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THEY SAVED THE OLD STATE HOUSE: CRUCIAL ALLIANCES (PART 3)

Old State House Museum - Tuesday, September 17, 2019

 

For almost two and a half decades after the seat of government departed the Old State House, policymakers struggled with indecision over the building’s fate. Hard economic times during the 1930s aggravated the potential threats to the landmark’s existence, most notably the move of the Medical Department of Arkansas Industrial University (now known as University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) to the MacArthur Park area.

But national political events brought new hope to those Arkansans who wanted to restore life to the home of the state’s beginnings. Not only did Franklin Roosevelt bring a New Deal to the American people, he brought one to the Old State House. Up until 1942 the Old State House served as the headquarters of many New Deal agencies,including the Historic Records Survey; The Works Progress Administration (WPA); 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 distributed surplus agricultural commodities to low income Arkansans that were bought up as part of the government’s farm price support programs under the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA).

Rents collected from the aforementioned agencies, as well as from other public and private entities such as the Little Rock Garden Club, the American Automobile Club, the State Plant Board and the Arkansas State Rangers (the forerunner of the Arkansas State Police) supplemented the federal assistance that funded restoration work at the Old State House.

The women’s groups that had fought for so long to preserve the Old State House had to become effective lobbyists and build crucial alliances, both tasks that were not expected of women in what was then a man’s world.

Governor LaneyThey built a crucial relationship with Benjamin Travis Laney, a well-known South Arkansas businessman and former Camden mayor known as “Business Ben.” When Laney was elected governor in 1944, two of his top priorities spoke directly to the state’s heritage and image: to restore the Old State House and to build a governor’s mansion. In doing so, he was carrying on a family tradition since his brother William Harvey Laney, who represented Monroe County in the House of Representatives, had introduced a resolution to preserve the site in 1913. In early 1945, Benjamin Laney formed a committee to begin raising funds for improvements.

During the same year, the General Assembly gave the Arkansas History Commission the authority to conduct a comprehensive study of the condition of the state’s historic sites. Dallas Herndon, the state historian and the commission’s chair, suggested a new use for the Old State House: to serve as home for the state’s archives and special collections held by the commission. Later that year the Arkansas Museum Commission was established, and two years later, the Arkansas Commemorative Commission, which became the governing board for the Old State House, came into being. The spearheads for these successful efforts were the women’s groups led by Louise Loughborough and Agnes Loewer, and a young war hero and state representative named Bob Riley, who would later serve as lieutenant governor and governor.

The Commemorative Commission was soon staffed with active supporters of the Old State House from all over the state, and their first charge was the structure’s restoration. Act 257 of 1947 was the companion legislation to the Old State House bill, again pushed by the women’s groups under the Arkansas Federation of Women's Clubs, led by Agnes Bass Shinn of Harrison, which created a Governor's Mansion Commission with an initial appropriation of $100,000.

With a $150,000 appropriation from the 1947 General Assembly and the expertise of architect Bruce Anderson and general contractor Baldwin Company, the friends of the Old State House looked forward to correcting design flaws and structural damage dating back to the 1830s. Theappropriation was used to perform vital work, such as replacing the metal roof and guttering, improving the exterior woodwork, installing new steel floor joists, reinforcing foundation walls, stabilizing exterior walls and connecting the building’s first automatic sprinkler system.

Old State House c1950Interior work had to wait until a $200,000 appropriation from the 1949 General Assembly. This funded improvements in lighting, heating and plumbing, and the restored showplace reopened in 1951 as the General Assembly enacted Act 114 to authorize the use of the building for the use of the Arkansas History Commission to use as an official state archives and museum. The legislation also officially adopted the name, the Old State House.

While this was happening at the Old State House, work was also continuing on the other half of the governor’s priorities: the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. The Governor’s Mansion Commission selected the old Arkansas School for the Blind on Center Street in Little Rock as the site, and Laney laid the cornerstone of the new structure in December 1947. Bricks from the old buildings were salvaged and used in the construction of the Governor’s Mansion; a total of more than 300,000 bricks were required to complete the project.After two years of construction, the family of Governor Sid McMath moved into the mansion on January 10, 1950, one year to the day after assuming office. The total cost of producing this new showplace was $197,967.

Truly, teamwork and some unlikely alliances were crucial in making these two dreams come true: two now-nationally known showplaces that are the pride of all Arkansans.

 

 

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.