Preserving and Extending Arkansas History 1936 -1990

For almost two and a half decades after the seat of government departed the Old State House, policymakers had 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 School to the MacArthur Park area. But national political events brought new hope to those Arkansans who wanted to bring new life to the home of the state’s beginnings. Not only did Franklin Roosevelt bring a New Deal to the American people, but brought one to the Old State House.

The year before the New Deal took root in the nation’s economic life, the War Memorial Board of Trustees directed architect Frank Ginocchio of Thompson, Sanders, and Ginocchio to inspect the Old State House and evaluate the restoration and repair needs of the structure along with its costs. In November 1933, the board applied for a grant from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of almost $24,000 to perform a variety of tasks from roof and skylight repairs to restoring the well house and custodian’s house. The WPA also eradicated termites; replaced steps, patched stucco and plaster, and repainted the building inside and out. In appreciation for the federal efforts, the board adopted a resolution in 1935 offering them the use of the space vacated by the medical school. Until 1942, the Old State House served as the headquarters of many New Deal agencies in the state that included 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 to the poor that were bought up as part of the government’s farm price support programs under the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA).

Space for other public and private entities was also provided in the building in the 1930s, including 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. It was also during this period that the discovery of Secretary of State Jacob Frolich’s briefly used cistern brought a bit of mystery to the Old State House, although it wasn’t until the 1990s that excavations and research established the cistern’s true use. While the General Assembly continued to appropriate modest sums for routine maintenance, New Deal aid stopped in the early 1940s with the nation’s entry into World War II. While federal support for the building dwindled, patriotism spawned by the war translated into increased support for state efforts to restore the Old State House. Its preservation was one of the campaign promises of Camden Mayor Benjamin T. Laney, known as “Business Ben,” who was elected governor in 1944. Laney pledged in his 1944 campaign to restore the Old State House and to build a Governor’s Mansion. In doing so, he was carrying on a family tradition. 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 the governor formed a committee to begin raising funds for improvements to the state’s first seat of government.

The same year, the General Assembly gave the Arkansas History Commission the authority to conduct a study of the condition of the state’s historic sites. Commission Chair Dallas Herndon suggested a new use for the Old State House: a new home for the 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 well-known active supporters of the Old State House from all over the state, and their first charge was the structure’s restoration.

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 damage to the structure and flaws in design dating back to the 1830s that caused the structure to be in danger of collapse in places. The 1947 appropriation was used to perform vital work such as replacing the metal roof and guttering, improvements to the exterior woodwork, new steel floor joists, reinforced foundation walls, stabilization of exterior walls, and the building’s first automatic sprinkler system. Interior renovations had to wait until a $200,000 appropriation from the 1949 General Assembly. Improvements in lighting, heating, plumbing were implemented, and the restored showplace was 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, and officially adopted the name in which succeeding generations would know Arkansas’s first state capitol as: the Old State House.

The transformation of the crown jewel of Arkansas’s statehood continued apace. In order to prevent space-starved state agencies from demanding the newly restored space for their operations, the Commemorative Commission stated early on the mission of the Old State House:

“It is the intent and purpose of this commission that this historic building should be reserved for the benefit of the state as a whole and should not be filled with the offices of various organizations, and that all organizations are requested to refrain from seeking quarters in this historic building and to join with the commission in making this beautiful structure the shrine it should be in order that the legislative intent as stated in Act 256 of 1947 creating the commission shall be carried out.” (Arkansas Gazette, August 15, 1950)

After the Old State House was officially reopened on Valentine’s Day 1951, efforts at formal organization culminated in the appointment of Agnes Loewer as the new museum’s curator and full-time director of the Commemorative Commission. A businesswoman and leader of numerous patriotic and civic organizations, Loewer was long active in lobbying efforts to save the Old State House. Combined with the presence of the Arkansas History Commission and its director, Dallas Herndon, the intent to use the structure for strictly historical pursuits quickly became established in state government. In 1953, a new annex was built to the north of the west wing to house the History Commission and its archives. As time passed, the transformation of the building into a museum pressed forward, and by 1954 six rooms had been designed and furnished as period correct rooms sponsored by organizations such as the Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Daughters of the American Revolution. As new items were donated, the work expanded, and notable donations, such as the Edward Payson Washburn painting of The Arkansas Traveler in 1960, received great publicity in the Arkansas press.

While the period rooms were nostalgic recollections of the past, they came to be viewed as focusing on a small segment of Arkansas life. In response, Loewer worked tirelessly to develop new exhibits that showcased the state’s heritage. The first, and one of the most enduring, was that of the gowns worn by Arkansas’s first ladies, begun in 1955. Five years later, the flag gallery opened, and as permanent and temporary exhibits were developed and expanded, the reach and reputation of the museum expanded as well. By the 1970s and 1980s, after Loewer’s retirement, changes came to the management and organization of the Old State House. In 1975, the museum came under the newly created Department of Arkansas Natural and Cultural Heritage (now Department of Arkansas Heritage), and educational programs targeted to schoolchildren were added. The period rooms were also reduced as the need for space for exhibits keeping with the museum’s mission increased. In 1979, the History Commission moved to new quarters on the State Capitol Mall, and as changes continued, the Old State House earned its place in the ranks of professionally-managed museums. Soon, two events would place the original seat of government in an international spotlight: a final restoration and the election of a President.