Thursday, September 1, 2016

Department of Arkansas heritage: A work in progress

Posted By on Thu, Sep 1, 2016 at 2:35 PM

click to enlarge New DAH headquarters, under construction but occupied.
  • New DAH headquarters, under construction but occupied.

The Arkansas Times is on record as saying the idea to put columns in front of the new $9.5 million Department of Arkansas Heritage headquarters perhaps erred in its reference to plantation architecture.

Having said that, I took a tour of the building, at 1100 North St., today. The staff finished moving in Friday. Yes, it is a long way off from being finished. The elevators aren't working today, the parking lot for employees has yet to be built so they have to walk through a construction zone to get to wherever they have parked their cars. The door to the staff lounge says it's the door to the Historic Preservation division and there are places where raw wood has yet to be paneled. Big machines toil outside; there is no landscaping yet. To reach the the building by car requires a right turn off the westbound curve in LaHarpe as it approaches the bridge over the Union Pacific railroad tracks. You can only turn right when you leave the building as well, requiring a U-turn down Cantrell if you want to go back downtown and a decision on who might be less disturbed at your use of their entrances, the Episcopal Collegiate School or Dillard's headquarters.

Numerous birdies have complained to the Times about the conditions, alleging paint smells; cheap furniture for workers with drawers that stick; luxe furniture and chairs in a conference room bought to the tune of $28,000, said to be twice the low bid; a fall down an unfinished staircase. I've asked DAH's spokeswoman, who said on our tour that the move was necessary because the agency's lease — already extended — was up, about all this. 

However, what I saw today looked pretty nice. The columns come across as Georgian academic rather than Old South. There is a conference room that will be available to the public once it is complete. I especially applaud the agency for giving its Natural Heritage division its due: Biologists no longer have to work in borrowed labs to process collections or use a garden hose in back of a building to clean items brought in from the field. Instead, there is now a wet lab with "snorkel" vents to allow researchers to work on animals in formalin without risking cancer, and freezers and dryers for plant collections. An imaging machine that will allow the agency to photograph and upload images from its herbarium to a national database is on order; it will be located in a room dedicated to research. There is a low-temperature herbarium to store the 14,000 processed and soon-to-be processed plants in the Natural Heritage collection, and it has room for other collections that academic institutions are shucking. Theo Witsell, senior botanist for the division and an Arkansas Times Visionary in 2013, is a huge asset to Arkansas science, and the herbarium and lab is a laudable investment by the state in its plant and animal research.

Thanks to staff cuts, morale is said to be low at DAH, and that may make the premature move particularly uncomfortable. I am an unabashed fan of botany, so that surely colors my remarks. Also, I can't compare the new offices to the space employees previously had, though what I did see at the Tower Building, where the agency occupied a couple of floors, was less industrial than the cubicle system in the new building.

One thing to note: There is no room in the new building for the Arkansas State Archives, which lost its commission this year when the legislature folded the agency into Heritage. The archives will remain in Big Mac until the state finds another home for it, one with enough storage for all state agency records. 

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