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 Also, structural, mechanical and electrical issues, public circulation and outdated conference center spaces existed within the facility.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: Ages of Little Rock Mayors

With the election of Frank D. Scott, Jr., as Little Rock’s next mayor, there have been questions about the ages of Little Rock’s past mayors.

Mayor-elect Scott will become Little Rock’s 73rd mayor when he takes office on January 1, 2019..  There have been sixty-six other men and women serve as mayor of Little Rock.  Much like Grover Cleveland is counted twice in the list of US presidents because of serving non-sequential terms, there have been six men who have served non-sequential terms as Little Rock’s mayor and are therefore counted twice.

Of the seventy-three mayors of Little Rock (including Mayor-elect Scott), the ages are known of fifty-eight at the the time they took office.

Of those fifty eight, the youngest mayor of Little Rock was Eli Colby. He took office in 1843 at the age of 28.  The next youngest is Pat L. Robinson who took office a month after turning 29.

The oldest person to take office as mayor was 66 year old Haco Boyd in 1969. The next oldest was 64 year old David Fulton in 1835.

The average age upon taking office is 45.

The largest gap of years between the ages of sequential mayors at the start of their terms was 31 years. Webster Hubbell was 31 when he took office in 1979. He was succeeded by 62 year old Charles Bussey in 1981.

The shortest gap of ages of sequential mayors at the start of their terms was roughly one year.  W.W. Stevenson and Elijah A. More (yes he spelled his name with only one “O”).  In 1833, Stevenson took office at the age of 35. The next year, More took office at the age of 34. Stevenson’s birthday was on January 29 and More’s was on January 20.

Here is the list of the ten youngest mayors of Little Rock at known age of starting their term:
1. Eli Colby — 28 in September 1843
2. Pat L. Robinson  — 29 in April 1929
3. Webster L. Hubbell — 31 in June 1979
4. J. G. Botsford — 32 in January 1871
5. William E. Ashley — 33 in January 1857
6. John E. Knight — 34 in January 1851 (34 years and 3 months)
7. Harold E. “Sonney” Henson, Jr. — 34 in January 1965 (34 years and 5 months)
8.  Elijah A. More – 34 in January 1834 (34 years and 11 months)
9.  Frank D. Scott, Jr. – 35 in January 2019 (35 years and 1 month)
10. Thomas A. Prince – 35 in January 1985 (35 years and 4 months)

Little Rock Look Back: Mayoral Race of 1930

KNOWLTON

In the early 20th century, Little Rock mayors were traditionally granted a second two-year term, if they wanted them. So, 30 year old Mayor Pat Robinson may have been surprised when City Clerk Horace A. Knowlton Jr., announced his challenge for the Democratic primary in 1930.

Robinson had been the rising star of the Democratic Party in Little Rock. At the age of 25, he was nominated for the position of City Attorney and elected at 26 to the position. Two years later, he was re-elected. Then, a few months into his second term, he ran for the position of mayor. In the primary, he defeated the incumbent, an alderman and a school board member.  Taking office a few days after turning 29, Robinson was one of Little Rock’s youngest mayors ever.

However, shortly after taking office, Robinson butted heads with the majority of the City Council over a special election. And his term was marked with continual political strife.

In 1929 and 1930, Little Rock was recovering from the 1927 flood and the 1929 stock market crash. Yet Robinson appeared to be trying to spend the city out of the doldrums and driving up the city’s debt.

Knowlton was elected City Clerk in 1921 and had been re-elected in 1923, 1925, 1927, and 1929. He was viewed as an efficient politico and a stalwart member of the party.

The City’s financial state was the main thrust of Knowlton’s campaign against Robinson.  The phrase “orgy of spending” appeared in an ad. The incumbent countered with the progress of the City.

A third candidate, Bob Brown, was not a factor in the race.

November 10, 1930, dawned. It was the local Democratic primary day. Since the GOP was virtually non-existent, the winner of the nomination would be the ultimate winner in April 1931.

Anyone thinking the nasty election would be over soon was in for a surprise.

When the results came in, the tallies were: Horace A. Knowlton, 4,537; Pat L. Robinson, 4,554; Bob Brown. 61. It appeared that Robinson had eked out a 17 vote victory.  On November 12, the Pulaski County Democratic Committee certified the results.

Three days later, Knowlton filed suit in circuit court claiming that a variety of illegal votes had been cast for Robinson.  A few days later, Robinson alleged that illegal votes had been cast for Knowlton.

The case was extensive. The transcript of the trial runs over 1,800 pages.  The judge reviewed the more than 9,000 ballots cast and compared them to voter rolls and poll tax lists.  Ultimately, he found that Knowlton had received ten more votes than Robinson and declared that Knowlton was the nominee.

Knowlton’s name was placed on the ballot in April and he was elected, taking office later that month.

However, Robinson had appealed the circuit court ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court.  In June 1921, the Court upheld the lower court ruling and affirmed that Knowlton was indeed the duly elected mayor of Little Rock.

Little Rock Look Back: C. P. Bertrand

On November 23, 1808, future Mayor Charles P. Bertrand was born in New York.  He was the son of Pierre and Eliza Wilson Bertrand; his father died in 1809 in an uprising in Haiti and his mother eventually remarried.  With her new husband, Dr. Matthew Cunningham, she and the family moved to Little Rock in 1820.

After apprenticing with family friend William Woodruff at the Arkansas Gazette, Bertrand opened the Arkansas Advocate newspaper.  He later studied law under Robert Crittenden and entered the legal profession.

In 1835-1836, he served as State Treasurer for the Arkansas Territory, and in 1836 as secretary for the first constitutional convention. He was a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1840-1841 and 1844-1849.

Bertrand followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and became Mayor of Little Rock.  (Dr. Cunningham had been the first Little Rock Mayor in 1831.)  He was in office from January 1855 through January 1857, serving two one-year terms.  He later served on the City Council and filled in as acting mayor. (Another influence on his upbringing was studying under future Mayor Jesse Brown who taught at the first school in Little Rock.)

Bertrand, as acting mayor, was involved in the negotiations of the surrender of Little Rock to federal troops in 1863.  He also later corresponded with President Lincoln on behalf of Little Rock citizens

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Though a staunch Confederate, his good will toward the Union soldiers and federal officials is credited with helping to save Little Rock from the destruction which befell many other Southern cities.  He is also credited with delaying the start of the Civil War.

Prior to the attack on Fort Sumner, members of the Arkansas Militia were planning to attack the Federal Arsenal at Little Rock during the absence of Governor Rector.  This would have been viewed as an act of war.  Bertrand was able to dissuade them from the attack.  Had he been unsuccessful, the Civil War would have likely started in Arkansas instead of South Carolina.

He had put his considerable fortune into Confederate money during the war. At the Civil War’s conclusion, the family was financially ruined. Though they had vast land holdings, those would be sold off in parcels to pay for taxes.

Bertrand died August 27, 1865, shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War.  He, like his mother, step-father, and several other relatives, is buried in Mt. Holly Cemetery.

Little Rock Look Back: Mayoral Race of 1928

Robinson

After serving two, 2-year terms, Mayor Charles Moyer sought a third term in the Democratic primary of 1928. There were three people standing in his way of a new term:  City Attorney Pat Robinson, School Board member H. T. “Will” Terry, and Alderman Joe H. Bilheimer, Jr.

Robinson had been elected City Attorney at the age of 27.  He was viewed as a rising star in not only the Democratic Party of Little Rock, but for the state as well.  He was no relation to US Senator Joe T. Robinson, who hailed from Lonoke County. Pat Robinson had roots in Clark County.  Alderman Billheimer had served on the Little Rock City Council since 1917, while Mr. Terry had been on the School Board for several years and been president of that body.

As the incumbent, Mayor Moyer spent most of the campaign on the defensive. His policies and programs were attacked. What was not attacked (or even mentioned) was his disappearance from Little Rock during the 1927 lynching of James Carter.  Mayor Moyer promoted his efforts for the successful amendment to the Arkansas Constitution which expanded the bonding capacity of cities. He also was proud of having established the Planning Commission for Little Rock.

Moyer largely ignored Bilheimer in his remarks. But he charged Robinson with dereliction in duty as City Attorney. He also questioned Terry’s business acumen.  Terry for his part stressed his work as a man who had started driving a milk wagon and then rose to become the head of a large dairy.  He took a swipe at single Robinson by stressing that he was a person with family ties.

Bilheimer questioned Moyer’s expenditures including $4,000 a year to keep City Hall clean. He claimed that was a payoff for a political contribution. He also noted that during Terry’s tenure on the school board, the Little Rock schools were only able to purchase milk from his dairy.  He also charged Terry with campaign violations. At the time, state law set that campaign expenditures could not exceed the salary of the position being sought. At the time, Little Rock paid $5,000 per year to the mayor.  Bilheimer charged that Terry was exceeding that.

Other than defend his record as City Attorney, Robinson fairly successfully stayed above the fray. He admitted that he was not aggressive prosecuting bootleggers or others connected to Prohibition offenses.

Rallies and radio were the order of the day as the campaign wound down.  On November 26, 1928, the primary took place.  Robinson won every precinct.  He captured 4,077 votes to 1,682 for Moyer, 1,518 for Terry, and 298 for Bilheimer.

The polls closed at 6pm.  By 8:30pm, the results were known and a Robinson victory parade filled the streets.  It marched down Main Street and then down Markham to City Hall.  On the steps, Mr. Robinson remarked, “I shall try always to be the same old Pat.”

 

 

Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Auditorium Commission abolished; Duties transferred to LRCVB

aud-com-abol

On November 16, 1971, the City of Little Rock Board of Directors abolished the Auditorium Commission which oversaw Robinson Auditorium and transferred duties to the Advertising and Promotion Commission.

This was done with the full support of both commissions.  The transfer took place immediately, with all assets and loose ends to be wrapped up by December 15, 1971.

With the adoption of a hospitality sales tax, by state statute, Little Rock had to have an A&P Commission.  By 1971 plans were afoot to use the A&P tax to build a conference center using some of the existing space in Robinson and adding space.  It did not make sense to have two separate commissions overseeing the same building.

For the Auditorium Commission members, it was possibly a relief.  For years, overseeing the building had been a quiet duty.  But with the social changes of the 1960s, they had been confronted ending the policy of segregation as well as changes in content and subject matter of acts booked at Robinson.  Being agents of social change was doubtful what any of them had envisioned when they joined the commission.  Emily Miller had been a member of the body since January 1940 and others had been on it for many years.

Transferring Robinson to the A&P Commission ushered in a new era for the building. It saw increased booking of meetings which led to a better revenue stream.  The use of the A&P tax would mean the opportunity to give the building an upgrade from 1972 to 1974.

Robinson would eventually prove to be inadequate for all of Little Rock’s needs, which led to the creation and subsequent expansion of Statehouse Convention Center.  But the action 45 years ago today set the stage for the transformation Robinson has undergone as it reopened in November 2016.