Little Rock Look Back: Opening of Robinson Center Performance Hall

On February 16, 1940, after three years of planning and construction including several delays due to lack of funding, the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium officially opened. It was a cold, rainy night, but those in attendance did not care.  (The concept of a municipal auditorium for Little Rock had first been raised in 1904, so this evening was truly a long time in the works.)

Searchlights painting arcs in the sky greeted attendees. They were borrowed from the Arkansas National Guard. Newspaper accounts noted that only a few of the men who attended were in tuxedos, most were simply in suits. The work to get the building opened had been so harried, that it was discovered there was not an Arkansas flag to fly in front of the building. Mayor Satterfield found one at the last minute courtesy of the Arkansas Department of the Spanish War Veterans.

The weather delayed arrivals, so the program started fifteen minutes late. Following a performance of Sibelius’ Finlandia by the fledgling Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra, Mayor J. V. Satterfield, Ewilda Robinson (the Senator’s widow), Emily Miller (the Senator’s sister-in-law and a member of the Auditorium Commission) and D. Hodson Lewis of the Chamber of Commerce participated in a brief ribbon cutting ceremony. Mrs Robinson cut the ribbon on her second attempt (once again proving that nothing connected with getting the building open was easy).

The ceremony was originally set to be outside of the building but was moved indoors due to the inclement weather. The ribbon cutting took place on the stage with the ribbon stretched out in front of the curtain. The opening remarks were broadcast on radio station KGHI.

Mr. Lewis, Mrs. Miller and Mayor Satterfield look on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon

Mr. Lewis, Mrs. Miller and Mayor Satterfield look on as Mrs. Robinson cuts the ribbon

Tickets for the event, advertised as being tax exempt, were at four different pricing levels: $2.50, $2.00, $1.50 and $1.00.

The estimated attendance was 1700. Following the ribbon cutting, the main performance took place. The headliner for the grand opening was the San Francisco Opera Ballet accompanied by the new Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra (not related to the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra). The featured soloist with the ballet was Zoe Dell Lantis who was billed as “The Most Photographed Miss at the San Francisco World’s Fair.”

Auditorium Commission chairman E. E. Beaumont, a local banker, noted that while event planners knew the evening of ballet and classical music would not appeal to everyone, it was intended to show the wide range of offerings that would be suitable in the new space.  Earlier in the week, children’s theatre performances had been offered to school groups through the auspices of the Junior League of Little Rock.

At the same time that the gala was going on upstairs in the music hall, a high school basketball double-header was taking place in the downstairs convention hall. North Little Rock lost to Beebe in the first game, while the Little Rock High School Tigers upset Pine Bluff in the marquee game.

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On Lincoln’s Birthday – A Lincoln Viaduct Portrait

Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program

Since today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it is a good day to pay tribute to the Lincoln Avenue Viaduct.  This arched bridge is traversed by thousands of cars each day, with most having no idea the name of the structure.  The Lincoln Avenue Viaduct is the arched bridge connecting LaHarpe with Cantrell Road which (literally) bridges downtown with the west along Highway 10.

The Lincoln Avenue Viaduct is a reinforced concrete rainbow arch bridge. It was opened at 2:05 p.m. on Friday, December 28, 1928, and, despite later alterations, it remains particularly well-preserved. The Missouri Pacific Railroad Company, considered the most important railroad company in the state, constructed the bridge amid a series of improvements in Little Rock made necessary by the damage wrought by the infamous spring floods of 1927.

Though the bridge was constructed by the railroad, the City had to give authorization to do so, this was accomplished by the passing of Ordinance 4,335, at the May 28, 1928, City Council meeting.

Lincoln Avenue was one of several names for stretches of Highway 10 in Little Rock. By the 1960s, the areas west of the Lincoln Avenue viaduct were all renamed Cantrell in honor of the man who had developed much of the area west of the Heights. The longest stretch of the road already carried that name. There had been an effort to rename Highway 10 (including sections named Lincoln, Q, and Cantrell) in Little Rock for Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson in 1930. He declined the offer because he did not want to diminish the contributions of Mr. Cantrell.  Over time the entire stretch bore the name Cantrell.

The stretches east of the viaduct which involved a couple of names were renamed La Harpe Boulevard in honor of the French explorer who first saw the Little Rock. (La Harpe was originally an extension of Riverfront Drive. But with changes to development along the Arkansas River and the coming of I-30, the streets were reconfigured significantly in the 1950s and early 1960s.)

Though the street has been renamed, the bridge still carries the name of the 16th President of the United States.

Little Rock Look Back: Christmas Eve 1937 Groundbreaking for Robinson Auditorium

On December 24, 1937, at 11:30 a.m., Little Rock Mayor R. E. Overman, Ewilda Gertrude Miller Robinson (the widow of Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson) and  Alexander Allaire of the PWA turned dirt to participate in the brief groundbreaking ceremony for Little Rock’s municipal auditorium.

That morning, the Arkansas Gazette ran a brief story on the upcoming groundbreaking.  The story mentioned that the building would be named in memory of the late beloved Arkansas politician.  This appears to be the first public pronouncement of the Robinson name for this civic structure.

Among others in attendance at the groundbreaking were Mrs. Charles Miller (sister-in-law of Mrs. Robinson), Mr. and Mrs. Grady Miller (brother and sister-in-law of Mrs. Robinson), the mayor’s wife, the three architects (George Wittenberg, Lawson Delony and Eugene John Stern), and D. H. Daugherty and Will Terry of the City’s Board of Public Affairs.

Construction had to start by January 1, 1938, in order to receive PWA funds.  By breaking ground on December 24, there was over a week to spare.  The site had been selected in late October 1937, and the purchase had not been finalized.  But the PWA did give permission for the City to let a contract for excavation, demolition and filling on the site.

The groundbreaking took place at the corner of Garland and Spring Streets which was on the northeast corner of the block set aside for the auditorium.  Today, Spring Street does not extend north of Markham; the street was closed to make way for the parking structure and what is now the Doubletree Hotel.  Garland Street is basically an alley that runs parallel to Markham north of City Hall, Robinson Auditorium and the Doubletree Hotel.

Little Rock Look Back: Mayor W. E. Lenon

OMayor Lenonn October 8, 1867 in Panora, Iowa, future Little Rock Mayor Warren E. Lenon was born.  He was one of eleven children of John D. and Margaret M. Long Lenon.

Lenon came to Little Rock in 1888 after finishing his schooling in Iowa.  He helped set up an abstract company shortly after his arrival.  In 1902 he organized the Peoples Savings Bank.  Among his other business interests were the City Realty Company, the Factory Land Company, the Mountain Park Land Company, and the Pulaski Heights Land Company.

From 1895 to 1903, he was a Little Rock alderman, and in 1903, he was elected Mayor of the city. A progressive Mayor, he championed the construction of a new City Hall which opened in 1908.  At the first meeting of the City Council in that building, Mayor Lenon tendered his resignation.  His duties in his various business interests were taking up too much of his time.

Mayor Lenon had been a champion for the establishment of a municipal auditorium. He had wanted to include one in the new City Hall complex. But a court deemed it not permissible under Arkansas finance laws at the time.  He also worked to help establish the first Carnegie Library in Little Rock which opened in 1912.

Mayor Lenon continued to serve in a variety of public capacities after leaving office.  In the 1920s, he briefly chaired a public facilities board for an auditorium district. It appeared he would see his dream fulfilled of a municipal auditorium.  Unfortunately the Arkansas Supreme Court declared the enabling legislation invalid.

In 1889, he married Clara M. Mercer.  The couple had three children, two of whom survived him: a son W. E. Lenon Jr., and a daughter Vivion Mercer Lenon Brewer.  Together with Adolphine Fletcher Terry (also a daughter of a LR Mayor), Mrs. Brewer was a leader of the Women’s Emergency Committee.

Mayor Lenon died June 25, 1946 and is buried at Roselawn Cemetery.  Lenon Drive just off University Avenue is named after Mayor Lenon.

LR Culture Vulture turns 7

The Little Rock Culture Vulture debuted on Saturday, October 1, 2011, to kick off Arts & Humanities Month.

The first feature was on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which was kicking off its 2011-2012 season that evening.  The program consisted of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, Rossini’s, Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, Puccini’s Chrysanthemums and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.  In addition to the orchestra musicians, there was an organ on stage for this concert.

Since then, there have been 10,107 persons/places/things “tagged” in the blog.  This is the 3,773rd entry. (The symmetry to the number is purely coincidental–or is it?)  It has been viewed over 288,600 times, and over 400 readers have made comments.  It is apparently also a reference on Wikipedia.

The most popular pieces have been about Little Rock history and about people in Little Rock.

How a former Little Rock alderman played a role in the naming of Razorback’s stadium

Razorback Stadium as it would have looked when it was Bailey Stadium

What is now known as Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium first opened in September 24, 1938 as University Stadium.  A few days later it was renamed to Bailey Stadium in honor of Arkansas’ then current governor, Carl Bailey.  He had just been renominated to a second two year term and was expected to easily glide to a victory in November over a nominal GOP opponent, which he did.

Two years later, Homer Adkins, a former Little Rock alderman who had been aligned with Bailey foe Joe T. Robinson, challenged Bailey as the latter sought a third term.  Bailey and Adkins had long been opponents, but had never faced off personally.  In the August 1940 primary, Adkins bested Bailey.

The animosity between Bailey and Adkins apparently stemmed from the time that Bailey, as prosecuting attorney, filed charges against a friend of Sen. Robinson.  Though the friend was eventually pardoned, Robinson and his political circle did not forgive Bailey.  The fact that Bailey backed Brooks Hays, who opposed Robinson, did not help matters.  By the mid 1930s, Arkansas Democrats were clustered around either Bailey or Adkins.

Adkins had served on the Little Rock City Council from April 1930 until April 1934.  He previously had been Sheriff of Pulaski County.  At the suggestion of Sen. Robinson, President Roosevelt had appointed Adkins as collector of internal revenue. Given all of the federal programs that took place in Arkansas throughout the 1930s, Adkins was well positioned to strengthen his political network.  He stepped down from the job when he challenged Bailey in 1940.

Obviously, by 1941 the new governor was none too pleased that the football stadium of the state’s flagship university bore the name of his vanquished foe.  By the time the 1941 football season came around, the stadium was known as Razorback Stadium.  It held that name from 1941 until the September 8, 2001, rechristening with its current name.

And what of Adkins and Bailey?  The two longtime foes united to back Sid McMath in his gubernatorial efforts. But the reconciliation was only for political purposes.  However, both lie buried in Roselawn Cemetery in Little Rock.

Little Rock Look Back: Memorial Services for Senator Robinson

As Arizona Senator John McCain is being remembered in a series of memorial services, it seems an appropriate time to recall the series of services for Arkansas’ senator who was on a national party ticket. That man was Joseph Taylor Robinson.

Like Senator McCain, Senator Robinson was honored in services both in the state he represented as well as at the US Capitol.

Senator Robinson died in Washington D.C. on July 14, 1937.  His wife was in Little Rock making preparations for a trip the couple was to take. Following his demise, Mrs. Robinson went to Washington to accompany her husband’s body back to Arkansas.

The Senator was honored with a memorial service in the Senate chambers on Friday, July 17.  President Roosevelt and the cabinet joined members of the senate on the floor in what was described as a state funeral without pomp.  Mrs. Robinson sat with her brothers and two nephews as well as Bernard Baruch and Arkansas Power & Light’s Harvey Couch, who were Senator Robinson’s closest friends.  Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the many crowded in the senate galleries observing the service.  Following the service his body remained in the chambers until it was transferred to a train to make the journey to Little Rock.

The funeral train bore his body, his family, 50 senators and over twenty congressmen. It reached Little Rock around 8am on Sunday the 19th.  From there, Senator Robinson’s body was taken to his house on Broadway Street until noon.  It subsequently lay in state at the Arkansas State Capitol until being escorted by military to First Methodist Church.

1,500 people packed the church a half hour before the service began. The sun shone through the windows onto the flag-draped coffin as Rev. H. Bascom Watts led the service. Among the pallbearers was former Vice President Charles G. Dawes. Governor Carl Bailey of Arkansas was joined by Governors Richard Leche of Louisiana and E.W. Marland of Oklahoma.

As the funeral procession reached Roselawn Cemetery, thunder echoed. The skies which had alternated between sun and rain that day, returned to rain. A deluge greeted the end of the service and sent visitors hurrying for shelter at the end.