Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


Little Rock Look Back: Plans approved for new City Hall…finally

City Hall circa 1908

After a judge ruled in August 1906 that the City of Little Rock could not build a new City Hall and Auditorium complex, it looked like Little Rock would be stuck with its existing inadequate building.

However on September 10 it became obvious that much work had been taking place behind the scenes after that ruling.  On that day, the Board of Public Affairs (a City body charged with overseeing municipal government construction projects and comprised of the mayor and two citizens approved by the City Council) voted to ask the aldermen to cancel plans and rescind legislation for the city hall, jail and auditorium complex.  The Board of Public Affairs then offered up a new plan for a city hall and jail building.  Because no auditorium was involved, these plans would not be in violation of the Chancery Court.

That same evening the City Council followed suit and revoked the plans for the original project.  The aldermen then voted to proceed with building a new city hall and jail without the auditorium.  There was only one dissenting vote; Alderman Jonathan Tuohey voted no.  He explained his negative vote was not a lack of support for the project, but he was not comfortable with the way it was rushed through.

Mayor Warren E. Lenon told the Gazette, “The Chancery Court has enjoined us from erecting an auditorium and the Board of Public Affairs has consequently rescinded all resolutions and orders pertaining to that structure.” He noted that there would “be no appeal from the injunction granted by Chancellor Hart, because there is nothing to appeal.”

The coverage of the actions of the City Council that night was in keeping with the manner in which the two daily newspapers had covered the lawsuit and the trial.  The Gazette headline cried “City Hall Ordinance Railroaded Through” while the staid Democrat merely stated “New $175,000 City Hall Provided by City Council.”  The tone of theGazette’s article matched the headline while the Democrat’s story was more straightforward.

Architect Charles Thompson adjusted his plan for the new City Hall by removing the auditorium wing.  With the revised Th0mpson plan and the approval of the City Council, Little Rock was at last on its way to a new City Hall.  This was over two years after Mayor Lenon had first broached the subject.

Originally slated to open in 1907, the building officially opened in April 1908.

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Little Rock Look Back: Arkansas Arts Center established

Architectural model of the original Arkansas Arts Center which would open in 1963.

On Tuesday, September 6, 1960, the City of Little Rock Board of Directors adopted ordinance 11,111 which formally established the Arkansas Arts Center.

In July 1957, the City Council of Little Rock granted the Museum of Fine Arts the authority to solicit and receive funds for expanding that museum’s physical plant.  During that process, it had been decided that the museum needed an expanded mission and a new name.  By the summer of 1960, the museum supporters had raised sufficient funds to proceed with constructing the new facility.  Therefor the new ordinance was prepared and submitted to the City Board.  (In November 1957, the City Council had been replaced by a City Board.)

Ordinance 11,111 set forth that the Museum of Fine Arts would be known as the Arkansas Arts Center and that the previous museum’s board would serve as the board for the new museum.  The Board of the Arkansas Arts Center was given the authority to have the new building constructed in MacArthur Park and the existing building modified.  As a part of the planning for the new museum, the City committed $75,000 for the capital campaign.

The groundbreaking for the new museum would take place in August 1961.  Mayor Werner Knoop, who signed Ordinance 11,111, took part in the groundbreaking.

Media attending the September 6, 1960, City Board meeting were more interested in discussion about a potential leash law for dogs within the City limits.


Little Rock Look Back: City of LR approves 1935 municipal auditorium plan

An August 25, 1935, rendering in the ARKANSAS GAZETTE of the proposed Little Rock auditorium at Capitol and Scott Streets.

On August 26, 1935, the City of Little Rock took its first significant step in a decade for the creation of a City auditorium..  Under the leadership of Mayor R. E. Overman, the City Council approved authorization for the City to apply for $1,000,000 from the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works (PWA) for the construction of an auditorium.  The PWA had issued a September 16, 1935, deadline for applications to be received as it sought to spend $4.8 billion in construction projects.

The auditorium plan was announced on Saturday, August 24, 1935.  Much preparation had already been undertaken before the project was publicly unveiled.  Private presentations hhad taken place, a team of architects had been chosen (Eugene Stern and the firm of Wittenberg & Delony), and a location had been selected.

The auditorium complex was slated for a block bounded by Capitol, Scott, Fourth and Cumberland Streets.  The Women’s City Club building on that block would remain with the new structure being built to wrap around two sides of the existing structure. The site was chosen because it was one block east of the Main Street business corridor and near existing meeting locations such as the Boys Club, Albert Pike Hotel, Albert Pike Masonic Lodge and several churches.

As planned by the architects, this structure’s front façade would have run the length of the Capitol Avenue side of the block.  The building was proposed to be constructed of concrete, stone and steel.  It would have a large hall with a proscenium stage and seating capacity of 4,000 with overflow of an additional 500.  The adjoining exhibition hall could seat 3,500 people.  The plan called for 150 cars to be parked in the building, and an additional 100 cars to be parked on a surface lot on the site.

Following an August 26 closed door meeting to discuss the project from which members of the public and press were excluded, in open session the City Council voted to pursue the funding for the million dollar auditorium.  If approved by the PWA, the funds would be provided in grants and loans, to be paid by over a 35 year period.

The auditorium proposal was filed with the PWA in Washington in September 1935.  Throughout the next several months, Mayor Overman and the city were engaged in a series of conversations and negotiations with the PWA for the expansion of both the water system and the sewer system. This diverted attention from pursuing the auditorium immediately.  This specific auditorium project stalled.  But because the plan had been filed by the September 16 deadline, it allowed the City to make use of PWA funds a few years later which would lead to the construction of Robinson Auditorium.


Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Center closes for renovation

On July 1, 2014, Robinson Center Music Hall closed so that renovations could commence.  Instead of having a groundbreaking ceremony, Gretchen Hall and LRCVB arranged for a “stage breaking.”  Slats from the stage flooring were pried up with crowbars.

Twenty-eight months later, Robinson Center reopened on-time and on-budget.

(As a side note:  the Culture Vulture announced the countdown before Governor Mike Beebe and various Little Rock leaders used their crowbars for the first breaking of the stage flooring.)

Here are some photos from that ceremony.


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Little Rock Look Back: Cornice installed at Robinson Auditorium

On June 1, 1939, the cornice was installed on Robinson Auditorium.  This granite slab noted the name of the building as the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  (It is interesting to note that it used the more modern “u” instead of the classical “v” which was often used in buildings during prior decades – as evidenced by the Pvlaski Covnty Covrt Hovse across the street.)

This was a milestone marking the completion of the front facade of the structure.  Much work would continue on the interior of the structure.  This step in the construction was considered major enough that the Arkansas Gazette mentioned it in a news article.

On this date in 2015 and 2016, the cornice was again surrounded by construction materials and braces. But the restoration of Robinson Center finished in November 2016. Once again, the cornice stands proudly atop the six columns with no impediments around it.


109 and Looking Fine: Little Rock City Hall

City Hall circa 1908

109 years ago today, Little Rock City Hall officially opened at the corner of Markham and Broadway.

On April 15, 1908, the Italian Renaissance Revival style building, which had been designed by local architect Charles Thompson, played host to an open house. Staff had started moving into the building in March of that year.   This was, as often is the case, behind schedule.  The date in the cornice toward the top of the building is 1907, but the building was not completed until 1908.

An open house took place on April 15, 1908, presided over by Acting Mayor John Herndon Hollis and his wife as well as former Mayor W. E. Lenon and his wife.  (Mayor Hollis’ wife is a distant cousin of the Culture Vulture.)

In 1903, W. E. Lenon became Mayor of Little Rock. Back then, the terms were two-year terms.  Before the start of his second term in 1905, he realized that the City was outgrowing City Hall, which was, at the time, on the northeast corner of Markham and Louisiana – where part of the Statehouse Convention Center sits today.

In February 1906, Mayor Lenon appointed a committee of five aldermen to over see the planning for the building of a new City Hall. In July 1906, the City Council approved plans, which called for a City Hall with an municipal auditorium wing. There was some hue and cry about the cost spending and a resulting lawsuit, so, in September 1906, those plans were scrapped and a simpler City Hall was approved for the cost of $175,000.

The last resolution in the old City Hall called for the banning of smoking in the new Council Chambers – while the Council was in session. This may well have been the first smoking ban in a public government building in the history of Arkansas.

When the building opened, the third floor was not finished out. The space was not needed. When the Museum of Natural History and Antiquities (now the Museum of Discovery) moved into City Hall in 1929, they had to finish out their space.

In 1913, the new Central Fire Station, designed in the Beaux Arts style, was constructed adjacent to City Hall. During the 1930s, as the City grew, more space was needed. A garage, designed in the “austere, utilitarian” style was built in 1936 and a City Jail Annex, built by the WPA in the modified Art Deco style was built in 1938.

City Hall prior to 1912

By 1955, the copper-clad dome which sat on top of City Hall needed severe repairs. The wooden supports and the copper cladding were both in dire shape. Mayor Pratt Remmel set aside money for the dome to be repaired. After defeating Remmel in his bid for a third term, Mayor Woodrow Mann scrapped plans for the repair and, indeed, scrapped the dome.

Following the lead of County Judge Arch Campbell who had removed the tower at the County Courthouse, Mann proposed removal of the dome. He had an informal survey which had three options: repair the dome, replace the dome with an aluminum one, or remove it. This was open to anyone to respond – voting eligibility or Little Rock residency did not matter. By a slim margin, remove the dome won – so the dome was removed.

In 1960, as air conditioning was installed, windows were bricked in to promote energy efficiency. At the time, the feeling was that a new City Hall would be constructed in the 1970s somewhere more central to the growing city. Relocation talk persisted throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. By that time, City Hall had been modified a great deal – with no thought about historic preservation. When the Police and Fire Department had moved out into their new facilities, their old spaces had become storage.

By 1984, the decision was made to stay at Markham and Broadway. An extensive renovation and restoration effort was undertaken. In 1988, the building reopened, and the interior had been restored to its 1908 appearance.


Little Rock Look Back: A municipal auditorium for Little Rock is announced

On April 12, 1904, Mayor W. E. Lenon made what was the first official proposal for a municipal auditorium in Little Rock.  Little did he know at the time that it would take from April 1904 until February 1940 to make this dream a reality.

Elected as a progressive, Lenon was focused on not just providing city services, but also had an interest in initiatives which would move the city forward.  With that background it is not surprising that Mayor Lenon would be a champion for the construction of both a new city hall as well as a municipal auditorium building.  During his first annual address to the City Council in April 1904 he noted:

Recently a number of our citizens have taken an active interest in building an auditorium in our city.  This being a project of such worthy consideration should not go unnoticed by us.  Apparently this is one of the greatest needs.  Our business, social, commercial and financial interests, in fact, our entire city, would be benefitted by the building of same.  It has therefore occurred to me that an auditorium might be built in conjunction with a new city hall.

The mayor further discussed that these new structures could either be built on the site of the current City Hall or at a new location.  He also touched on possible financing options including the collection of a one percent assessment.

The mayor would bring this up again in his 1905 annual address.  It would not be until December 1905 that the City Council would officially take any action on the plan.