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 Also, structural, mechanical and electrical issues, public circulation and outdated conference center spaces existed within the facility.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.

Scenes from the Clinton Presidential Center Dedication on Nov. 18, 2004

Fifteen years ago, I was on the top level of the press riser during the Clinton Presidential Center dedication. I was the northernmost person on the riser through most of the ceremony. The only people who received more wind or rain than I were the sharpshooters on the rooftop.

Here are some of the photos I took that morning.

Early morning on the Library Site

Dawn is breaking, and a break in the rain on November 18, 2004. Hopes were improving.

Andrew DeMillo (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette) and Lance Turner (Arkansas Business) in the print media rows of the press riser. DeMillo is now with Associated Press.

Mayor Jim Dailey prepares to be interviewed by Candy Crowley on CNN.

Crowds gathering.

As the rains started, staffers sought coverage.

The Philander Smith College Choir performed.

The Lyon College Drum and Pipe Band performed.

The Color Guard preparing to enter the ceremony.

The First Ladies entering the ceremony. Barbara Bush (center of the photo) looks like she is having fun!

The Presidents entering the ceremony without umbrellas.

President Jimmy Carter addresses the crowd.

President George H W Bush addresses the audience.

President George W. Bush addresses the gathering.

First Lady Hillary Clinton delivering her remarks (and getting even wetter due to an off center umbrella placement).

President Bill Clinton closing out the ceremony with his comments.

Daisy Bates, born 105 years ago on Nov. 11, 1914

Daisy Lee Gatson Bates and her husband were important figures in the African American community in the capital city of Little Rock.  Realizing her intense involvement and dedication to education and school integration, Daisy was the chosen agent after nine black students were selected to attend and integrate a Little Rock High School.

Bates guided and advised the nine students, known as the Little Rock Nine, when they enrolled in 1957 at Little Rock Central High School. President Clinton presented the Little Rock Nine with the Congressional Gold Medal and spoke at the 40th anniversary of the desegregation while he was in office.

Daisy Bates was involved in more than the Little Rock Nine.  In January 1956, she led 27 African American students in their attempt to integrate four Little Rock schools.  While the efforts were not successful, they did serve to put the Little Rock School District on notice that the African American community was expecting action on school integration.

In 1959, she was arrested for refusing to provide City leaders with the membership of the local NAACP chapter. The case ended up going to the US Supreme Court as Daisy BATES et al., Petitioners, v. CITY OF LITTLE ROCK et al.  The decision had far-reaching impact in stopping government entities from requiring membership rolls as a means of intimidation or curbing the right of public assembly.

When Mrs. Bates died, a memorial service was held at Robinson Center on April 27, 2000.  Among the speakers were President Bill Clinton, Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, and Rev. Rufus K. Young, pastor of the Bethel AME Church.  Others in attendance included Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, Mayor Jim Dailey, Presidential diarist Janis Kearney, former senator and governor David Pryor, and five members of the Little Rock Nine:  Carlotta Walls Lanier, Ernest Green, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Jefferson Thomas, and Elizabeth Eckford.

It was during his remarks at the service that President Clinton announced he had asked that Bates’ south-central Little Rock home be designated as a national historic landmark.