Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


Little Rock Look Back: Verdict rendered in 1906 City Hall-Jail-Auditorium case

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

Last week: Little Rock Mayor Warren E. Lenon had been advocating for a new City Hall a municipal auditorium since shortly after taking office in April 1903. After plans were approved in July 1906, a group of citizens, led by Arkansas Gazette publisher J. N. Heiskell, filed suit to stop the City.

The closing arguments in the trial against plans for a new City Hall and auditorium complex had been heard on Monday, July 30.  The case was heard by Chancery Judge J. C. Hart.  Serving as an advisor to Chancellor Hart throughout the trial (though with no official legal standing) was Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Lea.  To accommodate the expected large attendance, the trial had been moved into his courtroom which was larger than Chancellor Hart’s.

On Friday, August 3, Pulaski County Chancery Judge J. C. Hart issued an injunction to keep the City from signing a contract for the construction of a city hall, jail and auditorium.  Chancellor Hart concurred with the plaintiffs that Arkansas’ constitution and laws dictated all taxation must be for public purposes.  He found there was nothing in Arkansas case law which defined an auditorium to be used for conventions as a public purpose.

As had been the case throughout the trial, the tone of the coverage of the decision differed greatly in the city’s two daily papers.  The subheading in the Democrat noted that the plaintiffs would be liable for any losses to the municipal government’s coffers due to a delay in commencing the construction if Little Rock eventually prevailed.  That fact is not mentioned by the Gazette.  Both papers did make note that Judge Lea agreed with the Chancellor’s decision.

For now, it looked as if the City of Little Rock would be stuck in the 1867 City Hall on Markham between Main and Louisiana.  Mr. Heiskell and his compatriots waited to see if the City would appeal the decision.

While August would be a quiet month publicly, work would go on behind the scenes.  More on that, in the future.


109 and Looking Fine: Little Rock City Hall

City Hall circa 1908

109 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 Acting 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.

City Hall prior to 1912

By 1955, the copper-clad dome which sat on top of City Hall needed severe repairs. The wooden supports and the copper cladding were both in dire shape. Mayor Pratt Remmel set aside money for the dome to be repaired. After defeating Remmel in his bid for a third term, Mayor Woodrow Mann scrapped plans for the repair and, indeed, scrapped the dome.

Following the lead of County Judge Arch Campbell who had removed the tower at the County Courthouse, Mann proposed removal of the dome. He had an informal survey which had three options: repair the dome, replace the dome with an aluminum one, or remove it. This was open to anyone to respond – voting eligibility or Little Rock residency did not matter. By a slim margin, remove the dome won – so the dome was removed.

In 1960, as air conditioning was installed, windows were bricked in to promote energy efficiency. At the time, the feeling was that a new City Hall would be constructed in the 1970s somewhere more central to the growing city. Relocation talk persisted throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. By that time, City Hall had been modified a great deal – with no thought about historic preservation. When the Police and Fire Department had moved out into their new facilities, their old spaces had become storage.

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: A municipal auditorium for Little Rock is announced

On April 12, 1904, Mayor W. E. Lenon made what was the first official proposal for a municipal auditorium in Little Rock.  Little did he know at the time that it would take from April 1904 until February 1940 to make this dream a reality.

Elected as a progressive, Lenon was focused on not just providing city services, but also had an interest in initiatives which would move the city forward.  With that background it is not surprising that Mayor Lenon would be a champion for the construction of both a new city hall as well as a municipal auditorium building.  During his first annual address to the City Council in April 1904 he noted:

Recently a number of our citizens have taken an active interest in building an auditorium in our city.  This being a project of such worthy consideration should not go unnoticed by us.  Apparently this is one of the greatest needs.  Our business, social, commercial and financial interests, in fact, our entire city, would be benefitted by the building of same.  It has therefore occurred to me that an auditorium might be built in conjunction with a new city hall.

The mayor further discussed that these new structures could either be built on the site of the current City Hall or at a new location.  He also touched on possible financing options including the collection of a one percent assessment.

The mayor would bring this up again in his 1905 annual address.  It would not be until December 1905 that the City Council would officially take any action on the plan.


Little Rock Look Back: Movie Star Mania at Robinson Center

Mayor J V Satterfield escorting actress Maureen O'Hara at the Movie Ball (photo from Arkansas Democrat)

Mayor J V Satterfield escorting actress Maureen O’Hara at the Movie Ball (photo from Arkansas Democrat)

As final preparations were being made for the opening of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Municipal Auditorium in early 1940, a glamorous evening took place in Robinson’s lower level convention hall on February 1.

In conjunction with a meeting of film executives and movie theatre owners sponsored by Robb and Rowley Theaters (which later became the United Artists theatre chain), several Hollywood actors were in Little Rock and headlined a Movie Ball. While in Little Rock, Maureen O’Hara, Phyllis Brooks, Arleen Whelan, Tim Holt and Gene Autry had also made a variety of public appearances.

Mr. Autrey had to miss the ball because he had to return to Hollywood early to attend to business matters. Actress Ilona Massey had also been scheduled to attend the events but was unable due to illness.

The quartet who did appear at the Movie Ball caused quite a scene. Upon their entrance, so many of the attendees crowded around for autographs that the evening’s grand march could not take place (a newspaper headline in the Democrat innocently used the word “orgy” to describe the crowd). After two attempts, Little Rock Mayor J. V. Satterfield (who was escorting Miss O’Hara) and the other members of the Little Rock host delegation led the Hollywood foursome to their reserved table. For quite a while that evening, the table was besieged by autograph seekers.

Though it is unknown as to whether he sought an autograph, photos from the evening showed a very satisfied Mayor Satterfield with Miss O’Hara on his arm. Satterfield family lore joked that Mrs. Satterfield (who had stayed home that night to tend to a sick son) was not a fan of Miss O’Hara’s films after that evening.

The Movie Ball showed Little Rock citizens the value of Robinson Auditorium even before it had been officially dedicated. The film industry meetings had taken place at the Albert Pike Hotel which did not feature a ballroom large enough to host the ball. Without the auditorium’s availability for the gala, organizers might not have chosen Little Rock for the meeting.

With the auditorium’s convention hall not attached to any hotel, it opened up the chance for Little Rock to host more events. This had been one of the key arguments for an auditorium since Mayor W. E. Lenon’s first proposal back in 1904. Having a glamorous event this early in the auditorium’s life validated that contention. After having endured the challenges to open the building, it was a nice lagniappe for the auditorium’s proponents who were present.

The actor Tim Holt would again be connected to Little Rock. In September 1951, he tried to obtain a divorce in Arkansas and stated that he had been a resident of the state for at least six weeks. He also had someone else testify to that fact. In October 1951, the divorce was granted. Later Mr. Holt was charged with perjury and fined $200 for falsely representing his length of residence in Arkansas. Judicial sanctions for his legal team, which included a State Senator, were eventually reviewed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.


RobinsoNovember: Mayor W. E. Lenon

Mayor Lenon with the plans for the original City Hall/Auditorium and the temporary auditorium.

In 1904, Little Rock Mayor W. E. Lenon first proposed that Little Rock construct at municipal auditorium.  After considering some options, he decided it would be easiest to build it in conjunction with a new City Hall and Jail.  In 1906 plans proceeded in that direction until a lawsuit by J.N. Heiskell to stop it.

Following a judge’s ruling that a municipal auditorium was not deemed a proper use for public monies, the City changed course and constructed only a City Hall and Jail (sans auditorium) at the corner of Markham and Broadway. This building opened in 1908.

In 1906, the City gave permission to a private developer to build a temporary auditorium (which also served as a roller skating rink when the chairs were removed) adjacent to the City Hall site.  This opened in 1907.

Mayor Lenon left office in 1908.  He would later chair a committee involved in an auditorium proposal in 1925, but that one would come to naught, as well.  However, he planted the seed and started the public discourse which lasted for 36 years.  His daughter, Vivion, would be married to Joseph Brewer a nephew and aide of Joseph T. Robinson, after whom the eventual auditorium would be named.


Arkansas Heritage Month – LR Mayor Lenon and a Municipal Auditorium

Mayor Lenon with the plans for the original City Hall/Auditorium and the temporary auditorium.

Mayor Lenon with the plans for the original City Hall/Auditorium and the temporary auditorium.

In anticipation of the November 2016 reopening of Robinson Center Music Hall, this week’s Arkansas Heritage Month entries look at seven Little Rock Mayors who worked on proposals for a municipal auditorium between 1904 and 1940.

In 1904, Little Rock Mayor W. E. Lenon first proposed that Little Rock construct at municipal auditorium.  After considering some options, he decided it would be easiest to build it in conjunction with a new City Hall and Jail.  In 1906 plans proceeded in that direction until a lawsuit by J.N. Heiskell to stop it. Following a judge’s ruling that a municipal auditorium was not deemed a proper use for public monies, the City changed course and constructed only a City Hall and Jail (sans auditorium) at the corner of Markham and Broadway. This building opened in 1908.

In 1906, the City gave permission to a private developer to build a temporary auditorium (which also served as a roller skating rink when the chairs were removed) adjacent to the City Hall site.  This opened in 1907.

Mayor Lenon left office in 1908.  He would later chair a committee involved in an auditorium proposal in 1925, but that one would come to naught, as well.  However, he planted the seed and started the public discourse which lasted for 36 years.


Little Rock City Hall – 108 years at Markham and Broadway

108 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 Acting Mayor John Herndon Hollis and his wife as well as former Mayor W. E. Lenon and his wife.

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.

City Hall prior to 1912

By 1955, the copper-clad dome which sat on top of City Hall needed severe repairs. The wooden supports and the copper cladding were both in dire shape. Mayor Pratt Remmel set aside money for the dome to be repaired. After defeating Remmel in his bid for a third term, Mayor Woodrow Mann scrapped plans for the repair and, indeed, scrapped the dome.

Following the lead of County Judge Arch Campbell who had removed the tower at the County Courthouse, Mann proposed removal of the dome. He had an informal survey which had three options: repair the dome, replace the dome with an aluminum one, or remove it. This was open to anyone to respond – voting eligibility or Little Rock residency did not matter. By a slim margin, remove the dome won – so the dome was removed.

In 1960, as air conditioning was installed, windows were bricked in to promote energy efficiency. At the time, the feeling was that a new City Hall would be constructed in the 1970s somewhere more central to the growing city. Relocation talk persisted throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. By that time, City Hall had been modified a great deal – with no thought about historic preservation. When the Police and Fire Department had moved out into their new facilities, their old spaces had become storage.

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.