Preserving and Extending Arkansas History 1936 -1990

In 1932 the War Memorial Commission hired architect Frank Ginnocchio to inspect the building and draw up a list of needed repairs. This led to an application for funds from the newly created Civil War Administration. The federal agency approved the project and began work in 1934 under its new title as the Works Progress Administration. Under the supervision of the local architectural firm of Thompson, Sanders, and Ginnochio, the WPA eradicated termites, replaced steps, patched stucco and plaster, and repainted the building inside and out. While this work was underway, the Historic American Buildings Survey prepared 27 measured drawings of the Old State House.

The Commission so appreciated the efforts of the WPA, they passed a resolution in 1935 offering them the use of the space to be vacated by the medical school. From 1936 to 1942 the Old State House served as the headquarters of many New Deal projects including the Historic Records Survey; the National Youth Administration; the Recreational Project, which staged events and activities around the state; the Housekeeping Aide Project; and the Commodity Distribution Project, which gave out so-called “surplus” goods being bought up as part of the government’s farm support. The Transient Project ministered to hobos and dust bowl migrants. The Education Division provided employment for out of work teachers. One of its most successful efforts, under the direction of Bessie Moore, was its nursery school program, which introduced the notion of kindergarten education to Arkansas. Perhaps the most unusual WPA effort was the Women’s Measuring Project, which measured thousands of women. The data was used to design the first uniforms for the Women’s Army Corps.

The patriotism instilled by the Second World War translated into increased support for the restoration of the Old State House. Its preservation was one of the campaign promises of Ben T. Laney, who was elected governor in 1944.

When Governor Ben T. Laney pledged in 1944 to restore the Old State House, he was carrying on a family tradition. His elder brother W. Harvey Laney had introduced a resolution to preserve the site in 1913. In 1945 the governor formed a committee to begin raising funds for improvements to the old capitol.

Sensing postwar prosperity eminent, the legislature instructed the Arkansas History Commission, the state archive headed by Dallas Herndon, to make a study of historical sites in Arkansas worthy of preservation. Topping the list was the Old State House, which Herndon suggested should be restored as a home for the History Commission and its collections. When the General assembly convened in 1945, it endorsed the notion of restoring the Old State House as a home for the History Commission, but failed to appropriate funds for the project.

Perhaps the preservationists reached some understanding about their future role at the Old State House, or perhaps they simply realized that they were missing a chance which might not come again. When the legislature convened again in 1947, they were ready. Louise Loughborough and Agnes Loewer of the Federation of Women’s Clubs took up residence near the coke-boxes in the halls of the House and Senate, button-holing every legislator who passed. In the end the Old State House bill passed without a single dissenting vote.