200 years since the birth of Little Rock’s 23rd Mayor, early settler Gordon Neill Peay

On December 12, 1819, future Little Rock Mayor Gordon Neill Peay was born.  The Peay family arrived in Arkansas from Kentucky in 1825.  They quickly became one of Little Rock’s leading families.

Mayor Peay’s father, Nicholas Peay served on the Little Rock Board of Trustees (which existed before the town was incorporated) and later served on the City Council and was acting mayor.

It is Nicholas Peay’s Egg Nog recipe which inspired the Historic Arkansas Museum Nog Off! (2019 edition is Friday night!)

Godon N. Peay served as mayor of Little Rock from 1859 to 1861.  During the Civil War, Peay served as Captain and later Colonel of the Capital Guard.  He later received a pardon from the federal government.  In the days leading up to the Civil War and during it, Mayor Peay was one of a group of civic leaders who corresponded with Union leaders. It has been said that this conciliatory tone is a reason that Little Rock fared better during Federal occupation and Reconstruction than did many other Confederate cities.

The Peay family owned the Peay Hotel, Little Rock’s first hotel, and were also co-founders of what became Worthen Bank.  They were also a founding family of Christ Episcopal Church. Mayor Peay later served as Pulaski County Chancery Clerk.

He died on December 14, 1876, and is buried at Mount Holly Cemetery along with many members of his family.  A nephew of his, Ashley Peay, served on the City Council in the 1920s.  Mayor Peay’s great-grandson Joseph Barber Hurst, Sr. served on the Little Rock City Board of Directors from 1967-1971. One of Mr. Hurst’s sons, Howard, was born on Mayor Peay’s birthday.

6 years since LR voters approved Restore Robinson project

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) created 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.

80 years ago today, Robinson Auditorium construction was deemed “Substantially Finished”

Many months behind schedule, it was 80 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.

Sandwich in History at the Arsenal Tower Building in MacArthur Park today

Image may contain: sky, cloud, house and outdoorYou are invited to join the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program’s next “Sandwiching in History” tour, which will visit one of Little Rock’s oldest standing structures, the Arsenal Tower Building, now home to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History on 9th Street in MacArthur Park in Little Rock beginning at noon on Friday, December 6, 2019.

This structure was built as part of a federal military installation. The U.S. Arsenal is the only building that remains of the more than 30 that made up the original installation. After 1892, the arsenal grounds became City Park and later MacArthur Park in 1942.

The two-story brick building displays a slight Gothic influence in a centered octagonal entry tower. Symmetrical east and west wings display two-story full porches. For several decades, the building was endangered, but the City of Little Rock undertook a renovation project in the 1930s. The U.S. Arsenal currently houses the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History.

Sandwiching in History tours are worth one hour of AIA continuing education credit. If you would like to receive email notifications of upcoming tours instead of postcards or need additional information, please contact Callie Williams, Education and Outreach Coordinator for AHPP, at 501-324-9880 or Callie.Williams@arkansas.gov.

Birth of Little Rock’s 21st Mayor – Charles 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.

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.

Bertrand 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.

Woodrow Mann, Little Rock’s 53rd Mayor, born on Nov. 13, 1916

Future Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann was born on November 13, 1916, in Little Rock.  His tenure at Little Rock mayor was tumultuous from both things of his doing as well as events that catapulted him onto the international scene.

In 1955, he ran as the Democratic nominee for Mayor of Little Rock and defeated two term incumbent Pratt C. Remmel, a Republican.  He took office in January 1956 and immediately set about to make a lot of changes.  In addition to revitalizing the City’s bus system, and removing some color barriers at City Hall, he oversaw the dismantling of the copper dome on top of Little Rock City Hall (as opposed to the repair of the dome championed by Mayor Remmel).

Mayor Mann was caught up in a grand jury investigation into purchasing practices at City Hall as well as within the City government in North Little Rock.  Partially in response to this, Little Rock voters approved a new form of government in late 1956.  Mayor Mann opposed the switch to the City Manager form and refused to set the election for the new officials but was ultimately compelled to do so.

He was also Mayor during the 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High School.  He sought to keep the peace and to broker a deal between President Dwight Eisenhower and Governor Orval Faubus.  His powers within the city were, no doubt, hampered because of his lame duck status as Mayor.  In November 1957 following the election of the new City Board of Directors, he chaired his last City Council meeting and left office.

In January of 1958, a series of articles written by Mayor Mann detailed his perspective on the events at Central High. These were carried by newspapers throughout the US.

Because of ill will toward him due to the Central High crisis (he was criticized by both sides) and grand jury investigation, Mayor Mann felt it would be difficult to maintain his insurance business in Little Rock. He moved to Texas in 1959 and remained there the rest of his life.  He died in Houston on August 6, 2002.

An entry about Mayor Mann in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture can be found here.