Final plans approved for “new” (and still current) Little Rock City Hall in 1906

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“The Chancery Court has enjoined us from erecting an auditorium and the Board of Public Affairs has consequently rescinded all resolutions and orders pertaining to that structure.”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.

Advertisements

August 26, 1935 – plans approved which would lead to creation of Robinson Auditorium

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: Roller Rink and Auditorium approved by LR City Council

Following the court decision which forbade the City of Little Rock from using public dollars to construct a municipal auditorium, a temporary solution was sought.  On August 20, 1906, the City Council approved plans for such a structure.

After the September 10, 1906, City Council meeting, the mayor told the Gazette that the Board of Public Affairs had leased part of the City’s land at Markham and Arch Streets to A. C. Read to construct the rink and auditorium.  The lease also allowed the building to extend out into Arch Street (the 1913 Sanborn Map shows it covering approximately two-thirds of the width of the street).  The mayor noted that, “It is stipulated in our lease to Mr. Read that the city shall have the use of the auditorium which he shall erect at any time.”

According to the Democrat, by September the building was already under construction.  That paper also noted that “after three years it passes into the hands of the city, when it can be repaired or remodeled to suit convention purposes.”  In the story about the new plans, the Democrat also gave the facility a very optimistic seating capacity of 9,000 people.

On August 13, 1906, A. C. Read, a businessman and real estate developer, petitioned the City for the right to construct a skating rink.  The matter was referred to the Street & Fire Committee, the Superintendent of Public Works and Aldermen Louis Volmer and Benjamin S. Thalheimer, who represented the Sixth Ward, in which the structure would be located.

By the next Council meeting a week later, the committee had reported back with a recommendation for approval.  Resolution 288 was adopted giving Mr. Read the right to build the skating rink.  Interestingly, the resolution did not contain the words “skating rink” though the original petition had.  Instead it permitted Mr. Read to construct a building “suitable for purposes as defined by the Board of Public Affairs.”

The resolution also stated that within three years the building would become property of the City.  The unnamed Gazette reporter at the August 21, 1906, City Council meeting did note in a story the day after the meeting that Mr. Read’s structure would probably be used as an auditorium in three years when the lease was up and the land use reverted back to the City.

Matters often languished in committees of the City Council for weeks; the one week turnaround of Mr. Read’s petition was highly uncommon.  It was also rare for the City Council to meet two weeks in a row.  The fact that it was reported back so quickly would be an indication that this was no standard petition from a citizen.

Civic observers might also have noted that the resolution contained language that a private citizen had been given permission to construct a building on City-owned property to the specifications of the City’s Board of Public Affairs.

1906 verdict halts plans for new LR City Hall, Jail and Auditorium

The 1906 plans for City Hall with the Municipal Auditorium on the left portion.

Little Rock Mayor Warren E. Lenon had been advocating for a new City Hall a municipal auditorium since shortly after taking office in April 1903. After plans were approved in July 1906, a group of citizens, led by Arkansas Gazette publisher J. N. Heiskell, filed suit to stop the City.

The closing arguments in the trial against plans for a new City Hall and auditorium complex had been heard on Monday, July 30.  The case was heard by Chancery Judge J. C. Hart.  Serving as an advisor to Chancellor Hart throughout the trial (though with no official legal standing) was Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Lea.  To accommodate the expected large attendance, the trial had been moved into his courtroom which was larger than Chancellor Hart’s.

On Friday, August 3, Pulaski County Chancery Judge J. C. Hart issued an injunction to keep the City from signing a contract for the construction of a city hall, jail and auditorium.  Chancellor Hart concurred with the plaintiffs that Arkansas’ constitution and laws dictated all taxation must be for public purposes.  He found there was nothing in Arkansas case law which defined an auditorium to be used for conventions as a public purpose.

As had been the case throughout the trial, the tone of the coverage of the decision differed greatly in the city’s two daily papers.  The subheading in the Democrat noted that the plaintiffs would be liable for any losses to the municipal government’s coffers due to a delay in commencing the construction if Little Rock eventually prevailed.  That fact is not mentioned by the Gazette.  Both papers did make note that Judge Lea agreed with the Chancellor’s decision.

For now, it looked as if the City of Little Rock would be stuck in the 1867 City Hall on Markham between Main and Louisiana.  Mr. Heiskell and his compatriots waited to see if the City would appeal the decision.

While August would be a quiet month publicly, work would go on behind the scenes.  More on that, in the future.

50 Years since the Giant Leap for Mankind

On July 20, 1969, at 3:17 pm (Little Rock time), the lunar module Eagle set down in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. Astronaut Neil Armstrong radioed to Mission Control in Houston, “The Eagle has landed.”

At 9:39 pm, several hours ahead of schedule, Armstrong opened the hatch and started his slow descent to the lunar surface.  At 9:56 pm, he set his booted foot on the moon and uttered his now famous (and garbled) statement: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

At 10:15 pm, astronaut Buzz Aldrin joined Armstrong on the moon.  The pair explored the surface, conducted experiments, took photos, and planted the US flag.  They also spoke with President Nixon.  Shortly after midnight on July 21, the pair returned to the Eagle.  Twelve hours later they began heading back to the Apollo 11 which was orbiting the moon piloted by astronaut Michael Collins.

Since the Arkansas Gazette was a morning paper, they did not carry the news until the morning of July 21.  Though the Arkansas Democrat was an afternoon paper, they published their Sunday edition in the morning. And since the events transpired after what would have been their afternoon deadline, their coverage did not appear until the afternoon of July 21.  (During liftoff, the Democrat got the lead on the Gazette by publishing stories on it in their July 16 edition while the Gazette had to wait until July 17.)

As expected, much of the news in those papers was about the moon landing. Even some of the other news had a lunar bent. A photo showed US soldiers in Viet Nam listening on the radio to coverage of the landing.

But there was other news going on.  Egypt and Israel were still fighting.  Indira Gandhi celebrated a political victory in India, while Spain was looking toward Prince Juan Carlos eventually becoming King upon the death or retirement of Franco (which would not come until 1975).  It was announced that Senator Ted Kennedy would be charged with leaving the scene of an accident after his wreck in Chappaquiddick which resulted in the death by drowning of his companion,  Mary Jo Kopechne.

Closer to home, the new Miss Arkansas, Marilyn Kay Allen, was adjusting to her new role.  The Arkansas Constitutional Convention continued to grind on.  The Travelers lost 4 to 1 to Amarillo on the road.

Little Rock Look Back: Apollo 11 Lifts Off on July 16, 1969

On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 lifted off from Florida as 528 million people (15% of the world’s population at the time) viewed it on television.  As would be expected for that historic trip to the moon, both the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat were filled with stories covering all aspects of the preparations and the launch.

The Gazette carried a story in which Sargent Shriver, then Ambassador to France, recalled his brother-in-law John F. Kennedy saying that if he died before the US landed on the moon, he would be watching it from his rocking chair in heaven and would have a better view than anyone on earth. The comments were made on May 25, 1962, the same day President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress about the quest to send man to the moon.

But Apollo 11 was not the only thing in the newspapers.

  • July 16 was the first preliminary night for the Miss Arkansas pageant.
  • Ruth the elephant was ailing at the Little Rock Zoo.
  • The Arkansas Constitutional Convention continued
  • The Loch Ness Monster had gone into hiding according to Scottish officials
  • Plans were underway to bring private Little Rock University into the University of Arkansas System

Sports headlines included:

  • The Cardinals beat the Phillies 5 to 0
  • The Travelers were rained out at home.
  • Joe Namath was in secret meetings with NFL leadership regarding his retirement plans. He’d announced them rather than give up ownership of a club frequented by mobsters.
  • Brooks Robinson was named to his 13th consecutive All-Star game.

In advertisements (and there were pages and pages and pages of advertisements – comparing them to papers of today one really sees how much a drop in revenue newspapers are facing):

  • Curtis Finch Furniture offered a side by side refrigerator with icemaker for $499
  • Bruno’s was now serving wine and cocktails
  • Moses Melody Shop had a color TV for $399.50
  • Pfeifer-Blass was selling shoes for $3.50 and women’s jersey dresses for $11.99

Final Dunbar High School Graduation – May 27, 1955

On May 27, 1955, on the stage of Robinson Auditorium, the Dunbar High School senior class graduated. This academic year marked not only the 25th anniversary of Dunbar’s opening, but it was the last year that the school building would offer junior high through junior college classes.

In the fall of 1955, the new Horace Mann High School would open. Dunbar would continue to be open, but only as a junior high.  (Though no reason was ever publicly given, the junior college component ended in May 1955.)

The new Mann High School was constructed, in part, as a way to delay any integration plans for the Little Rock School District.  With a new second all-white high school in the works for Little Rock, it was thought that a new African American school would placate the African-American community by not only giving them a new building, but relieving the overcrowding at Dunbar.

But on May 27, 1955, and the days leading up to it, the focus was on celebrating the final graduation class and the 25th anniversary of Dunbar High School.  On May 25, teachers who had taught for 25 years at the school, and original teachers who retired from the school were honored.

The school’s original principal, Dr. John H. Lewis, was the commencement speaker.  The current principal, Dr. L. W. Christophe presided over the awarding of the diplomas and announcements of scholarships.  Among the higher education institutions to which they received scholarships were the University of Michigan, Wiley College, Tennessee State, Arkansas AM&N, Talladega College, and Philander Smith College.

While the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat  both DID run stories on the graduation, it was hardly equal to the coverage they gave Central High School.  In fact, on the day after Dunbar’s graduation, the Democrat ran a photo of two Central graduates huddled under an umbrella in the rain – three days after the ceremony took place.

In 1971, Mann ceased its status as a high school as well.  Today, both Mann and Dunbar serve as middle schools within the Little Rock School District.