Launching a Presidency, Repair, Toward the Future 1991-present

from the Old State House Museum CollectionWilliam Jefferson Clinton earned his nickname, the "Comeback Kid," after his strong resurgence in the 1992 New Hampshire primary kept his campaign on the road to the White House. It could also refer to his relationship with Arkansas's Old State House Museum.

As Arkansas Attorney General, Clinton played an important role in transforming the Old State House into a modern museum. Later, starting with his first term as governor in 1979, Clinton returned, time and again, to use the Old State House as a backdrop for important milestones in his political career. It was here that Clinton announced his candidacy for the presidency, and later celebrated his victory on election night in 1992. During the weeks that followed, the place Clinton characterized as his "favorite building in Arkansas" served as the stage for his cabinet appointments. On the evening of November 5, 1996, the Old State House once more became the center of the world's attention as President Bill Clinton became the first Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be re-elected for a second term.

Clinton stated that, to him, the Old State House embodies both a reverence for the past and a hope for the future. When work began on the State House in 1833, Arkansas was still a wilderness on the edge of the American frontier, and Little Rock was little more than a humble collection of log cabins. But the people of Arkansas chose to erect a grand edifice reflecting the glory and democracy of ancient Greece to house their new government.

For more on Clinton, see his entries in The Road from Conway to Clinton: Arkansas Governors' Biographies.


Structural problems plagued the Old State House since it was built. By far the most serious was the inadequacy of its foundation. By the mid-1990s, gaps were appearing between the walls and the central staircase and also between the walls and the floor in the large 1885 House of Representatives Chamber. The situation could no longer be ignored. So in 1996, the Old State House Museum closed to undergo the most extensive restoration in its history.

The Problem

For many years, visitors and staff noticed cracks in the inner and outer walls of the Old State House Museum. In the summer of 1995, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program awarded the Old State House Museum a grant to conduct a structural analysis of the building. The contract was awarded to the Witsell, Evans & Rasco architectural firm of Little Rock. Project architects Charles Witsell and John Greer subcontracted with the engineering firm John Milner & Associates, of Pennsylvania, to consult on this monumental project, with work beginning that fall.

The analysis revealed serious problems with the building's structural integrity, mostly due to an inadequate foundation. The original foundation, often repaired but never substantially improved, consisted mainly of local field stone, or rubble. This foundation is easily viewed on the west side of the lawn, where it rises above ground level.

The original foundation, which varied in depth from only 16 to 24 inches, was thought to be sufficient by 1830s construction standards. It also lacked spread footings, which serve as a stabilizing element to resist lateral and vertical forces. Today's standards require spread footings that extend below the frost line, which the original, narrowly laid foundation did not do. Laying these footings beneath the frost line protects them from the damaging effects of extreme temperature variations.

In addition, the original drainage system no longer worked, leaving standing water around the foundation. A small spring located near the west wing did not help, either. Another contributing factor to the foundation's deterioration was that the foundation stone was covered with an outer coat of Portland cement, which trapped moisture. The constant presence of water caused the field stones, held together with mud-based mortar, to shift. The exterior walls, made of soft clay bricks, soaked up the water along the foundation, which then evaporated during dry periods. Frequent wet-dry cycles eventually caused cracks to form in the bricks.

The extremes of Arkansas weather also took their toll. Outside walls are subjected to temperatures that range from freezing cold to blistering hot. Inside, the museum must try to maintain constant temperature and humidity levels, to protect the artifacts and people, by keeping windows shut and using modern heating and air cooling systems. These two opposing forces exacerbated cracking of the walls.

The Solution

The following solutions for the foundation problems were developed:

10' deep pits were dug under the exterior walls in six foot intervals, and the existing foundation rock was removed.

Reinforcing steel was placed in each of the pits, and concrete poured to create concrete piers.

Once the concrete piers cured, workers removed the rock foundation between each pit to allow a 24" deep concrete grade beam to be poured.

Lastly, noticeable sagging of the wooden floors had occurred on the second level, which houses the legislative chambers. This is typical in older buildings; the wooden floor joists that support the flooring will slowly crush soft brick wall pockets where they rest and create the sagging.

So that future generations will be able to enjoy the Old State House, these effects of age and use were corrected by:

Removal of a 3' strip of plaster ceiling along all exterior walls on the first floor, exposing the floor joists and masonry bearing pockets

Repair and reinforcement of damaged joist ends (with steel plates)

Repair of beam pockets, addition of 2' band of masonry tuck pointed all around the building where joist pockets exist, and replacement and repainting of the ceiling

The Natural and Cultural Resources Council awarded the Old State House $2 million dollars [funds from the Real Estate Transfer Tax]. In 1996, the governor's office allocated $1 million from the emergency fund and another $400,000 from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance funds. [During this renovation, a new ADA-compliant elevator was added, as well as accessible bathrooms.] The remaining funds were provided from other grant sources, including the Department of Arkansas Heritage.

Architectural Renderings

Foundation stabilization involved hand-digging pits approximately ten feet deep and six feet apart around the entire circumference of the building. The foundation was then dismantled and a new concrete foundation poured. Finally, the old field stone foundation was replaced where possible to retain the building's original appearance.

Other Improvements

A 1950s annex and breezeway, which at one time housed the Arkansas History Commission, was demolished. Removal of this architecturally-incompatible addition proved essential to the Old State House Museum being granted National Historic Landmark status in December, 1997. With the 1950s annex removed, the back doorway that once led into the breezeway was restored to a window — its original function.

Wooden floor joists were repaired or replaced. Cracks in the interior plaster also were repaired. New electrical wiring replaced the outdated 1940s system. Bathrooms also were made wheel-chair accessible, and a new elevator was installed in the East Wing. Lifts were installed between the Central Chamber and the East and West Wings to allow wheelchair access to the entire building. Construction of a new annex for staff offices and collections storage completed the construction. Prior to this project, staff offices were scattered throughout the museum, creating problems with the heating and cooling systems due to variances in temperature and humidity. Removing staff offices from the historic structure also provided more exhibit space within the museum

The museum received accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 1993. In early 1996, the staff and public learned that the building needed major foundation work to preserve it for future generations. Staff and collections moved out in May 1996. The restored museum re-opened to the general public in June 1999.

The Old State House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and it was declared a National Historic landmark in 1997. The American Association of Museums renewed the museum's accreditation in 2003.