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They Saved the Old State House (Part 2)

Old State House Museum - Tuesday, August 20, 2019

 

The Old State House long faced the threat of demolition in the years after it was vacated by state government, but various people and groups fought to save it for future generations of Arkansans. The Arkansas General Federation of Women’s Clubs was the most prominent group involved in the restoration of the Old State House, and many Arkansans do not realize that they were one of the earliest of what we today would consider lobbying organizations.

In spearheading the preservation efforts, the AGFWC realized early on that appealing to a sense of pride, place and heritage would not be enough to save the original seat of government in Arkansas as the day approached that the government would move to its new location. This scenario was also complicated by a large degree of public indifference. Economic survival occupied the focus of both the people of Arkansas and its state government, and it was reflected in state policymakers’ priorities, which made AGFWC’s task even more daunting.

Governor George DonagheyDuring AGFWC’s 1907 convention, the organization sent a telegram to the General Assembly requesting the “preservation of our old State House, as an historic heritage for our children.”Then, in 1909, the organization sent a formal petition to the General Assembly. By the time that state government prepared to vacate its original home in 1911, the threat to the landmark had become more pronounced. Legislation filed in the 1911 General Assembly proposed to sell the building and grounds with the understanding that a railroad desired to use the property for a central passenger station. The key figure in resolving this early impasse was Governor George Donaghey. Although he initially favored disposing of the property, Donaghey later supported preservation after being heavily lobbied by AGFWC. Donaghey recalled of their efforts, “To the everlasting credit of some farseeing and active women, opposition was aroused to this proposal (the sale of the Old State House) and the old structure, with its beautiful grounds, were saved.” But Donaghey’s change of heart, important as it was, still did not totally settle the question of the building’s fate.

The annual conference in 1912 featured multiple speakers exhorting their members to support the cause, and by the end of 1912, the AGFWC led a coalition determined to save the structure. The sister organizations, referred to as the “patriotic organizations” in the 1978 OSH history written by Donald Brown, Marvin Franklin and Michele Wasson, included the Daughters of the American Revolution, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Arkansas Pioneers Association. The coalition hoped to stoke interest in the State Historical Museum Association in order to raise sufficient private sector funds as to lessen the need to constantly return to an often recalcitrant General Assembly for support.

Agnes LoewerAfter the AGFWC helped turn back another legislative effort to sell the property in 1915, efforts at preservation stalled due to American involvement in World War I. In 1921, the federation finally saw progress when the General Assembly passed legislation designating the old state capitol as the Arkansas War Memorial. With the building now safe from the wrecking ball, the AGFWC turned its focus to restoring the building and turning it into a museum. One of their own, Agnes Loewer, spearheaded these efforts. In 1947, the General Assembly approved legislation that provided long-needed funds for restoration and established the Arkansas Commemorative Commission to oversee the Old State House. Loewer served as one of the original commissioners, ensuring that AGFWC would have a prominent role in the continuing rehabilitation of Arkansas’s original seat of government.

After the renovation and grand reopening of the building as the Old State House Museum in 1951, Loewer was officially named as the museum’s first curator. She had lobbied for the Old State House on behalf of AGFWC and later, the Commemorative Commission, since 1939, and she also had already 40 years of experience in preservation, so she seemed ideal for the appointment, which she accepted at age 58.

During her tenure with the Old State House Museum, Loewer, with the support of the AGFWC, created six period rooms in the museum to represent different eras. Work on the rooms progressed over the years as new acquisitions were incorporated. The model for the period rooms came from the preservation efforts at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, a project that involves many states’ women’s groups, including the AGFWC. These nostalgic re-creations of the past were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Five of these period rooms are still part of the museum today, and they remain a lasting legacy to the women who led the way in saving and preserving the place that has truly become “Arkansas’s front porch.”

 

Courageous and forward-thinking people worked through the decades to make sure Old State House Museum remained a treasure for all Arkansans to enjoy today. Now, you have the unique opportunity to support that cause by joining the State House Circle.

When you join the State House Circle by donating $1,000 or more, your name will proudly be recognized on our State House Circle wall on the first floor of the museum, and you will get to attend an annual historic-themed dinner exclusively for our State House Circle members. To join, please complete the attached pledge card and mail it with your donation to Foundation for Arkansas Heritage & History at 300 W. Markham, Little Rock, AR 72201.