199 years ago, Little Rock named capital of Arkansas

On October 18, 1820, Territorial Governor James Miller signed legislation designating Little Rock as the new capital for Arkansas.  This was a mere 10 months after the first permanent settlement was established in Little Rock.

While Little Rock became the Capital, technically it was not the Capital City, since it would not be incorporated as a City until 1835. It wasn’t even incorporated as a town until 1831.

The Act provided that after June 1, 1821, the sessions of the Legislature and the Superior Court would be held at Little Rock.  This caused Arkansas Post, the first territorial capital, to fade from prominence.

The move was made based on the lobbying of Amos Wheeler, Chester Ashley and William Russell.  These men all owned land in the Little Rock area and would benefit from the move of the Capital to Little Rock. The official reason given was Little Rock’s geographical center to the Arkansas Territory and that it was elevated land less prone to flooding.

But just as important, Messrs. Wheeler, Ashley and Russell promised to donate land for a capitol building and a guarantee of $20,000 for construction of a suitable building. (That would be the equivalent of $432,000 today.)

Around the time the legislation was approved, several members of the Territorial legislature purchased land around Little Rock.  When a subsequent effort to relocate the Capital upstream was launched, it failed due to the financial ties of these legislators to land in Little Rock.

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Final ARKANSAS GAZETTE published on October 18, 1991

Twenty-seven years ago today, on October 18, 1991, the final edition of the Arkansas Gazette was delivered.

The front page featured a story on the demise of a Gazette employee effort to buy the paper.

Max Brantley’s column on the front page of the B section also addressed the then-eminent end of the paper. However, as a newspaper all of the sections spent most of their space on the news of the day. While Gazette staffers felt the end was likely near, few felt that the paper on October 18, 1991, would be the final edition.

The back page of the last section of the Gazette featured an ad for Premiere Pontiac Nissan Audi which was throwing a “Beat Texas” party featuring Craig O’Neill.  The Arkansas Razorbacks were scheduled to play the Texas Longhorns on Saturday, October 19.

Here are the top halves of the front pages of sections B, C, D, and E for the final Arkansas Gazette.  They tell the stories of trials, football games, corporate earnings, and cultural events.

Birth of Little Rock’s 39th Mayor, W. E. Lenon, on October 8, 1867

OMayor Lenonn October 8, 1867 in Panora, Iowa, future Little Rock Mayor Warren E. Lenon was born.  He was one of eleven children of John D. and Margaret M. Long Lenon.

Lenon came to Little Rock in 1888 after finishing his schooling in Iowa.  He helped set up an abstract company shortly after his arrival.  In 1902 he organized the Peoples Savings Bank.  Among his other business interests were the City Realty Company, the Factory Land Company, the Mountain Park Land Company, and the Pulaski Heights Land Company.

From 1895 to 1903, he was a Little Rock alderman, and in 1903, he was elected Mayor of the city. A progressive Mayor, he championed the construction of a new City Hall which opened in 1908.  At the first meeting of the City Council in that building, Mayor Lenon tendered his resignation.  His duties in his various business interests were taking up too much of his time.

Mayor Lenon had been a champion for the establishment of a municipal auditorium. He had wanted to include one in the new City Hall complex. But a court deemed it not permissible under Arkansas finance laws at the time.  He also worked to help establish the first Carnegie Library in Little Rock which opened in 1912.

Mayor Lenon continued to serve in a variety of public capacities after leaving office.  In the 1920s, he briefly chaired a public facilities board for an auditorium district. It appeared he would see his dream fulfilled of a municipal auditorium.  Unfortunately the Arkansas Supreme Court declared the enabling legislation invalid.

In 1889, he married Clara M. Mercer.  The couple had three children, two of whom survived him: a son W. E. Lenon Jr., and a daughter Vivion Mercer Lenon Brewer.  Together with Adolphine Fletcher Terry (also a daughter of a LR Mayor), Mrs. Brewer was a leader of the Women’s Emergency Committee.

Mayor Lenon died June 25, 1946 and is buried at Roselawn Cemetery.  Lenon Drive just off University Avenue is named after him..

Forerunner of Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock’s Museum of Fine Arts opened on October 5, 1937

On Tuesday, October 5, 1937, the Fine Arts Club of Little Rock held its first meeting in the new Museum of Fine Arts.  But it was not a typical meeting. It was an Open House and Dedication for the new building.

Construction on the 10,140 square foot building had commenced with the January 3, 1936, groundbreaking.  By September 1937, the keys were presented to the City, marking the end of the construction process.

During the October 5 events, a letter of congratulations was read by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and WPA Administrator Harry L. Hopkins.  A letter which had been prepared by Sen Joe T. Robinson prior to his death was also read.  Mayor R. E. Overman, architect H. Ray Burks, and Fred W. Allsopp spoke at the event.  The latter was chair of the museum’s board.  Over 1,000 people were in attendance. At the time the city’s population was around 87,000.

The museum officially opened its doors to the public on October 28, 1937.  Nettie L. Robinson, a longtime member of the Fine Arts Club, was its first director and would serve in that capacity for two decades.

The original facade of the Museum can still be seen inside the Arkansas Arts Center.  Once the expansion and renovation of that building is complete in 2022, the original entrance will be highlighted even more with the new design.

Three months before construction complete, first event held in Robinson Auditorium on October 4, 1939

In October 1939, it looked as if Robinson Auditorium would never open.  The construction had run out of money.  But in an effort to generate a little revenue and give the public the chance to see the building, a few events were booked in the lower level.

At the time, the entrance to the lower level was off of Garland Street which ran to the north of the structure.

While Mayor J. V. Satterfield and other leaders were in Washington seeking additional funding, the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium hosted its first event.  On October 4, 1939, the convention hall on the lower level was the site of a preview dance.  The pecan block flooring had been installed just the week before.

RC-dance-orchestraThe first four people to enter the building as paying guests were Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Wilheim, Frances Frazier and Bill Christian.  Reports estimated 3,200 people attended and danced to the music of Jan Garber and His Orchestra.

By happenstance, Garber and his musicians had also played in Little Rock on January 26, 1937, the date of the election which approved the auditorium bonds.  Since Little Rock then did not have a suitable space, that appearance had been on the stage of the high school auditorium.

The dance was a success.  But as the building had no heating or cooling mechanism at the time, there were limits as to how long even the lower level could be in use.  After a few weeks, the PWA, which was still in charge of the construction site, halted all future bookings.

Final movie theatre in downtown Little Rock

On October 4, 1977, the Arkansas Theatre screened its final films at 516 South Louisiana.  When it closed, it also ended the run of commercial movie theatres in downtown.

The last two films to show there were J. D.’s Revenge (which starred Louis Gossett Jr.) at 5:40pm and 9:00pm, and Coffy (which starred Pam Grier) at 7:20 pm.

The decision to close the theatre was made by United Artists which operated the facility, and had once had its local offices in the building.  Since the 1930s, UA (and its predecessors) had been booking films into the building.  But as the movie going public started preferring to watch their films in the suburbs, downtown movie houses became a thing of the past.

The building opened on September 20, 1910, as the Kempner Opera House. It was designed by New York architect Henry Beaumont Herts of the architectural firm Herts & Tallant. Originally the facade was in a Sullivanesque style, but this was later altered into an Art Deco style, with stucco and ceramic tile highlights.

Seating over 1300, it was home to plays, operas, musicals, lectures, vaudeville, and community meetings. By the late 1920s, with motion pictures a booming business, it was transformed into a movie house.  It reopened as the Arkansas Theatre on September 27, 1929.

The last few years it was open, the Arkansas had featured mainly Blaxploitation films.  But by 1977, Hollywood was moving away from those. The area manager for the UA chain told the Arkansas Gazette that the lack of movies in that genre also contributed to the reason to shut it.

United Artists had a lease with the Kempner family that would run through 1997, unless they could find someone else to take the building over.  They tried to interest the Arkansas Opera Theatre, but it was not a feasible option for AOT.  Eventually, the building was deeded to the University of Arkansas Foundation.

In late 1995, the structure was razed. After 18 years of sitting vacant, the structure had deteriorated beyond repair.  Because of alterations to the interior and exterior over the years, it was not eligible for historic preservation designations or funds.

Today it is a parking lot across the street from the Lafayette Building and due south of the Hall-Davidson Building.