Little Rock Look Back: Little Rock named Capital of Arkansas

On October 18, 1820, Territorial Governor James Miller signed legislation designating Little Rock as the new capital for Arkansas.  This was a mere 10 months after the first permanent settlement was established in Little Rock.

While Little Rock became the Capital, technically it was not the Capital City, since it would not be incorporated as a City until 1835. It wasn’t even incorporated as a town until 1831.

The Act provided that after June 1, 1821, the sessions of the Legislature and the Superior Court would be held at Little Rock.  This caused Arkansas Post, the first territorial capital, to fade from prominence.

The move was made based on the lobbying of Amos Wheeler, Chester Ashley and William Russell.  These men all owned land in the Little Rock area and would benefit from the move of the Capital to Little Rock. The official reason given was Little Rock’s geographical center to the Arkansas Territory and that it was elevated land less prone to flooding.

But just as important, Messrs. Wheeler, Ashley and Russell promised to donate land for a capitol building and a guarantee of $20,000 for construction of a suitable building. (That would be the equivalent of $432,000 today.)

Around the time the legislation was approved, several members of the Territorial legislature purchased land around Little Rock.  When a subsequent effort to relocate the Capital upstream was launched, it failed due to the financial ties of these legislators to land in Little Rock.

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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.

Little Rock Look Back: Sharon Priest

Little Rock’s 70th mayor, Sharon Priest, celebrates her birthday on September 12.

She began her public service at the grassroots level when she led the effort to bring flood relief to Southwest Little Rock and Pulaski County following the devastating flood of 1978 that killed 13 people in central Arkansas.

Sharon was appointed to the Little Rock City Beautiful Commission.  Following that, she challenged an incumbent City Director and won her first elective office in 1986. In January 1989, she was named Vice Mayor of Little Rock by her colleagues on the City Board.  Two years later, she was selected Mayor becoming only the second female to serve as Mayor of Little Rock.  During her service to the City of Little Rock, she spearheaded the effort to create a Little Rock flag.  At the conclusion of her second four year term on the City Board, she decided to run for Secretary of State.

In November 1994, she elected Secretary of State, becoming the first woman to be elected to that position in Arkansas.  She was reelected in 1998.   In the summer of 2000, she became President of the National Association of Secretaries of State. After the 2000 presidential election, she was thrust into the forefront of the movement toward election reform. Ms. Priest testified before U.S. House and Senate Committees on election reform. As Secretary of State, restoring the Governor’s Reception Room and the Old Supreme Court Chamber of the State Capitol to their original splendor and restoring the rotunda marble are a few of her proudest achievements.

In January 2003, Priest was selected to serve as Executive Director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. She served in that capacity until early 2015.  She has also been a leading champion for the redevelopment of MacArthur Park, the City’s oldest park.

Ben Piazza – born in LR 85 years ago

Actor-director-playwright-author Ben Piazza was born on July 30, 1933, in Little Rock.  Piazza graduated from Little Rock High School in 1951 as valedictorian. He also had starred in the senior play that year (The Man Who Came to Dinner) and edited the literary magazine.

Piazza attended college at Princeton University and graduated in 1955.  While there he continued acting, including an appearance in a Theatre Intime production of Othello.

In February 1958, he starred in Winesburg, Ohio sharing the National (now Nederlander) Theatre stage with James Whitmore, Dorothy McGuire, and Leon Ames. In April 1959, Piazza starred in Kataki at the Ambassador Theatre.  For his performance, Piazza received one of the 1959 Theatre World Awards.

Piazza started the 1960s on Broadway starring at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in A Second String with Shirley Booth, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Nina Foch, Cathleen Nesbitt, and Carrie Nye.   Following that, he started his association with Edward Albee by appearing as the title character in The American Dream.  That play opened at the York Playhouse in January 1961.  Later that year, he appeared in Albee’s The Zoo Story opposite original cast member William Daniels at the East End Theatre.

In February 1963, he took over the role of Nick in the original run of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when original actor George Grizzard left to play Hamlet at the Guthrie Theatre.  (He had participated in earlier readings of the play prior to it being mounted on Broadway.)

Piazza played Nick for the remainder of the run and acted with Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, fellow Arkansan Melinda Dillon, Eileen Fulton, Nancy Kelly, Mercedes McCambridge, Rochelle Oliver and Sheppard Strudwick.

During the run of this show, Piazza’s novel The Exact and Very Strange Truth was published.  It is a fictionalized account of his growing up in Little Rock during the 1930s and 1940s.  The book is filled with references to Centennial Elementary, West Side Junior High, Central High School, Immanuel Baptist Church and various stores and shops in Little Rock during that era.  The Piazza Shoe Store, located on Main Street, was called Gallanti’s.

He appeared with Alfred Drake in The Song of the Grasshopper in September 1967.  In 1968, he returned to Albee and starred in The Death of Bessie Smith and The Zoo Story in repertory on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre.

Later that season, in March 1969, his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse.  Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Piazza toured in many plays nationally and internationally. As the 1970s progressed, he turned his focus to television and movies.

Piazza’s film debut was in a 1959 Canadian film called The Dangerous Age. That same year, his Hollywood film debut came opposite Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, Maria Schell and George C. Scott in The Hanging Tree.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a number of TV shows.  He had a recurring role during one season of Ben Casey and appeared on the soap opera Love of Life. In the 1970s, he starred in the films Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon; The Candy Snatchers and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.  He also starred as the City Councilman who recruits Walter Matthau to coach a baseball team inThe Bad News Bears.

Among his numerous TV appearances in the 1970s were The Waltons, Mannix, Switch, Barnaby Jones, Gunsmoke, Mod Squad and Lou Grant . In the 1980s, he appeared in The Blues Brothers, The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, Hart to Hart, Family Ties, The Winds of War, Dallas, Dynasty, Too Close for Comfort, The A Team, Saint Elsewhere, Santa Barbara, The Facts of Life, Mr. Belvedere, Moonlighting and Matlock.

Piazza’s final big screen appearance was in the 1991 film Guilty by Suspicion.  He played studio head Darryl Zanuck in this Robert DeNiro-Annette Bening tale of Hollywood during the Red scare.

Ben Piazza died on September 7, 1991.

In November 2016, a room at the Robinson Conference Center was dedicated to his memory.

Little Rock Look Back: Plans Approved for new City Hall in 1906. But will it be built?

The 1906 plans for City Hall with the Municipal Auditorium on the left portion.

On July 9, 1906, the Little Rock City Council approved Resolution 281 and Ordinance 1,295. These actions approved the plans for a new City Hall complex to be constructed on land at the northwest corner of Markham and Broadway Streets.  A few days later, the contract was awarded for the construction of the new building.

Mayor Warren E. Lenon had first called for a new city hall complex in his annual address in April 1904. He repeated his request in April 1905.   The City Council took up Mayor Lenon’s quest for a new city hall in December of 1905.  The Council appropriated money for the purchase of land for a city hall, jail and auditorium.

In response to this, the Arkansas Gazette daily newspaper ran a story featuring the viewpoints of a few civic leaders weighing in on the need for a new city hall complex which would also include a new jail and a city auditorium.  Two of the respondents, L. B. Leigh and P. Raleigh, stressed the need for paved streets and better sewers instead of a new city hall and auditorium.

The other three businessmen interviewed were more favorable to Mayor Lenon’s proposal.  Morris M. Cohn, a former Little Rock City Attorney, stated “I do not think we can make a better investment than in a fine city hall and auditorium.”  (Mr. Cohn, though an M. M. Cohn, was not related the M. M. Cohn who was the namesake for the longtime Little Rock department store.) County Judge William Marmaduke Kavanaugh offered his satisfaction with the action of the City Council on that matter.  R. E. Walt, a banker, opined that he thought $150,000 was not enough; he suggested $200,000 should be spent.

Later that month the Gazette reported that a site had been selected for the city hall and auditorium complex.  The proposed location was most of a city block located at the corner of Markham and Broadway Streets.  Mayor Lenon was vague as to the details of the deal because negotiations were still underway with the property owners

As 1906 dawned, Mayor Lenon and other city leaders continued to take steps to build the new city hall and auditorium.  They invited three local architects to make presentations for the chance to design the new complex.  The three were Charles L. Thompson, Frank W. Gibb and George R. Mann.  Mr. Thompson was chosen to receive the assignment.

On February 5, 1906, Mayor Lenon announced the creation of a special committee to work on the planning for a future city hall complex.  This committee consisted of Aldermen Louis Walther, A. B. Poe, L. N. Whitcomb, Christopher Ledwidge, and John A. Adams.

Mayor Lenon further stated that the new city hall complex and several private developments would “put us in that march of progress with which nothing can prevent us from having a 100,000 population in a few years.”

The saga to get the building built was just starting.

Little Rock Look Back: Sam M Wassell

On April 28, 1883, future Little Rock Mayor Sam M. Wassell was born.  His grandfather John W. Wassell had been appointed Mayor of Little Rock in 1868.  He is the only Little Rock Mayor to be a grandson of another Little Rock Mayor.

Sam Wassell served on the Little Rock City Council from 1928 through 1934 and again from 1940 through 1946.  He is one of the few 20th Century Little Rock Mayors who previously served on the City Council.

Wassell was an attorney; he practiced law privately and also served as an Assistant US Attorney.  In 1930, he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the US Congress representing the 5th Congressional District, which at the time included Little Rock.

Wassell ran for Mayor in 1947 and was unopposed in the general election.  (Though the Democratic primary was heated as he took on the incumbent Dan Sprick.)   He was unopposed in his bid for re-election in 1949.  During his second term, President Harry S. Truman visited Little Rock.  In 1951, he sought a third term as Mayor.  No Little Rock Mayor had been successful in achieving a third consecutive term since 1923.  Though he received the Democratic nomination, the Republican party nominated Pratt Remmel who defeated Wassell by a 2 to 1 margin.

With a new USS Little Rock recently put into naval service, it is interesting to note that Wassell’s wife, Ruth Wassell christened the previous USS Little Rock in 1944.

Mayor Wassell died on December 23, 1954 and is buried at Roselawn Cemetery in Little Rock.

Little Rock Look Back: La Harpe and La Petite Roche

On April 9, 1722, French explorer Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe rounded the bend of the Arkansas River and saw La Petite Roche and Le Rocher Français.  He had entered the mouth of the Arkansas River on February 27 after traveling up the Mississippi River from New Orleans.

Though La Harpe and his expedition are the first Europeans documented to have seen La Petite Roche, the outcropping of rocks was well-known to the Quapaw Indians in the area.  The outcropping jutted out in the Arkansas River and created a natural harbor which provided a perfect place for boats to land.

The rock outcropping is the first one visible along the banks of the Arkansas River.  It marks the place where the Mississippi Delta meets the Ouachita Mountains.  Geologists now believe that the Little Rock is not the same type of rock as the Ouachita Mountains and more closely matches the composition and age of mountains in the western US.

In 1813, William Lewis became the first European settler to live near La Petite Roche but only stayed a few months.  Speculators and trappers continued to visit the area throughout the 1810s. During that time, the outcropping became known informally as the Little Rock.

La Petite Roche had become a well-known crossing when the Arkansas Territory was established in 1819. The permanent settlement of ‘The Rock’ began in the spring of 1820, and the first building has been described as a cabin, or shanty, and was built on the bank of the river near the ‘Rock.’ In March 1820, a Post Office was established at the ‘Rock’ with the name “Little Rock.”

Over the years, La Petite Roche was altered.  In 1872, Congress authorized the building of a railroad bridge. A pier for the bridge was built at the location of the La Petite Roche which caused the removal of several tons of rock.  The bridge was never built.  When the Junction Bridge was built in 1899, even more rock was removed in the process of erecting part of the bridge on top of the rock.  It was not viewed as being disrespectful of the City’s namesake at the time.  Indeed, it was viewed as a testament to the sturdiness of the rock.

In 2010, La Petite Roche plaza opened in Riverfront Park.  It celebrates the history of La Petite Roche and explores its importance to various aspects of Little Rock’s history and geography.