the prosecution.  He stated that, based on his review, the capacity for the auditorium would be between 1,700 and 2,000.  This was used to bolster claims by the plaintiffs that the auditorium, if built, would be insufficient to the meet the needs offered by proponents.  Mr. Gibb also estimated that the auditorium wing was about forty-two percent of the cost for the entire project.  He was asked by the defense about the adequacy of the existing City Hall.  The architect replied that the current seat of municipal government was not large enough to meet all the present needs.

Mayor Lenon was the only defense witness; in his testimony he addressed the inadequacies of the current City Hall which echoed the points raised by Mr. Gibb. The mayor also detailed the purchase of the land for the new project.  While the plaintiffs charged the city had not purchased the land, Mayor Lenon pointed out the land was under contract.  He further stated that the work was done through a third party for fear that if the land owners had known the city was the interested buyer, the price might have been inflated by the potential sellers.

Next up were the closing arguments.  More on those and the verdict next week.

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