Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: Clinton Center opens in 2004

wjc library openingIt has been thirteen years since the Clinton Presidential Center opened on a wet, cold Thursday.

The days leading up to it has been glorious.  And while the weather may have literally dampened spirits a bit, it was still an important day for Little Rock and Arkansas.

The events leading up to the opening included a concert by Aretha Franklin with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and an appearance by Senator John Glenn at the Museum of Discovery.  Events were hosted by the Arkansas Arts Center, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Historic Arkansas Museum, and Old State House Museum.  There were scores of receptions and parties as Hollywood, New York, and DC descended on Little Rock.

November 18 dawned rainy and cool.  As the day continued on the precipitation continued while the temperature did not warm up.  Years of planning for a grand opening ceremony came down to this.  But at the appointed time, festivities began.

On the site of an abandoned warehouse district and unofficial dump which had previously been a train station, many leaders of the free world were gathered.  They rubbed shoulders with thousands of Arkansans from probably every county in the state.

It had been seven years and eleven days since Bill Clinton had announced the site of his presidential library.  It had been five years since artifacts and articles started arriving from Washington DC in Little Rock.  There had been lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, the threat of a Counter-Clinton Library, and countless meetings.

After speeches from Presidents Carter, Bush 41 and Bush 43, remarks from President Clinton and then-Senator Clinton (who was made even wetter by water pouring off an ill-placed umbrella), and even a musical performance by Bono and The Edge, Chelsea Clinton turned over the ceremonial key from the Clinton Foundation to the National Archives to officially open the Clinton Presidential Center.

In his capacity leading the Clinton Foundation, Skip Rutherford oversaw the planning for the Clinton Library and the grand opening festivities.  He, along with the foundation’s Executive Director Stephanie Streett, oversaw a phalanx of volunteers and staff to anticipate every detail.  The 1,000 days countdown sign that had been on the construction site (the brainchild of Tyler Denton) finally reached 0.

Isabelle Rodriguez, Shannon Butler, Mariah Hatta, Jordan Johnson, Lucas Hargraves, and Ben Beaumont — among others — had been putting in twelve plus hour days for months on end to get ready for the opening.  City Manager Bruce T. Moore led a team of City officials who had assisted on the planning and execution of the site preparation and making sure Little Rock was ready to welcome the world.  Moore and City Director Dean Kumpuris had been appointed by Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey to lead Little Rock’s efforts to land the library.  After Clinton’s announcement of the site, Dailey, Kumpuris and Moore continued to work together to ensure the library would be successful.

While the weather on November 18, 2004, may have been a disappointment, the people who were gathered knew they were witnesses to history.  And thirteen years later, is a day people still talk about.

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Little Rock Look Back: Bill Clinton announces LR as site for his library

Refuse on the site where the Clinton Center would be built

On November 7, 1997, President Bill Clinton announced his intentions to locate his presidential library in Little Rock at the end of a warehouse district.

The Little Rock City Board met in a special meeting that day to rename part of Markham Street, which would lead to the site, as President Clinton Avenue.

While the announcement was met with excitement in many quarters, there were still some skeptics who had a hard time envisioning a presidential library and park in the middle of a wasteland worthy of a T. S. Eliot poem.

There would be many hurdles between the November 1997 announcement to the December 2001 groundbreaking. But for the moment, City of Little Rock leaders, celebrated the achievement.  Then Mayor Jim Dailey had appointed City Director Dean Kumpuris and City employee Bruce T. Moore to lead the City’s efforts.  Moore and Kumpuris worked with Skip Rutherford and others to narrow the potential sites.

In September 1997, the Clintons were in town for the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High School.  They surprised Kumpuris and Moore with a decision for a Sunday afternoon visit to the warehouse district proposed site. Secret Service would not let the limousine drive in part of the property, so the Clintons, Moore, Kumpuris, and Rutherford walked up a path to the roof of the abandoned Arkansas Book Depository.  It was there that the Clintons could see the Little Rock skyline which would be visible from the library.

Of course by the time the library had opened in November 2004, the Little Rock skyline was different. Spurred on by the library, several new highrises had been constructed in downtown.


Little Rock Look Back: Little Rock High School Auditorium Dedicated

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 first encore, Miss Lewis sang “Dixie.”  Her second encore was supposed to be “Home Sweet Home.”  After several attempts to sing it, she was so overcome 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.

 


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.


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.