Renovation and a New Capitol 1875-1911

Old State House circa. 1874Ten years later, repairs were performed to the Senate and House chambers, in addition to the executive offices. In an attempt to beautify the grounds, a bronze seal of the state of Arkansas was placed over the main entrance, and the Ladies' Benevolent Association of Little Rock and Pine Bluff contributed a large bronze fountain for the south lawn. In 1882, the grounds were enclosed down to the railroad tracks, sodded with grass, and trees planted as well. Despite the improvements, the governor, even after the remodeling, had to beg legislators to keep the building and grounds clean of rubbish for the sake of visiting strangers. Over the next ten years, visiting out-of-state journalists wrote of the state capitol's dilapidated, plain and shabby condition. A reporter from the New York Tribune wrote, "The halls and stairways are shockingly dirty, the walls are defaced with pencil inscriptions, the bricks of the lower floor are badly worn and dislocated, and the stucco on the columns of the Doric porticos is fast losing its grip."

Either through shame or necessity, the Legislature authorized money in 1885 for an almost complete renovation of the building. The building underwent dramatic changes in architectural style.


Old State House circa 1890Winding stairways were built in the central hallway, replacing the original landing stairway, and a new skylight was also installed. The huge pillars on the north front of the building were removed and the building was extended fifty-six feet toward the river. The extension provided extra room on the second floor for a new House of Representatives Chamber, formerly the space where the Senate met. The open-air stairway placed on the outside of the west wing during the 1867 remodel was removed, and a new one was placed on the inside of the wing leading to what would soon be the governor's and attorney general's offices. The open space between the east wing and the main building was enclosed, providing a two-story addition, and a second story was added to the previously-enclosed west wing. The renovation provided access throughout the second floor, although passage through it was chopped up and indirect. New furniture and carpeting were added to several rooms, and the brick floors in the main building's first floor were ripped out and replaced by poured concrete. A steam heating system was installed, replacing stoves and fireplaces, and an armory housing arms and ammunition was built on the grounds behind the capitol. Although over $30,000 was appropriated for the renovation, it was not enough. Within the next 10 years, dirt and moisture transferred into the building by foot traffic and open windows created havoc on the wooden floors, causing them to rot, and walls began to crack due to poor ventilation. The roof was in such poor condition that rain penetrated various rooms, causing discoloration and mildew. Even the new steam heating system needed overhauling four years after installation. Just five years after its renovation, the only complimentary thing said about the appearance of the building in the Guide to Little Rock, published in 1890, was "The prettiest thing about the State House is the lovely little park in front of it." Regardless of the continuing poor condition of the building, after the 1885 construction there was now enough space to house the three branches of government.

Additionally, the building housed the Superintendent of Schools office, two auditor's offices, the State Land Commissioner's office, the Bureau of Mines, Manufacture and Agriculture, and a display room for use by that bureau. While the rooms were not large, for a time they provided adequate space.

Over the next 26 years, the building was again maintained with only patchwork repairs. With the exception of the entire building being repainted in 1902, nothing major was undertaken. The building's steam heating system ceased to function, and rather than install a new one, stoves were placed in all of the rooms. By the turn of the century, the Legislature made the decision to build a new capitol rather than continually repair an old one. In 1911, when the new state capitol was nearing completion, a newspaper account of the old building read, "The House of Representatives and the Senate Chamber in the Old State House are in a deplorably dilapidated condition. The carpets in both are mildewed and moth-eaten, and most of the plastering has fallen since the adjournment of the assembly two years ago." "The appearance of the Senate Chamber is that of an abandoned coal bin," said the governor. On January 9, 1911, the 38th General Assembly was held in a new state capitol. Left behind was a dilapidated building that would one day be considered one of the most beautifully-designed state houses in the country.

The House of Representatives Chamber circa 1909As early as 1907, when the state government began planning to move from the first state capitol into the new capitol building, questions arose concerning the future of the first state house. Solutions, frequently debated in newspapers and on the streets, ranged from tearing down the building to making it into office space. The Arkansas Federation of Women's Clubs strongly encouraged and supported the idea of keeping the State House as an historic monument, since the structure was the site of Arkansas government proceedings for seventy-five years, from 1836-1911. This women's organization served as a major influence in the survival of the Old State House. From 1907-1911, three ordinances were passed biennially by the Arkansas General Assembly that kept the building in the state's hands until a decision could be reached. No definite legislative action regarding the specifics of the building's future use was taken after 1911, when the government began the transition from the old to the new state capitol. By 1912, the Arkansas Pioneer Association, seeking a meeting place for some time, settled in the west wing of the Old State House. However, the Arkansas Medical School's need for space in the building apparently forced the removal of the Pioneer Association shortly thereafter.

The medical school's use of the entire building from 1912-1935 was liberally supported by the General Assembly of 1913. Several structural changes were made in the building when the medical school moved in, although little or no redecorating or repairs were done once the state government moved out. Numerous partitions were erected to multiply the rooms since more space was required for the classrooms, laboratories, and offices of the medical school. The first floor of the central section of the building housed a general laboratory, a storeroom, a bookstore, a research lab, two lecture rooms, and the dean's office. On the second floor of the central section, the old Senate chamber served as a lecture hall, while the House chamber was divided by partitions into six rooms. These rooms were used as laboratories, a museum of pathology, an office area, a darkroom, and a storeroom. The first floor of the east wing of the Old State House was designated as the Department of Chemistry, and was divided into eight rooms used as laboratories, an office, a storeroom, and a lecture room. The Departments of Anatomy, Histology, and Embryology were located on the east wing's second floor, and included research laboratories, general laboratories, office space, and the dissecting room. Most of the cadavers used in the labs were either kept in the old Supreme Court library, which was divided into two rooms, or in the basement of the building. Little is known about the Arkansas Medical School's occupancy in the west wing of the building, except for the library and a laboratory on the first floor. In 1921, while the medical school was still settled in the building, the former state house was named the Arkansas War Memorial Building, and was "dedicated to the use of the American Legion, American Veterans of World War I, United Spanish War Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and all other statewide, non-profit organizations."