Start of Little Rock’s park system with land swap to create Arsenal Park

April 23, 1892, marked the beginning of the City of Little Rock’s public park sLR City Parkystem.  On that date, the City officially took possession of land which would become what is now known as MacArthur Park.

The park land had originally served as a horse racetrack in the early days of Little Rock.  By 1836, the federal government purchased the land for construction of a military arsenal.  The flagship building, the Arsenal Tower building, is the only remaining structure from that time period.

The land served as a military outpost until 1892.  On April 23, 1892, a land swap took place where in the City of Little Rock was given the property with the stipulation that it would be “forever exclusively devoted to the uses and purposes of a public park.” (Never mind that the federal government took part of the land back for the construction of the Wilbur Mills Freeway.)  In return for giving the City this land, the federal government took possession of land on the north side of the Arkansas River (then part of Little Rock) – that 1,000 acres became Fort Logan H. Roots.

After clearing most of the buildings from the land and preparing it for recreation, the park opened on July 4, 1893, with the name Arsenal Park. Since it was the City’s first and only park at the time, residents started referring to it as City Park. In time, the designation Arsenal Park fell from use.  In fact, it is referred to as City Park exclusively and officially in City documents throughout the first 42 years of the 20th Century.

The City Council’s action to name it MacArthur Park in March 1942, was accompanied by petitions encouraging the action which were submitted by the Arkansas Authors and Composers Society, the Arkansas Engineers Club and the Pulaski County Republican Central Committee.

City records do not indicate if anyone registered opposition to the name change. It would be another decade before General MacArthur would return to the site of his birth, a place he had not visited since his infancy.

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Little Rock City Hall turns 111 today

City Hall circa 1908

111 years ago today, Little Rock City Hall officially opened at the corner of Markham and Broadway.

On April 15, 1908, the Italian Renaissance Revival style building, which had been designed by local architect Charles Thompson, played host to an open house. Staff had started moving into the building in March of that year.   This was, as often is the case, behind schedule.  The date in the cornice toward the top of the building is 1907, but the building was not completed until 1908.

An open house took place on April 15, 1908, presided over by Mayor John Herndon Hollis and his wife as well as former Mayor W. E. Lenon and his wife.  (Mayor Hollis’ wife is a distant cousin of the Culture Vulture.)

In 1903, W. E. Lenon became Mayor of Little Rock. Back then, the terms were two-year terms.  Before the start of his second term in 1905, he realized that the City was outgrowing City Hall, which was, at the time, on the northeast corner of Markham and Louisiana – where part of the Statehouse Convention Center sits today.

In February 1906, Mayor Lenon appointed a committee of five aldermen to over see the planning for the building of a new City Hall. In July 1906, the City Council approved plans, which called for a City Hall with an municipal auditorium wing. There was some hue and cry about the cost spending and a resulting lawsuit, so, in September 1906, those plans were scrapped and a simpler City Hall was approved for the cost of $175,000.

The last resolution in the old City Hall called for the banning of smoking in the new Council Chambers – while the Council was in session. This may well have been the first smoking ban in a public government building in the history of Arkansas.

When the building opened, the third floor was not finished out. The space was not needed. When the Museum of Natural History and Antiquities (now the Museum of Discovery) moved into City Hall in 1929, they had to finish out their space.

In 1913, the new Central Fire Station, designed in the Beaux Arts style, was constructed adjacent to City Hall. During the 1930s, as the City grew, more space was needed. A garage, designed in the “austere, utilitarian” style was built in 1936 and a City Jail Annex, built by the WPA in the modified Art Deco style was built in 1938.

By 1984, the decision was made to stay at Markham and Broadway. An extensive renovation and restoration effort was undertaken. In 1988, the building reopened, and the interior had been restored to its 1908 appearance.

Little Rock Look Back: First Basketball Game in Little Rock

Very few sports can have a definitive “this was the first game in Little Rock” moment. But basketball does.

On April 7, 1893, the Arkansas Gazette ran stories about the final day of horse racing at Clinton Park racetrack (the park stretched roughly from what is today’s Clinton Presidential Park through the East Village to Clinton National Airport), the men who were soon to take office as aldermen met to plan for their upcoming City Council terms, and a preview of a new sport coming to Little Rock.

Less than two years earlier in Springfield, Massachusetts, a YMCA instructor named James Naismith had invented the new game of Basket Ball (then spelled with two words).  The sport caught on in popularity and spread throughout the country through the network of YMCAs.

Now, on April 7, 1893, Little Rock residents would get their first glimpse of the game.  Two hundred men and women gathered at the Little Rock YMCA (located at the northeast corner of Fourth and Main Streets) to see the game, which started at 8:30pm.

The Little Rock YMCA team (which had only formed the night before) took on the Pine Bluff YMCA team.  The Pine Bluff young men had been practicing for six months.  The results of the game reflected that.  At the end, Pine Bluff had scored 70 points and Little Rock had scored 9 points.

Following the game, the Little Rock chapter hosted both teams for refreshments.  Little Rock was scheduled to go to Pine Bluff to play again during the YMCA statewide convention at the end of April.

From those meager beginnings, Little Rock has seen its fair share of basketball triumphs.

Little Rock Look Back: First City Council meeting in current LR City Hall

City Hall circa 1908

On April 6, 1908, the first City Council meeting took place in the new Little Rock City Hall.  Located at the corner of Markham and Broadway Streets, this three story structure was designed by Charles L. Thompson.

The idea of a new City Hall had first been raised by Mayor W. E. Lenon in 1904.  After a couple of false starts and delays, the project finally got underway in the autumn of 1906.  (The date on the front of the building is the optimistic and ultimately wrong 1907.  But it is etched in stone and set into the exterior.)

City offices started moving in during January and February 1908 while construction continued.  By the end of March, the building was complete and all offices moved in.  The final City Council meeting in the 1868 City Hall took place on March 30.  One week later, the body reassembled in their new space.

All sixteen of the aldermen were present for this meeting, which was a rare occurrence.  The regular order of business was dispensed with except for approval of payments for the bills and payroll for March.  That totaled $25,719.56. (This is the equivalent of $664,729.65 in 2018).

The floor was then turned over to Mayor Lenon to make an announcement.  In his remarks, the Mayor praised the new building, and then stated he was resigning immediately.  His business interests were such that he did not have time to be mayor.

The Council reluctantly accepted the resignation.  Because there was over a year remaining in the term, a special election would need to be called to select a successor.  If Mayor Lenon had waited two more weeks to resign, the Council would have appointed a new mayor for the duration of the term.

Alderman John Herndon Hollis was chosen to serve as mayor until the special election could be held.  First elected in 1904, he was about to start his third term as an alderman.  Though he did not have to give up his seat (and in fact served as an alderman until 1918), he was referred to as Mayor Hollis during his brief tenure.  He is counted as one of Little Rock’s mayors.  Unlike other times where there was an acting mayor while a mayor was out of town, in 1908, there was no other mayor for whom Mayor Hollis was acting in absentia.

After the selection of the new mayor, a committee was appointed to draft a resolution praising retiring Mayor Lenon.  The final business at the meeting was the reading of a resolution memorializing longtime City Clerk H. Clay Jones.  The former city official had died in March.

Women Making History – LR City Council member Carolyn Craig

Carolyn Conner was elected to the Little Rock City Council in April 1931. She was initially elected to fill out the remaining year of her husband’s term on the Little Rock City Council. She received 551 votes, or 61.6% besting two male candidates.

She was not the first woman to run for City Council.  In 1924, Mrs. George M. Waller challenged Charles M. Connor (no relation to Carolyn Conner).

In 1932, Carolyn Conner was reelected and would continue to serve on the council until April 1942, winning a total of six elections.  Mrs. Conner was the first woman to be elected to any City of Little Rock office.  She was also the first to chair a council committee, leading the Civic Affairs Committee from 1933 to 1935. On October 16, 1933, she was chosen as Acting Mayor becoming the first woman to lead the City of Little Rock and preside at a council meeting.

In December 1939, she also became the first female alderman to be arrested for contempt of court along with eleven of her male colleagues.  The judge did not send her to jail, though he did the male aldermen.  At the end of the day their sentences were suspended.

In April 1941, Mildred Craig joined Mrs. Conner on the Council after being elected to finish out her husband’s term.  Their service marked the first time there were two women on the City Council.

Little Rock Look Back: John Herndon Hollis

On February 5, 1870, future Little Rock alderman and acting mayor John Herndon Hollis was born shortly before his family moved to what is now Cleveland County. His parents were originally from Georgia and came from prosperous and longtime families there.

The Hollis family came to Arkansas after the Civil War and settled in Union County. A portion of that county was carved off and became Dorsey County (named after a Republican US Senator from Arkansas) but was renamed Cleveland County after Grover Cleveland was elected President. Cleveland was the first Democrat to be elected President in over 20 years. This name change also reflected the political shift in Arkansas from the Reconstruction-led Republican politics to the Democratic Party politics which would dominate for the next century.

John Herndon Hollis was one of six children, and the only one with a middle name. Herndon had been his mother’s maiden name. As one of his brothers described their childhood in Cleveland County, “they all went to country schools in their home neighborhood, worked hard on the farm in the summertime, and were inside their little Methodist Church every time the doors were open.”

Around 1900, Hollis and his new wife Malinda M. “Linda” Taliaferro Hollis (formerly of Rison) moved to Little Rock.  Together the couple had six children. In Little Rock, Hollis worked in the banking industry. For years he worked for People’s Building and Loan Association.

Hollis was first elected to the Little Rock City Council in April 1904. He would serve as one of the Aldermen from the city’s Fourth Ward until April 1918.  This was on the western border of Little Rock at the time. The family lived at 1510 S. Schiller, which is one block east of Central High, though at the time neither the school nor its predecessor (West End Park) existed.  From 1907 until 1913 he also served on the Little Rock School Board.

In April 1908, at the first City Council meeting in the new City Hall, Mayor W. E. Lenon announced his resignation. Because the resignation was effective immediately, there was a vacancy in the office of mayor.  Hollis was selected by his colleagues to serve as acting mayor until a successor could be elected. So from April 1908 through June 1908, Hollis was the City’s chief political and executive leader.

Though he was never formally mayor (and did not resign his position as alderman), since 1908, Hollis’ name has appeared on the list of mayors of Little Rock. The reason seems to be as a sign of respect since there was a vacancy.

There previously had been acting mayors when the mayor would be absent on business or due to illness. But in those instances, the mayor had not resigned. This is the only instance in Little Rock history when a mayor resigned immediately with no successor in place. So John Herndon Hollis holds a unique role in Little Rock history.

After leaving the City Council, Hollis remained active in civic affairs.  He co-chaired a successful campaign in 1929, to raise a tax for a variety of civic issues.

Hollis’ wife died in 1920.  He later married Ann Jewell of Little Rock (who was a cousin of his first wife). They were married until his death on October 23, 1941.  Ann Hollis lived in Little Rock until her death in 1980.  The Hollis family is entombed in the mausoleum at Mount Holly Cemetery.

Both of John Herndon Hollis’ wives are distant cousins of the Culture Vulture, so he is particularly fond of John Herndon Hollis.

Little Rock Look Back: Opening of Little Rock Public Library

On February 2, 1910, the Little Rock Public Library officially opened its doors.  There had been an open house the night before, but this was the first day of acquiring a library card and checking out books.

Various private libraries had existed sporadically in Little Rock throughout the 19th Century.  In November 1900, a Little Rock School District committee made the first inquiry into the the creation of a Carnegie Library in Little Rock.  Over the next several years, numerous entreaties were made, but funding for the City’s portion was an obstacle.  On December 17, 1906, the Little Rock City Council passed an ordinance to move forward with building, furnishing and equipping a library.  Finally, in February 1908, the City approved acceptance of $88,100 from Andrew Carnegie.  The building would be designed by Edward Tilton, who designed Carnegie libraries, working with local architect Charles Thompson.

Mary Maud Pugsley was hired as the first librarian for Little Rock in May 1909. She began her duties on September 15, 1909, in order to get ready for the opening of the library at the southwest corner of 7th and Louisiana Streets.

On February 2, 1910, formal circulation of books began.  J. N. Heiskell was issued library card number 1.  He was secretary of the Library’s Board of Trustees and had long been an advocate for a public library in Little Rock.  He had often used his bully pulpit as editor of the Arkansas Gazette to advocate for a public library since arriving in Little Rock in 1902.  (Years later — he lived until 1972 — he received a replica of the library card made out of gold.)

That first day of operation, 500 people had applied for library cards. The application process required one to be a Little Rock property owner or to have a property owner sign the application.

Within the first year of operation, 2.5% of Little Rock’s population of 45,951 had applied for a library card.

For more on the history of the transformation of the Little Rock Public Library into the Central Arkansas Library System, read Shirley Schuette and Nathania Sawyer’s From Carnegie to Cyberspace — 100 Years at the Central Arkansas Library System, published by Butler Center Books.