Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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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.


Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Auditorium’s first Open House

On March 31, 1940, the City of Little Rock and the Auditorium Commission threw open the doors of Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium to the public for an open house.

The building had officially opened in February 1940, and events had been taking place in the lower level since October 1939. But this was the first time that the public could tour the entire facility from top to bottom.

The event took place on a Sunday from 1pm to 9pm.  Curiously, it took place two days before a special election to approve the bonds to finish the auditorium. Though no one at the time was cynical enough to comment on the connection.

Members of various Little Rock Boy Scout troops led 4,000 visitors on tours of the auditorium.  Visitors were shown all over the building; one scout calculated that the walking tour equated to two miles.  Though most people were from Little Rock, the guest registry indicated visitors from California and Pennsylvania.  Among the last guests to sign the register were Mayor J. V. Satterfield and his family.

The idea for the open house had first been floated in December by Alderman E. W. Gibb after taking a tour of the construction site. He had enthusiastically professed that everyone should be able to tour and see what a magnificent structure it was going to be.  Mayor Satterfield had to tamper the alderman’s enthusiasm. He agreed with Mr. Gibb that it was a fine building but stated that a public open house could not be scheduled for a few weeks because there was still much work to be done.  Mayor Satterfield noted that the seats in the music hall were going to have to be removed and then reinstalled because they needed to be anchored better.


Polk Stanley Wilcox joins Studio Gang Architects in planning for reimagined Arkansas Arts Center

arkartsThe Arkansas Arts Center announced the selection of Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects as associate architect for its upcoming building project. Polk Stanley Wilcox will work in partnership with Studio Gang Architects on a reimagined Arkansas Arts Center. Studio Gang was selected as design architect for the expansion and renovation in December.

Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects is a programming, architectural, planning and interior design firm with offices in Little Rock and Fayetteville. The firm has experience working with clients in a variety of industries, including healthcare, nonprofit, cultural, education, corporate and worship. Polk Stanley Wilcox also focuses on sustainability and creating buildings that operate on minimal energy usage.

“We are thrilled to partner with the Arkansas Arts Center and Studio Gang on this transformative project,” Polk Stanley Wilcox Principal David Porter said. “AAC has cast an exciting vision to rethink not only how the Center upgrades the interior and exterior spaces, but how the AAC connects to and enriches the broad arts and cultural tapestry of Little Rock. Studio Gang is a uniquely talented firm to lead the design effort. PSW is honored to bring our extensive experience from years of important projects in downtown Little Rock to come alongside them and the AAC to help create this next critical milestone for the city, state and region.”

Polk Stanley Wilcox has previously worked on a number of local projects, including the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, Heifer International Headquarters, the Arkansas Studies Institute and the recently opened Robinson Center expansion and renovation.

“We look forward to working with the team at Polk Stanley Wilcox,” said Studio Gang Founding Principal Jeanne Gang. “We hope to build on their strong history of collaborations in the area and believe that their knowledge of Little Rock will be a huge asset as we expand the impact of the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, and in the region.”

Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects was selected from among three finalists to work in partnership with Studio Gang. Ten local firms responded to the RFQ issued last month. Allison and Partners and Cromwell Architects were also finalists.

The three finalist firms presented to the selection committee on February 16. The selection committee for the associate architect included AAC Executive Director Todd Herman, three representatives from Studio Gang, and international museum consultant Deborah Frieden, and AAC Board member Sara Hendricks Batcheller.

“Each of the finalists are strong, well-respected firms,” Arts Center Executive Director Todd Herman said. “Ultimately, Polk, Stanley, Wilcox was the best complement to Studio Gang in terms of experience and strengths. Their work at Robinson auditorium – similar in both scope and complexity – will be an asset as we move through the project. We are very pleased to have PSW on board for this important project that will create wonderful new spaces for the people of Little Rock and Arkansas to enjoy the arts. Having our architectural team in place is a major milestone. We are very excited to move the project forward.”


Little Rock Look Back: Opening of Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium

Robinson Auditorium

Robinson Auditorium

On February 16, 1940, after three years of planning and construction including several delays due to lack of funding, the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium officially opened. It was a cold, rainy night, but those in attendance did not care.

Searchlights painting arcs in the sky greeted attendees. They were borrowed from the Arkansas National Guard. Newspaper accounts noted that only a few of the men who attended were in tuxedos, most were simply in suits. The work to get the building opened had been so harried, that it was discovered there was not an Arkansas Flag to fly in front of the building. Mayor Satterfield found one at the last minute courtesy of the Arkansas Department of the Spanish War Veterans.

The weather delayed arrivals, so the program started fifteen minutes late. Following a performance of Sibelius’ Finlandia by the fledgling Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra, Mayor J. V. Satterfield, Ewilda Robinson (the Senator’s widow), Emily Miller (the Senator’s sister-in-law and a member of the Auditorium Commission) and D. Hodson Lewis of the Chamber of Commerce participated in a brief ribbon cutting ceremony. Mrs Robinson cut the ribbon on her second attempt (once again proving that nothing connected with getting the building open was easy).

The ceremony was originally set to be outside of the building but was moved indoors due to the inclement weather. The ribbon cutting took place on the stage with the ribbon stretched out in front of the curtain. The opening remarks were broadcast on radio station KGHI.

Mr. Lewis, Mrs. Miller and Mayor Satterfield look on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon

Mr. Lewis, Mrs. Miller and Mayor Satterfield look on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon

Though he had previously discussed how he had voted against the auditorium in 1937 before entering public life, the mayor’s remarks that evening were appropriately gracious, statesmanlike and a testament to the effort he had invested to get it open upon becoming mayor. “We hope you have a very pleasant evening and hope further that it will be the first in a long series which you will enjoy in this, your auditorium.”

Tickets for the event, advertised as being tax exempt, were at four different pricing levels: $2.50, $2.00, $1.50 and $1.00.

The estimated attendance was 1700. Following the ribbon cutting, the main performance took place. The headliner for the grand opening was the San Francisco Opera Ballet accompanied by the new Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra (not related to the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra). The featured soloist with the ballet was Zoe Dell Lantis who was billed as “The Most Photographed Miss at the San Francisco World’s Fair.”

At the same time that the gala was going on upstairs in the music hall, a high school basketball double-header was taking place in the downstairs convention hall. North Little Rock lost to Beebe in the first game, while the Little Rock High School Tigers upset Pine Bluff in the marquee game.


Little Rock Look Back: Voters approve Municipal Auditorium

1937-robinson-electionOn January 26, 1937, Little Rock voters went to the polls to vote on three different municipal bond issues.  One of them was the construction of a municipal auditorium.

The bonds for the auditorium would be $468,000 in general obligation bonds which would be paid off between 1940 and 1971. This was toward a total cost of $760,000 for the entire project.

The official campaign for the auditorium was sponsored by the Little Rock Forward Committee which was led by W. H. Williams. In campaign advertisements it showed the value of conventions in New York City which was estimated at $100 per convention attendee. Little Rock organizers were estimating a $10 a day expenditure by visitors, which the committee stressed was very conservative. The campaign committee emphasized the importance of acting at that time due to the federal government money involved.

Various committees and organizations endorsed the auditorium project including the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, Little Rock Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Young Business Men’s Association.

The thrust of the campaign focused on the economic benefit to Little Rock as well as the fact that the auditorium would be for all citizens. This message was picked up in editorials by both the Democrat and Gazette. In editorials on January 23 and 25, the Democrat opined that the benefits of the auditorium would be distributed among all classes of the citizenry. The next day, both papers ran editorials which touted the economic boon an auditorium would bring through conventions and meetings.

The Democrat’s approach broke down the current value of conventions to Little Rock with, what it termed, the city’s “existing inadequate” facilities. The paper emphasized a conservative estimate of what the added value to Little Rock’s economy would be with the new auditorium.

In expressing support for the auditorium the Gazette stressed the values for local, statewide and national groups. “An auditorium would provide a more convenient and better adapted community center for all kinds of local gathering,” and continued that it would make Little Rock “the logical meeting place for state conventions of every sort.” In discussing the value of state, regional and national meetings the paper stressed that the outside money spent by convention attendees has an impact beyond stores, hotels and restaurants.

Both papers also echoed the importance of the federal government financing to make this possible. The Democrat noted that the Public Works Administration grant and federal low cost loan made this an ideal time.

 

On January 26, 1937, Little Rock voters approved the auditorium bond by a vote of 1,518 to 519. It passed in each of the city’s 23 precincts. Little Rock Mayor R. E. Overman expressed his pleasure at the outcome of the vote and extended his thanks to the voters.

After the election, a Gazette editorial commented on the low turnout for the special election by commenting that the weather had been nice and there were no other barriers to voting. The editorial writer opined that those not voting in the election must not have been opposed to the endeavor.


Little Rock Look Back: Little Rock takes possession of Robinson Auditorium

10.+citylittlerock-2On January 25, 1940, the City of Little Rock officially took complete possession of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium. By assuming custody of the structure from the contractor and the PWA, the City accepted responsibility for any of the remaining work to be completed.  This event happened one day shy of the third anniversary of the election which approved plans to issue bonds for an auditorium.

E. E. Beaumont, the Auditorium Commission chairman, stated that an opening date could not be set until more work was completed. A major unfinished task was the laying of the front sidewalk which had been delayed due to cold weather.

The night before Little Rock took possession, Robinson Auditorium had been a topic of discussion at the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. The new Chamber president Reeves E. Ritchie (who as an Arkansas Power & Light executive had been engaged in the lengthy discussions about the installation of the steam line and transformers of the building) pledged that the Chamber would work to bring more and larger conventions to Little Rock at the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.