Little Rock Look Back: The Rices and Little Rock auditoriums

On June 7, 1920, the Little Rock City Council finally authorized the demolition of Little Rock’s 1906 temporary auditorium.  The structure had originally been built as a skating rink which, when chairs were added, could be used for public meetings.  Since the mid 1910’s, the City Council had discussed tearing it down over safety concerns.  But since Little Rock had no other structure as a substitute, the Council kept delaying the decision.

J Rice 1920In 1920, though there was not alternative space available, the Council decided that the structure had to come down.  So City Engineer James H. Rice was authorized to have the building removed.

JimRice RobinsonToday, Rice’s grandson, Jim Rice, is the COO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.

In that capacity he  oversaw the renovation of Little Rock’s 1940 municipal auditorium – Robinson Center Performance Hall.

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Little Rock Look Back: LR votes to Restore Robinson!

restore-robinson-121013On 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 Also, structural, mechanical and electrical issues, public circulation and outdated conference center spaces existed within the facility.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.

Arkansas Heritage Month – LR Mayor Brickhouse and a Municipal Auditorium

Brickhouse AuditIn anticipation of the November 2016 reopening of Robinson Center Music Hall, this week’s Arkansas Heritage Month entries look at seven Little Rock Mayors who worked on proposals for a municipal auditorium between 1904 and 1940.

Former Alderman Ben D. Brickhouse took office as mayor in April 1919.  As an alderman, he had been party to the discussions and hand-wringing over the existing “temporary” auditorium, which was twelve years old at the time.  In June 1920, he and the City Council authorized City Engineer James Rice to have the building demolished.  (Rice’s grandson Jim Rice is an integral member of the team overseeing the restoration of Robinson Center Music Hall.)

On what seemed to be an annual basis, Brickhouse entertained options for a new municipal auditorium.  Sometimes it would be private groups, on at least one occasion, Mayor Brickhouse himself led the effort.  Funding and location always seemed to be stumbling blocks.  Arkansas law forbade the use of public dollars on an auditorium, so the money would have to be raised privately. Few private entities had the money for this type of project.  Another temporary auditorium had been proposed for City Park (now MacArthur Park), but aldermen balked at the expense for a temporary building.

During the Brickhouse administration, the Hotel Marion was the main site for conventions. The auditorium at the Little Rock High School (later East Side Junior High) was used frequently for performances.

Mayor Brickhouse worked behind the scenes to have the Arkansas General Assembly pass legislation to allow for the creation of an auditorium taxing district, much like a street improvement district. In May 1925 Little Rock voters would be given the chance to approve this.  But Brickhouse would not be mayor by the time that election came around.  He was defeated in his bid for a fourth term and left office in April 1925.

Ben D. Brickhouse did return to public service in 1938, when he was elected to the Arkansas General Assembly.  He was reelected in 1940 and died in June 1941.

LR Look Back: The Rice Family and LR Auditorums

1906 LR auditoriumOn June 7, 1920, the Little Rock City Council finally authorized the demolition of Little Rock’s 1906 temporary auditorium.  The structure had originally been built as a skating rink which, when chairs were added, could be used for public meetings.  Since the mid 1910’s, the City Council had discussed tearing it down over safety concerns.  But since Little Rock had no other structure as a substitute, the Council kept delaying the decision.

J Rice 1920In 1920, though there was not alternative space available, the Council decided that the structure had to come down.  So City Engineer James H. Rice was authorized to have the building removed.

JimRice RobinsonToday, Rice’s grandson, also known as Jim Rice is the COO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.  In that capacity he is overseeing the renovation of Little Rock’s 1940 municipal auditorium – Robinson Center Music Hall.