Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area

Little Rock Look Back: Farewell to the Hotel Marion and the Grady Manning Hotel

Manning Implosion.JPGOn February 17, 1980, a cold and clear Sunday morning, over seven decades of Arkansas history came tumbling down as the Hotel Marion and Grady Manning Hotel were imploded.  Thousands of people watched from places in downtown Little Rock and along the Arkansas River.  Many more were able to watch from live coverage carried on KATV, KARK and KTHV.  Those that missed it were able to see the replays multiple times on the news.

It was the first large-scale implosion in Little Rock’s history.  (It was likely the first implosion, but there could have been a small one that is not known.)  The two hotels were torn down to make way for the construction of the Excelsior Hotel and the Statehouse Convention Center.

The Hotel Marion, named after the builder Herman Kahn for his wife, opened in 1907. For four years it was Arkansas’ tallest structure.  It was the largest and grandest hotel in the City. For decades it would be the host to many dignitaries, conventions, and gala celebrations.

The Grady Manning Hotel was originally known as the Hotel Ben McGhee when it opened in 1930.   Manning was the head of the company which owned both the Marion and Ben McGhee properties.  Upon his untimely death by drowning in September 1939, the property was subsequently renamed in his memory.

The Manning Hotel, though taller, was never as grand a hotel as the Marion.  It was more of a mid-range property in pricing.

By the 1970s, both hotels were suffering from neglect and disinterest.  Changes in the lodging industry combined with a decline in downtown Little Rock had left both facilities with little business.

When Little Rock civic and government leaders decided to construct a larger convention center downtown with an adjacent hotel, it was decided that neither of these facilities could be properly renovated to be part of the project.  Instead, the land on which they stood (and the space in between) would be prime for the new hotel and center.

So, on the cold Sunday morning, the explosives were detonated, and the buildings came down.   Sunday morning was chosen because it would have the least impact on traffic flows since it would cause numerous streets to be closed for safety reasons.  The blast was delayed due to a rumor that someone might be in one of the buildings.  After checking both sites and finding them empty, the charges were set off.

And the Marion and Grady Manning became as much a memory as the long gone people who had once populated them.

The University of Arkansas’ Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History has a video of the implosion.


CALS Branch Up for Best Public Library

Hillary Clinton Children’ s Library and Learning Center (photo courtesy of Polk Stanley Wilcox)

And then there were 32!

The Central Arkansas Library System’s Hillary Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center is advancing in a national competition for the Best Public Library.  The search is sponsored by Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL).

The competition started with 116 libraries spread throughout all 50 states.  CALS was the only library system with three nominees. They were the Main Branch, the Roosevelt Thompson Branch, and the Hillary Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center.  After over 11,000 votes were cast, the top 32 were announced on Saturday.

The next round features 32 libraries from 25 states.  You can vote for Little Rock, here!  Voting runs through February 2!  You can only vote once, so encourage others to do so, too!

The award is named for fictional city government employee extraordinaire Leslie Knope.

Little Rock Look Back: LR Votes FOR a Municipal Auditorium

On 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 Democratopined 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: LR FINALLY takes possession of Robinson Auditorium

Robinson Auditorium

On 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.  The act took place only about five months behind schedule.

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.

CALS renames Ark Studies Institute for former Director Bobby Roberts

The Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) has renamed the Arkansas Studies Institute (ASI) the Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art in honor of the former CALS executive director who served in the position for more than twenty years before retiring in 2016. CALS Board of Trustees approved the motion in December.

“Bobby established a new normal at CALS by creating new concepts of what the public library could offer the community and by constructing unique spaces to make the library more appealing and accessible to all sorts of groups with varied interests in learning, enrichment, and entertainment,” said Nate Coulter, CALS executive director. “The library’s primary purpose has always been to provide access to information, but Bobby transformed and expanded what it means to be a library by placing a particular emphasis on Arkansas history and culture.”

Since the early 1990s, CALS has undergone several changes and expansions, now consisting of fourteen library locations in Little Rock, Perryville, and throughout Pulaski County. The Main Library moved from its original location at 7th and Louisiana to its current home in the River Market District, which helped trigger the revitalization of downtown Little Rock. That Main Library is now the centerpiece of a campus that includes the Ron Robinson Theater, the Cox Creative Center, and the Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art (formerly ASI). Former CALS Board members spoke of Roberts’s leadership and his vision for the library system. Susan Fleming and Sheila Wright, former board vice-president and president, respectively, said Roberts’s vision and commitment to excellence are reflected in the building that will be displaying his name. Former CALS board member Frederick Ursery expanded on their thoughts:

“Our library system has been fortunate throughout its history to have strong leadership from numerous members of our community,” said Ursery. “However, I am not aware of any single person who has done more than Bobby Roberts to make CALS the dynamic asset that it is today. He deserves to be recognized for his achievement.”

Roberts’s efforts in building striking library structures, in ecologically sustainable construction, and in adaptive reuse have been recognized by local, state, national, and international organizations. That includes the newly named Roberts Library. Opened in 2009, as the Arkansas Studies Institute, the structure houses the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, CALS’s Arkansas history department, and five galleries that feature art depicting the state or created by artists living in or from Arkansas.

“This complex of buildings certainly wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for Bobby Roberts. It is truly fitting for this edifice to be named in his honor,” said David Stricklin, director of the Butler Center.

Roberts’s special interests in Arkansas history and art and CALS’s long-held practice of collecting materials for the benefit of patrons interested in those topics helped inspire the conception of the ASI, which also houses the UA Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture. The university’s Arkansas-related documents and photographs were moved to the facility and are available for public use under an arrangement Roberts developed with former UA Little Rock Chancellor Joel Anderson. The building is also home to the Arkansas Humanities Council’s headquarters and classrooms and offices for the Clinton School of Public Service.

Little Rock Look Back: Charity Event opens 1868 Little Rock City Hall

The 1868 City Hall as featured on a city report.

On January 22, 1868, a charity ball (including a supper) was the first special event held in the new Little Rock City Hall located at 120 to 122 West Markham.

The two story building featured city offices downstairs, including an engine house for the volunteer fire department. Upstairs was the council chambers and a special event space. The facility was the width of two storefronts. The upstairs was accessed by a central staircase which went from street level through an archway directly up to the second floor. The first floor had a stone exterior and the second floor was a combination of brick and woodwork.

Records do not indicate when the first city council in the new building took place. At the January 21, 1868, meeting, the body formally accepted the building and cancelled any clauses in the contract about penalties should the contractor not meet the construction deadline. But there is no indication whether that meeting took place in the new building or in the previous city hall. (The location of that prior city hall is a mystery.). The minutes from the council meetings just prior to and just after the January 21 meeting give no indication as to which building was the site for the meeting.

It IS known that March 30, 1908, was the date of the final council meeting in the 1868 City Hall. After that meeting, city offices completed their move to the edifice at Markham and Broadway, which still serves as Little Rock City Hall.

As early as November 1867, the City Council was getting requests for special events to be held in the new city hall. In November and December the council refused to take action on any requests because the building was still under construction.

The January 22, 1868, event was created to help the destitute in Little Rock. The ARKANSAS GAZETTE encouraged people to be generous and purchase tickets. Even the day before the event, the weekly version of the GAZETTE (which at the time had added daily editions in addition to its weekly issue) was assuring people there would be plenty of space in the splendid new building so there was still room for additional ticket purchases. Tickets were $5 to admit a lady and a gentleman.  (That would be the equivalent of $83.71 today. While cheap for two people to attend a Little Rock event in 2018, in the post-Civil War era, it was a definite hit to the pocketbook.)

The unnamed organization which put on the charity event was led by W. W. Wilshire (president), George W. Clark (secretary), Joseph Meyer (treasurer) and a standing committee of Dr. C. M. Taylor, Dr. P. O. Hooper, A. Adams, F. H. Moody, and E. Langley.  Donations could be made to any of the officers.  The arrangements for the event were handled by Joseph Meyer, A. Adams, J. P. Jones, Alexander George, Jr., Joseph W. Bossert, and Daniel Ottenheimer.  The reception committee was W. D. Blocher, H. C. Ashley, A. McDonald, P. W. McWhorter, T. Lafferty, and F. H. Moody.   Tickets could be purchased at the stores of J. E. Reardon, G. H. Gibbs, Joseph Meyer, Lafferty & Raleigh, S. L. Griffith, McAlmont & Stillwell, Beideman & Co., and Dodge & Co as well as at the Anthony and Commercial Houses.  (It is interesting to note how so many people at the time were publicly listed by only their first initial.)

The building stood for 56 years after City Hall vacated it.  It housed a variety of businesses over the years including being home to Breier’s restaurant (until it moved to a Cantrell Road location in the early 1960s).  The building was torn down in 1964 as part of Urban Renewal.  Today it is the site of part of the Statehouse Convention Center.  It is directly across from the One-Eleven restaurant side of the Capital Hotel.

Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Auditorium groundbreaking 80 years ago today


122437 GroundbreakOn December 24, 1937, at 11:30 a.m., Little Rock Mayor R. E. Overman, Ewilda Gertrude Miller Robinson (the widow of Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson) and  Alexander Allaire of the PWA turned dirt to participate in the brief groundbreaking ceremony for Little Rock’s municipal auditorium.  That morning, the Arkansas Gazette ran a brief story on the upcoming groundbreaking.  The story mentioned that the building would be named in memory of the late beloved Arkansas politician.  This appears to be the first public pronouncement of the Robinson name for this civic structure.

Among others in attendance at the groundbreaking were Mrs. Charles Miller (sister-in-law of Mrs. Robinson), Mr. and Mrs. Grady Miller (brother and sister-in-law of Mrs. Robinson), the mayor’s wife, the three architects (George Wittenberg, Lawson Delony and Eugene John Stern), and D. H. Daugherty and Will Terry of the City’s Board of Public Affairs.

Construction had to start by January 1, 1938, in order to receive PWA funds.  By breaking ground on December 24, there was over a week to spare.  The site had been selected in late October 1937, and the purchase had not been finalized.  But the PWA did give permission for the City to let a contract for excavation, demolition and filling on the site.

The groundbreaking took place at the corner of Garland and Spring Streets which was on the northeast corner of the block set aside for the auditorium.  Today, Spring Street does not extend north of Markham; the street was closed to make way for the parking structure and what is now the Doubletree Hotel.  Garland Street is basically an alley that runs parallel to Markham north of City Hall, Robinson Auditorium and the Doubletree Hotel.