Little Rock Look Back: LR finally takes possession of Robinson Auditorium

On January 25, 1940, the City of Little Rock officially took complete possession of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium. By assuming custody of the structure from the contractor and the PWA, the City accepted responsibility for any of the remaining work to be completed.

This event happened one day shy of the third anniversary of the election which approved plans to issue bonds for an auditorium.  The act took place only about five months behind schedule.

E. E. Beaumont, the Auditorium Commission chairman, stated that an opening date could not be set until more work was completed. A major unfinished task was the laying of the front sidewalk which had been delayed due to cold weather.

The night before Little Rock took possession, Robinson Auditorium had been a topic of discussion at the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. The new Chamber president Reeves E. Ritchie (who as an Arkansas Power & Light executive had been engaged in the lengthy discussions about the installation of the steam line and transformers of the building) pledged that the Chamber would work to bring more and larger conventions to Little Rock at the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.

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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: LR voters overwhelming support bid to Restore Robinson in 2013

On 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.

Little Rock Look Back: First Dance at Robinson Auditorium

In October 1939, it looked as if Robinson Auditorium would never open.  The construction had run out of money.  But in an effort to generate a little revenue and give the public the chance to see the building, a few events were booked in the lower level.

At the time, the entrance to the lower level was off of Garland Street which ran to the north of the structure.

While Mayor J. V. Satterfield and other leaders were in Washington seeking additional funding, the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium hosted its first event.  On October 4, 1939, the convention hall on the lower level was the site of a preview dance.  The pecan block flooring had been installed just the week before.

RC-dance-orchestraThe first four people to enter the building as paying guests were Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Wilheim, Frances Frazier and Bill Christian.  Reports estimated 3,200 people attended and danced to the music of Jan Garber and His Orchestra.

By happenstance, Garber and his musicians had also played in Little Rock on January 26, 1937, the date of the election which approved the auditorium bonds.  Since Little Rock then did not have a suitable space, that appearance had been on the stage of the high school auditorium.

The dance was a success.  But as the building had no heating or cooling mechanism at the time, there were limits as to how long even the lower level could be in use.  After a few weeks, the PWA, which was still in charge of the construction site, halted all future bookings.

Little Rock Look Back: LR FINALLY takes possession of Robinson Auditorium

Robinson Auditorium

On January 25, 1940, the City of Little Rock officially took complete possession of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium. By assuming custody of the structure from the contractor and the PWA, the City accepted responsibility for any of the remaining work to be completed.  This event happened one day shy of the third anniversary of the election which approved plans to issue bonds for an auditorium.  The act took place only about five months behind schedule.

E. E. Beaumont, the Auditorium Commission chairman, stated that an opening date could not be set until more work was completed. A major unfinished task was the laying of the front sidewalk which had been delayed due to cold weather.

The night before Little Rock took possession, Robinson Auditorium had been a topic of discussion at the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. The new Chamber president Reeves E. Ritchie (who as an Arkansas Power & Light executive had been engaged in the lengthy discussions about the installation of the steam line and transformers of the building) pledged that the Chamber would work to bring more and larger conventions to Little Rock at the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.

Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Auditorium groundbreaking 80 years ago today

 

122437 GroundbreakOn 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: City of LR approves 1935 municipal auditorium plan

An August 25, 1935, rendering in the ARKANSAS GAZETTE of the proposed Little Rock auditorium at Capitol and Scott Streets.

On August 26, 1935, the City of Little Rock took its first significant step in a decade for the creation of a City auditorium..  Under the leadership of Mayor R. E. Overman, the City Council approved authorization for the City to apply for $1,000,000 from the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works (PWA) for the construction of an auditorium.  The PWA had issued a September 16, 1935, deadline for applications to be received as it sought to spend $4.8 billion in construction projects.

The auditorium plan was announced on Saturday, August 24, 1935.  Much preparation had already been undertaken before the project was publicly unveiled.  Private presentations hhad taken place, a team of architects had been chosen (Eugene Stern and the firm of Wittenberg & Delony), and a location had been selected.

The auditorium complex was slated for a block bounded by Capitol, Scott, Fourth and Cumberland Streets.  The Women’s City Club building on that block would remain with the new structure being built to wrap around two sides of the existing structure. The site was chosen because it was one block east of the Main Street business corridor and near existing meeting locations such as the Boys Club, Albert Pike Hotel, Albert Pike Masonic Lodge and several churches.

As planned by the architects, this structure’s front façade would have run the length of the Capitol Avenue side of the block.  The building was proposed to be constructed of concrete, stone and steel.  It would have a large hall with a proscenium stage and seating capacity of 4,000 with overflow of an additional 500.  The adjoining exhibition hall could seat 3,500 people.  The plan called for 150 cars to be parked in the building, and an additional 100 cars to be parked on a surface lot on the site.

Following an August 26 closed door meeting to discuss the project from which members of the public and press were excluded, in open session the City Council voted to pursue the funding for the million dollar auditorium.  If approved by the PWA, the funds would be provided in grants and loans, to be paid by over a 35 year period.

The auditorium proposal was filed with the PWA in Washington in September 1935.  Throughout the next several months, Mayor Overman and the city were engaged in a series of conversations and negotiations with the PWA for the expansion of both the water system and the sewer system. This diverted attention from pursuing the auditorium immediately.  This specific auditorium project stalled.  But because the plan had been filed by the September 16 deadline, it allowed the City to make use of PWA funds a few years later which would lead to the construction of Robinson Auditorium.