Little Rock Look Back: Arkansas Arts Center celebrates with week of Grand Reopening activities in February 2000

On February 17, 2000, over three thousand people attended the Arkansas Arts Center members preview of the new and renovated galleries as part of a week long celebration. It culminated in Big Art Weekend in which the building was open for 72 hours with around the clock programming.

Donors to the project, media, and Arkansas museum professionals had each received sneak peeks of the new facility earlier in the week. On Friday, February 18, the Big Art Weekend got underway with a gallery tour of a variety of Little Rock galleries. (This was before 2nd Friday Art Night.)  Lectures, tours, and other special events populated the building on Saturday and Sunday the 19th and 20th.  In addition, the Children’s Theatre was performing Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp..

The renovation had taken over 18 months and cost $12 million.  It added 30,000 square feet of gallery space.  The expanded gallery space featured these exhibits: Paul Signac Watercolors and Drawings: Selections from the James T. Dyke Collection; Without Parameters: Selections from the Permanent Collection; Recent Acquisitions; Prophets, Parables and Paradoxes: Recent Drawings by David Bailin; Artistic Processes: Drawing; Living with Form: The Horn Collection of Contemporary Crafts; and European Paintings and Drawings.

The latter exhibit included eight pieces that were promised gifts from the Jackson T. Stephens collection.  They were Edgar Degas’ Dance in Blue (Before the Class, Three Dancers (c. late 1880s), Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Red Bull’s Head (1938), Claude Monet’s Apple Trees Near Vetheuil (1878), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Three Partridges (c. 1888-1890), Alfred Sisley’s Road on the Edge of the Loing (1891), Camille Pissarro’s The Raised Terrace of the Pont-Neuf, Place Henri IV in Morning Rain (1902), Berthe Morisot’s The Flute Player (1890) and Bertrand Redon’s Vase of Flowers (c. 1890).

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Little Rock Look Back: Implosion of the Grady Manning and the Marion

On 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.

Little Rock Look Back: Polk Stanley Wilcox joins Studio Gang Architects in planning for reimagined Arkansas Arts Center

On February 16, 2017, the Arkansas Arts Center announced the selection of Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects as associate architect for its upcoming building project. Polk Stanley Wilcox will work in partnership with Studio Gang Architects on a reimagined Arkansas Arts Center. Studio Gang was selected as design architect for the expansion and renovation in December.

Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects is a programming, architectural, planning and interior design firm with offices in Little Rock and Fayetteville. The firm has experience working with clients in a variety of industries, including healthcare, nonprofit, cultural, education, corporate and worship. Polk Stanley Wilcox also focuses on sustainability and creating buildings that operate on minimal energy usage.

“We are thrilled to partner with the Arkansas Arts Center and Studio Gang on this transformative project,” Polk Stanley Wilcox Principal David Porter said. “AAC has cast an exciting vision to rethink not only how the Center upgrades the interior and exterior spaces, but how the AAC connects to and enriches the broad arts and cultural tapestry of Little Rock. Studio Gang is a uniquely talented firm to lead the design effort. PSW is honored to bring our extensive experience from years of important projects in downtown Little Rock to come alongside them and the AAC to help create this next critical milestone for the city, state and region.”

Polk Stanley Wilcox has previously worked on a number of local projects, including the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, Heifer International Headquarters, the Arkansas Studies Institute and the recently opened Robinson Center expansion and renovation.

“We look forward to working with the team at Polk Stanley Wilcox,” said Studio Gang Founding Principal Jeanne Gang. “We hope to build on their strong history of collaborations in the area and believe that their knowledge of Little Rock will be a huge asset as we expand the impact of the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, and in the region.”

Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects was selected from among three finalists to work in partnership with Studio Gang. Ten local firms responded to the RFQ issued last month. Allison and Partners and Cromwell Architects were also finalists.

The three finalist firms presented to the selection committee on February 16. The selection committee for the associate architect included AAC Executive Director Todd Herman, three representatives from Studio Gang, and international museum consultant Deborah Frieden, and AAC Board member Sara Hendricks Batcheller.

“Each of the finalists are strong, well-respected firms,” Arts Center Executive Director Todd Herman said. “Ultimately, Polk, Stanley, Wilcox was the best complement to Studio Gang in terms of experience and strengths. Their work at Robinson auditorium – similar in both scope and complexity – will be an asset as we move through the project. We are very pleased to have PSW on board for this important project that will create wonderful new spaces for the people of Little Rock and Arkansas to enjoy the arts. Having our architectural team in place is a major milestone. We are very excited to move the project forward.”

Little Rock Look Back: Opening of Robinson Center Performance Hall

On February 16, 1940, after three years of planning and construction including several delays due to lack of funding, the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium officially opened. It was a cold, rainy night, but those in attendance did not care.  (The concept of a municipal auditorium for Little Rock had first been raised in 1904, so this evening was truly a long time in the works.)

Searchlights painting arcs in the sky greeted attendees. They were borrowed from the Arkansas National Guard. Newspaper accounts noted that only a few of the men who attended were in tuxedos, most were simply in suits. The work to get the building opened had been so harried, that it was discovered there was not an Arkansas flag to fly in front of the building. Mayor Satterfield found one at the last minute courtesy of the Arkansas Department of the Spanish War Veterans.

The weather delayed arrivals, so the program started fifteen minutes late. Following a performance of Sibelius’ Finlandia by the fledgling Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra, Mayor J. V. Satterfield, Ewilda Robinson (the Senator’s widow), Emily Miller (the Senator’s sister-in-law and a member of the Auditorium Commission) and D. Hodson Lewis of the Chamber of Commerce participated in a brief ribbon cutting ceremony. Mrs Robinson cut the ribbon on her second attempt (once again proving that nothing connected with getting the building open was easy).

The ceremony was originally set to be outside of the building but was moved indoors due to the inclement weather. The ribbon cutting took place on the stage with the ribbon stretched out in front of the curtain. The opening remarks were broadcast on radio station KGHI.

Mr. Lewis, Mrs. Miller and Mayor Satterfield look on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon

Mr. Lewis, Mrs. Miller and Mayor Satterfield look on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon

Tickets for the event, advertised as being tax exempt, were at four different pricing levels: $2.50, $2.00, $1.50 and $1.00.

The estimated attendance was 1700. Following the ribbon cutting, the main performance took place. The headliner for the grand opening was the San Francisco Opera Ballet accompanied by the new Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra (not related to the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra). The featured soloist with the ballet was Zoe Dell Lantis who was billed as “The Most Photographed Miss at the San Francisco World’s Fair.”

Auditorium Commission chairman E. E. Beaumont, a local banker, noted that while event planners knew the evening of ballet and classical music would not appeal to everyone, it was intended to show the wide range of offerings that would be suitable in the new space.  Earlier in the week, children’s theatre performances had been offered to school groups through the auspices of the Junior League of Little Rock.

At the same time that the gala was going on upstairs in the music hall, a high school basketball double-header was taking place in the downstairs convention hall. North Little Rock lost to Beebe in the first game, while the Little Rock High School Tigers upset Pine Bluff in the marquee game.

Little Rock Look Back: John Wassell

Future Little Rock Mayor John Wassell was born on February 15, 1813 in Kidderminster, England.

In 1829, he came to the United States.  He learned carpentry and construction in Ohio and ended up in Little Rock.  One of his jobs was as the finishing contractor on the State Capitol building, now known as the Old State House.

He later gave up carpentry and became an attorney.  (It is said that he did so after becoming embroiled in a legal dispute arising from one of his construction jobs.) Wassell also served as a judge.

In 1868, he was appointed Mayor of Little Rock by President Andrew Johnson.  He is Little Rock’s only Mayor to have served through a military appointment.  Mayor Wassell died in January 1881 and is buried at Mount Holly Cemetery along with his wife and other family members.  One of his grandsons, Samuel M. Wassell also served as Mayor of Little Rock. Another one, Dr. Corydon Wassell, was the subject of the Hollywood film The Story of Dr. Wassell.

Little Rock Look Back: Public facilities in Little Rock ordered to be integrated

Following the March 1962 lawsuit by twenty-two (22) African Americans seeking the integration of public facilities in Little Rock, Federal Judge J. Smith Henley issued a order on February 15, 1963.  Judge Henley ordered the end to segregation in City parks, playgrounds, golf courses, tennis facilities, community centers, and Robinson Auditorium.

Regarding the auditorium, the order allowed for single event, short-term leasing of wholly private meetings for membership and immediate friends of members.  But it did stress that there could be no racial discrimination in the selection of or terms of leases.

The judge’s order did not cover “other facilities not identified in the record.”  Which meant, the order did not apply to swimming pools.  At the time, War Memorial pool was operated for whites and Gillam Park pool was operated for African Americans.   The judge wrote that he saw no reason to extend it to facilities not mentioned, but did not rule out the ability for future lawsuits.  In asking for a summary judgement in January 1963, the defendants had listed many types of facilities but not swimming pools.

Judge Henley’s decision did not mean that a municipality was required to integrate.  It just could not enforce segregation.  As with many other court decisions at the time, it was narrow in scope.

The end result was that Little Rock facilities were now integrated.  Except for the swimming pools.  Those would have their own story.  It would take the 1964 Civil Rights act and more legal actions for that to happen.

Little Rock Look Back: First TABRIZ Gala in 1971

After a casual evening on Friday, February 12, 1971, the next night, several hundred people donned their tuxedos and maxi-length formal wear to attend the first Tabriz Gala.

After eating a gourmet dinner, guests were treated to a live auction with over 90 items.  The auctioneers were Edwin C. Jenkins of Los Angeles and Little Rock’s Dalton Dailey.

Among the items in the live auction (which raised $30,000)  were usage of a billboard for a month, a five day cruise in the Bahamas and the opportunity to help create a sculpture.  One of the more unique items was a lot in Pleasant Valley, which went for $11,500 (the equivalent of $72,000 in 2019).  The final item in the live auction was lunch with Martha Mitchell. The Pine Bluff native was married to US Attorney General John Mitchell. Little did anyone know at the time that President Nixon would one day blame Watergate on Martha Mitchell making life difficult for John Mitchell.

The Fine Arts Club had desired that Tabriz would be a unique event in Little Rock’s social calendar.  It appeared they succeeded.  The Arkansas Gazette noted that the crowd was livelier than normally happened at black tie events in Little Rock.

Due to the success of Tabriz, the Arts Center more than had the money it needed for the National Endowment for the Arts challenge match program.