Little Rock Look Back: LR voters overwhelming support bid to Restore Robinson in 2013

On Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, voters of Little Rock overwhelmingly chose to renovate the historic Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.

By a vote of 5,183 For and 1,800 Against, Little Rock citizens approved a plan to use a portion of the city’s existing 2 percent restaurant and hotel tax to repay bonds for a renovation of Robinson Center.  The campaign was chaired by businessman Charles Stewart, restaurateur Capi Peck and former LR Mayor Jim Dailey.

Robinson has long been a landmark in central Arkansas. Construction of the Joseph T. Robinson Memorial Auditorium began in 1938 (after a December 1937 groundbreaking under a deadline) and officially opened February 1940. The structure was a PWA (Public Works Administration) project, and is an excellent example of the Art Deco style architecture of the time. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

The facility is owned by the City of Little Rock and managed by the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The 1940 structure suffered from a wide array of deficiencies, including stage loading and unloading, stage size, acoustical insufficiency, dressing room access and inadequate wing space within the performance hall. Also, structural, mechanical and electrical issues, public circulation and outdated conference center spaces existed within the facility.

Knowing the center is in need of major upgrades if the facility is to continue to serve central Arkansas into the future, the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission (LRA&P) empanelled a Robinson Center Concept Team in October 2011. The group was tasked with evaluating all aspects of the existing facility, researching user needs, proposing conceptual solutions and estimating the cost and construction schedule of the proposed additions and renovations. The concept team was led by Mike Steelman of SCM Architects, PLLC, and included representatives from WD&D Architects, Shuler Shook Theatre Planners, Jaffe-Holden Acoustical Consultants, TME Inc. Mechanical and Electrical Engineers, ECI Inc. Structural Engineers, McClelland Consulting Engineers Inc. Civil Engineers, East Harding Construction, HVS Consulting and Hunt Construction Group.

Additionally, stakeholder and tenant organizations representing the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Celebrity Attractions of Tulsa, Oklahoma and the Double Tree Hotel participated in the planning. The concept team findings were presented publicly on June 5, 2012.

On January 17, 2013 the LRA&P announced the selection of Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, partnered with Ennead Architects, as the architectural and design team for the future renovations. On March 28, 2013 CDI Contractors LLC, partnered with Hunt Construction Group, were selected by LRA&P as the general contractors and construction managers.

On September 23, 2013 the final schematic renderings and cost estimates were presented publicly. The schematic plans depict major interior upgrades within the performance hall including additional volume to create a two-balcony setup, increased lobby space, acoustical improvements, theatrical upgrades, loading dock expansion, a larger stage area, and new dressing room facilities. Additionally, an enhanced modern ballroom and small conference center was unveiled. New technology, mechanical systems, and outdoor plaza spaces were included in the presentation.

Construction would begin on July 1, 2014.  It reopened on schedule and on budget on November 10, 2016.

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Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Auditorium achieves a construction milestone

Many months behind schedule, it was 79 years ago today (December 8, 1939) that the construction of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium was declared “substantially finished.”

On December 8, 1939, the work of the general contractor was complete. The building’s utilities were all fully connected as the steam line and electric transformer were hooked up. While the work of the general contractor was through, there was still much work to be done.

Though there were still unfinished portions of the structure, the exterior was complete and finished surfaces had been installed on the interior. Until the building was officially turned over to the City, the federal Public Works Administration still had to give approval for any uses of the building.Mayor J. V. Satterfield, Jr. told the press that he wasn’t sure when the City would formally accept the building. The connection of the utilities had used up the remaining funds, so there was uncertainty as to when the final tasks would be completed.

When it was built, Robinson Auditorium was the first municipal auditorium in the south central United States to be air conditioned. However, the air conditioning unit was not sufficient to cool both the music hall and the convention hall at the same time. In warm weather months concurrent events would not be able to take place on the two levels.

Little Rock Look Back: Studio Gang announced as lead architect for re-envisioning of Arkansas Arts Center

On December 6, 2016, the Arkansas Arts Center (AAC) announced the selection of Studio Gang as design architect for its upcoming building project.

The five firms selected as finalists were Allied Works (Portland, Ore./New York), Shigeru Ban (New York/Paris/Tokyo, Japan), Studio Gang (Chicago/New York), Thomas Phifer (New York) and Snohetta (Oslo, Norway/New York/San Francisco).

Studio Gang was deemed the best fit for the project due to the firm’s elegant and smart approach to architecture, their understanding of the issues posed by the AAC’s current facility, their vision for the center as a cultural beacon for Central Arkansas and their commitment to sustainability and strength as urban planners.

Founded by MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang is an award-winning architecture and urbanism practice based out of Chicago and New York. A recipient of the 2013 National Design Award, Jeanne Gang was also named the 2016 Archiitect of the Year by the Architectural Review and the firm was awarded the 2016 Architizer A+ award for Firm of the Year.

Studio Gang is recognized internationally for a design process that foregrounds the relationships between individuals, communities and environments. The firm has extensive knowledge in museum, theatre and artist studio spaces, with projects ranging from the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Ill. to the Aqua Tower in Chicago to the expansion of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Since their selection, Studio Gang has brought on a variety of other members of the consultant team including:

In February 2018, Studio Gang released their first designs for the project.

Little Rock Culture Vulture Blog Hits a Milestone

Founded in October 2011, the Little Rock Culture Vulture blog passed a milestone today. It has had over 300,000 views during that 7 years and one month.  Considering that it averaged about 10 views a day during the first three months, this accomplishment is a moment to brag.

When it was started, I was unsure if anyone would care. This entry is the 3,874th post on the blog.  Over 10,400 organizations, people, events, pieces of art and works of literature, or historical facts have been featured.

To all the readers and those who post about it on social media, let me say “Thank you!”

Little Rock Look Back: Site (finally!) chosen for LR municipal auditorium

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.

Little Rock Look Back: Dedication of Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden

The original seven sculptures. Clockwise from top left: Conversation with Myself; Straight and Narrow; Bateleur Eagle; First Glance; Sizzling Sisters; Cascade; and Full of Himself

After nearly a week of rain, the skies dried up and on Friday, October 16, 2009, the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden was dedicated.

Designed and created by the staff of the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department, the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden started with seven sculptures. These were purchased at the 2007 and 2008 Sculpture at the River Market Show and Sales.

The original seven were: Full of Himself by Jan Woods, Cascade by Chapel, Bateleur Eagle by Pete Zaluzec, Sizzling Sister by Wayne Salge, Conversation With Myself by Lorri Acott, First Glance by Denny Haskew, and Straight and Narrow by Lisa Gordon.

The sculpture garden was named after the Vogel Schwartz Foundation in recognition of its contributions to the project. The garden was dedicated on the afternoon of the preview party for the 2009 Show and Sale.

The Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden did not have seven sculptures for long. New pieces have been added every few months since then.  In 2017, an expansion was dedicated which doubled the size and allowed for larger pieces to be installed.  Today there are over seventy sculptures in the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden and more than twenty elsewhere in Riverfront Park.

The 2019 Sculpture at the River Market Show and Sale is set for May 4 and 5 with a preview party on May 3.

LR Culture Vulture turns 7

The Little Rock Culture Vulture debuted on Saturday, October 1, 2011, to kick off Arts & Humanities Month.

The first feature was on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which was kicking off its 2011-2012 season that evening.  The program consisted of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, Rossini’s, Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, Puccini’s Chrysanthemums and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.  In addition to the orchestra musicians, there was an organ on stage for this concert.

Since then, there have been 10,107 persons/places/things “tagged” in the blog.  This is the 3,773rd entry. (The symmetry to the number is purely coincidental–or is it?)  It has been viewed over 288,600 times, and over 400 readers have made comments.  It is apparently also a reference on Wikipedia.

The most popular pieces have been about Little Rock history and about people in Little Rock.