Twenty-two years after authorizing the creation of the Museum of Fine Arts in City Park, the Little Rock City Council was asked to consider expanding the facility.
By 1957, the existing structure was felt to be inadequate. There was a desire for more gallery space as well as for more space for educational programming.
On July 8, 1957, the Little Rock City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the Board of the Museum of Fine Arts to be able to raise the funds for an expansion. This was merely the start of the process which would eventually lead to the creation of the Arkansas Arts Center.
The ordinance allowed for the expansion or extension of the building. It also authorized the museum’s board to accept gifts for the project and to invest those gifts for the purpose of the museum. Since the museum only received City funds for maintenance and salary, the ability to raise funds for the expansion was key to the future of the institution.
Lastly, the ordinance gave the museum’s board the ability to increase its membership by up to six positions without having to get additional approval by the City Council. With a fundraising drive underway and a larger facility planned, these additional board members could certainly prove to be key.
The ordinance passed with nine Ayes, zero Noes, and one absent.
On July 4, 1893, Arsenal Park opened in Little Rock. This was the City’s first municipal public park. Though it predated the establishment of a formal Parks and Recreation Department by several decades, it is the oldest part of that department.
The land now known as MacArthur Park 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.) Congressman William L. Terry was active in negotiating the land swap.
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.
The park officially 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.
On March 9, 1942, Little Rock’s first public park was renamed by the Little Rock City Council. By a vote of fourteen ayes, zero nays and four absent, the alderman approved Ordinance 6,388 which renamed the park in honor of General Douglas MacArthur.
In 1952, General MacArthur (contemplating a run for the GOP nomination for President) visited Little Rock in March. Later that year, the eventual GOP nominee (and 34th US President) General Dwight Eisenhower visited the park.
Today, MacArthur Park is the anchor of the burgeoning MacPark district as well as the MacArthur Park Historic Distric.
On May 6, 1935, the Little Rock City Council formally established the Museum of Fine Arts by Ordinance 5235. The ordinance was sponsored by Alderman Henry G. Leiser.
The ordinance authorized the construction of the museum in City Park. The money for the construction was all privately raised. Once the building was completed, it would become the property of the City.
The ordinance also created the museum’s board. The original members were named by the ordinance. They were: Fred W. Allsopp (appointed as a life member), Mrs. Frederick Hanger, Mrs. F.B.T. Hollenberg, George B. Rose, Mrs. C.M. Taylor, Mrs. Frank Tillar, and Dr. Frank Vinsonhaler. In addition, the Mayor and President of the Fine Arts Club were ex-officio members.
The building would start construction in 1936. The groundbreaking was in January 1936, and the cornerstone was laid in October 1936. The Museum of Fine Arts opened in October 1937.
April 23, 1892, marked the beginning of the City of Little Rock’s public park system. 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.
The John Hughes classic The Breakfast Club takes place on March 24, 1984, a Saturday. Inside the library of the fictional school is a replica of Henry Moore’s Large Standing Figure: Knife Edge.
Earlier this week, the Little Rock City Board of Directors voted to accept the sculpture from the Metrocentre Improvement District in exchange for land. The sculpture (which arrived in Little Rock in 1978) will be moved eventually to MacArthur Park to be placed at the entrance of the Arkansas Arts Center once renovations are complete in 2022.
MacArthur Park will mark the third location for the sculpture in Little Rock. From 1978 to 1999, it stood at the intersection of Main and Capitol Streets as part of the Metrocentre Mall, a pedestrian development. In anticipation of the last remaining portions of that project were reopened to vehicular traffic, it was moved to Capitol and Louisiana.
It was not, contrary to what some on the internet may claim, loaned out for the filming of the movie. The one in The Breakfast Club is either another striking of the sculpture or, more likely, a Papier–mâché (or some other material) reproduction.
On Sunday, March 23, 1952, General Douglas MacArthur made his only post-infancy visit to Little Rock. He had previously been scheduled to visit Mississippi, and Little Rock Mayor Pratt Remmel had persuaded him to add a visit to Little Rock to the agenda. The fact that Little Rock now had a Republican mayor had apparently piqued the General’s interest.
General MacArthur, accompanied by his wife and son as well as several journalists and members of his military retinue, arrived at Little Rock Airport at 10:40 am. He was met by a delegation of civic leaders including Mayor Remmel. Alderman James Griffey made welcoming remarks on behalf of the city. Then the General and Mayor boarded an open car and led a motorcade from the airport to downtown.
The motorcade’s destination was Christ Episcopal Church at Capitol and Scott streets. It was at this church that MacArthur had been baptized as an infant. The delegation was greeted by the Episcopal Bishop R. Bland Mitchell, Rector J. Hodge Alves, and Rector Emeritus W. P. Witsell. (While he had been Rector, Dr. Witsell had garnered national attention by issuing an Easter blessing to Gen. MacArthur as he had been evacuating the Philippines at the height of World War II.) In order to gain admittance to the church that morning, church members and guests had to have tickets.
Following the worship service, the General and his party went to three events in the park named in his honor. The first was a tour of the Museum of Natural History (now the Museum of Discovery and located in the River Market; the current tenant of the building is the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History), which was located in the building in which the General had been born. After the tour, he spoke at a dedication of a small rose garden adjacent to the museum. It was sponsored by the Little Rock City Beautiful Commission and the Garden Clubs of Greater Little Rock.
Though every stop of the General’s visit had featured crowds, the largest was at the third location in MacArthur Park. A crowd of several thousand greeted the General as he spoke from the Foster Bandshell in the park’s southwest corner. Chamber of Commerce president Richard C. Butler (brother-in-law of Mayor Remmel) was the master of ceremonies. Following an invocation by Methodist Bishop Paul Martin, the only other speaker was the General. In his remarks he spoke of his Southern heritage and of his appreciation for the support of the citizens of Little Rock over the years.
Several gifts were bestowed upon the MacArthurs at the ceremony. The City of Little Rock presented Mrs. MacArthur with an engraved silver serving tray.
Following the events in MacArthur Park, the family retired for a brief respite to the Hotel Marion. They then attended a luncheon buffet in their honor at the home of Howard and Elsie Stebbins on Edgehill Road. The General and Mrs. MacArthur circulated through the house greeting guests and then eschewed a special table in favor of balancing their plates on their laps and sitting in wingback chairs. Meanwhile Arthur MacArthur stayed upstairs and discussed stamp collecting and other hobbies with the Stebbins’ two teenage sons.
Following the luncheon, the MacArthur party went back to the airport and by 4:00pm, the plane was in the air.
Though this visit was coming at the end of a whirlwind of activities, by all accounts, the General and Mrs. MacArthur were very gracious and accommodating. The General was being mentioned as a potential GOP candidate for President, but purposefully steered clear of any political comments in his remarks. He and Mrs. MacArthur dutifully posed for photos not only for the media but also for amateur photographers. At lunch, the General even asked a Gazette photographer to take a photo of him with his Little Rock Police motorcycle escorts so that they could have a souvenir of the visit.
Julia Burnelle “Bernie” Smade Babcock was an author and museum founder. When her husband died, leaving her with five children, she starting writing for money. She published several temperance novels and later wrote for the Arkansas Democrat. She also published a magazine, wrote plays which were performed in New York, and authored a poetry anthology. She later became recognized as an expert on Abraham Lincoln and wrote several books about him, as well as other historical figures. For her writing skills, she became the first Arkansas woman to be included in Who’s Who in America.
In 1927, after professional curmudgeon H. L. Mencken wrote derisively of Arkansas, she decided to start a museum. The Museum of Natural History and Antiquities was first located in a Main Street storefront. In 1929, she “gave the City of Little Rock a Christmas present” by giving the museum to the city. It was relocated to the unfinished third floor of City Hall, with her as its employee. After being closed during part of the Great Depression, she relocated the museum to the Arsenal Building and reopened it as the Museum of Natural History. She was involved in the efforts to rename City Park in honor of Douglas MacArthur (who had been born there) and welcomed him when he came to Little Rock in 1952.
Following her retirement in 1953, she moved to Petit Jean Mountain where she wrote and painted.
After more name changes and a relocation, her museum is now known as the Museum of Discovery and is an anchor in the River Market district.