Artober – Art that Changed Me. The 1937 Museum of Fine Arts Entrance

October is Arts and Humanities Month nationally and in Little Rock. Americans for the Arts has identified a different arts topic to be posted for each day in the month.  We end today with “Art That Changed Me.”

So many possibilities:  Oliver!, the first production I saw; reading The Comedy of Errors (first Shakespeare play I read); the Missouri State University production of The Normal Heart; seeing George Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island La Grand Jatte or a Jackson Pollock piece both at the Art Institute of Chicago; Diego Rivera’s Two Women in the Arkansas Arts Center collection; hearing David Belcher play the piano in Rhapsody in Blue or the Arkansas Symphony playing Firebird Suite; the list goes on an on.

I grew up with the arts. I grew up valuing the arts. Art has moved me, made me laugh, made me cry, made me think, pretty much my entire life. All art changes me in some fashion.

So, I’ll cheat and talk about Art that Changed Little Rock.  Again, many choices, but it is easier to be more objective about that.  With the recent re-exposure of the original 1937 facade of the Museum of Fine Arts, that made me think of photos of the original building which were sent to me by Lally Brown. She is a granddaughter of Nettie Robinson, who was the first (and longtime) director of the Museum of Fine Arts.

For many years, this facade was inside a gallery of the Arkansas Arts Center. I have long said this facade was one of my favorite pieces in the Arkansas Arts Center collection. Now, it will once again be a portal through which people will enter and experience the arts.

Photo from the collection of Lally Brown.

The Museum of Fine Arts changed Little Rock. It was the first cultural institution that was an art facility. It provided a place to take classes and started to inspire people to aspire for more and better art.  It served as the foundation for the Arkansas Arts Center and all that it has offered. Most of Little Rock’s performing and visual arts entities can trace their heritage to the Museum of Fine Arts.

It all started here.

Photo by the Arkansas Arts Center

 

Dedication of the Little Rock High School Auditorium on October 31, 1927

The stage and front seating area of the Central High Auditorium in September 2017.

On October 31, 1927, a recital took place in the auditorium of the new Little Rock High School which served as a dedication ceremony for the new high school auditorium.  The school had been serving students for several weeks by the time the recital took place.  The first day of school was Wednesday, September 14, 1927.

The star of the recital was Mary Lewis, a Little Rock High School graduate (from the previous location on Scott Street) who had made her Metropolitan Opera debut and become a toast of New York City.

The evening started with remarks from former Arkansas Governor Charles Brough, who had made a name for himself as an advocate for education before, during and after his stint in the statehouse.  He was followed by Miss Lewis, who sang over a dozen arias and musical selections.  For her final number she was supposed to sing “Home Sweet Home.”  After several attempts to sing it, she was so overcome with emotion that she had to abandon the effort.

For more on the opening event, read Jay Jennings’ excellent book Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City.

The 1927 schoolbuilding replaced one built in 1905 at 14th and Scott Streets (with an auditorium completed a few years later at 14th and Cumberland).  This new building was located in the western edges of Little Rock on what had been city parkland.  The former West End Park was now site to Little Rock High School.  The adjoining Kavanaugh Field was a baseball field on which Earl Quigley’s football Tigers also played their games.

Architects John Parks Almand, Lawson L. Delony, George R. Mann, Eugene John Stern, and George H. Wittenberg (virtually all of Little Rock’s full-time working architects at the time) designed the $1.5 million structure, which the New York Times dubbed the most expensive school ever built in the United States at that time.

Featuring a combination of Collegiate Gothic and Art Deco architecture, Central High spans two city blocks, comprising over 150,000 square feet of floor space, upon its completion. Requiring 36 million pounds of concrete and 370 tons of steel, the finished product consisted of 100 classrooms (accommodating over 1,800 students), a fireproof 2,000-seat auditorium, a gymnasium, and a greenhouse.

The six-story structure (counting the bell tower and basement) features a middle section containing the auditorium with four classroom wings (two per side) flanking a reflection pool in the foreground of the building. Faced with brick, the building’s highlights include pilasters and colonnades of cut stone, double-hung window frames with twelve lights per sash, and a main entry terrace supported by a colonnade of five masonry arches rising above Corinthian columns of stone.

Site Finally(!) selected for Robinson Auditorium on Oct. 29, 1937

Potential rendering of new auditorium which appeared in October 30, 1937 ARKANSAS GAZETTE

On October 29, 1937, the Little Rock City Council finally selected the site for the Municipal Auditorium.  It had been approved by voters in January of that year, but no site had been identified during the campaign.

During the early autumn, the City had engaged a consultant to evaluate several downtown locations as potential sites for the municipal auditorium.  One stipulation was that it had to be an entire city block.

The six sites were:

  • Broadway, Markham, Spring and Garland Streets;
  • Center, Markham, Spring and Second Streets;
  • Center, Eighth, Louisiana and Ninth Streets;
  • Scott, Fourth, Cumberland and Capitol Streets;
  • Scott, Tenth, Cumberland and Ninth Streets; and
  • Third, State, Second and Gaines Streets

The top choice was the site bounded by Center, Markham, Spring and Second Streets. It was felt that location’s proximity to public buildings made it ideal for a civic auditorium. It was across the street from the former state capitol (then known as the Arkansas War Memorial) which was, at the time, housing state and federal offices.  The site was also adjacent to the county courthouse structures.

Half of the desired property was owned by the federal government.  Because it was being used for federal offices, it was uncertain as to the site’s availability.  Therefore a city committee recommended the site bounded by Center, Eighth, Louisiana and Ninth Streets be utilized as the auditorium location.

The City Council met on October 20 to make a decision. But were at a stalemate. They met again a few days later with still no resolution.

At an October 25 City Council meeting, Arkansas Gazette publisher (and chairman of the Planning Commission) J. N. Heiskell, advocated the site on Markham and Broadway Streets. The Council convened on October 29 to meet again.  The clock was ticking, a site had to be selected because ground had to be broken prior to January 1, 1938.

At the October 29th meeting, the discussion from previous meetings among the aldermen picked up where it had left off.  Again J. N. Heiskell spoke about the importance of employing city planning concepts in selecting the site.

“In the past, selection of a site for a public building has been merely a matter of who could sell the city some property.  I had hoped we were starting a new effort in starting selection of an auditorium site with the advice of Mr. Bartholomew.  Starting with the auditorium, we should be guided by competent advice and locate future buildings following a city plan.  Your vote today will determine the future of Little Rock so far as city building goes.”

After having engaged in discussions with various federal government agencies, Mayor Overman reported that the city could not obtain the recommended site.  It would not be possible for the federal government to relocate those agencies currently occupying half of that block within the time allowed.  The mayor also stated that he had been warned that if construction did not start by January 1, 1938, (which was just a few weeks away) then the money could be taken back and allocated to other projects.

Ultimately the City Council voted 16 to 1 with 1 absent to locate it at the corner of Markham and Broadway.  At last, Little Rock had a location for the new municipal auditorium!

Though it had not been anyone’s first choice (except Mr. Heiskell, who did not have a vote), in retrospect, the auditorium site finally chosen offered many advantages which were not identified during the marathon selection discussions.  The grade of the land sloped toward the Arkansas River from Markham Street down to Garland Street which allowed for a street level entrance to both the planned exhibition hall on a lower level and the music hall on an upper level.

Given the topography of the other sites under consideration, this was only possible at the chosen location.  By stacking the two major components the project did not take up an entire block, which had been the forecasted footprint.  Not using the entire block allowed for subsequent expansion of the complex’s footprint in the coming decades.  This would not have been possible at any of the other sites under consideration if the original structure had taken up the entire block.  In addition, both Markham and Broadway Streets are wider than normal city streets which allowed for better traffic flow and for easier access to a loading dock.

Interestingly, the Convention & Visitors Bureau, which oversees Robinson Center Music Hall, now has offices in the Cromwell Building. This building is located on the site which had been the first choice for the auditorium in 1937.