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Building on state history 

Library Director Bobby Roberts constructs an instant treasure.

PAGES OF TIME: Glass parcels at the entrance to the ASI include photographs of Arkansas figures.
  • PAGES OF TIME: Glass parcels at the entrance to the ASI include photographs of Arkansas figures.

Twelve years ago, when the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies convinced the legislature that Arkansas history should be a required subject in public school, more than a few of the teachers the Times interviewed were annoyed. The unit would just take up time better spent on more important subjects, they complained. “There is no Arkansas history,” one teacher told the Times.

The Arkansas Studies Institute, in a striking complex on Clinton Avenue that joins new construction to renovated historic buildings, turns that teacher's attitude on its head. It does so both with its contents — the papers of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the Central Arkansas Library's Butler Center for Arkansas Studies — and with its very presence.

The three-story sandstone, brick, copper and glass entry — the design playing on the pages of an open book and featuring photographs from the ASI collection reproduced on large glass panels — puts a high profile on Arkansas's regard for its past. It is a proud structure, monumental in the way government buildings of an earlier era matched their architecture to the importance of their mission.

“There's probably less written about Arkansas than any state in the union,” CALS director Bobby Roberts said on a tour of the building in March. In the past decade, however, textbooks and monographs and other Arkansas histories — including a series by Roberts and UALR historian Carl Moneyhon — have filled what was once a void. The Butler Center's Encyclopedia of Arkansas and the ASI archives — 10 million documents and photographs, the second largest manuscript collection in the state — are playing a major role in efforts to complete the picture of Arkansas's place in history. The Institute's visibility on Clinton Avenue should both invite scholars (if you want to write something new about the South, UALR archivist Linda Pine says, this is the place to start) and encourage people and institutions to donate their own records, that stuff in the attic, documents that in an earlier era might have been spirited away from Arkansas for historical repositories in other states (Roberts and Moneyhon had to travel to North Carolina to research aspects of the Civil War in Arkansas).

The state History Commission and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville have deep collections, but the ASI “marries,” as Roberts said, academic collections to community support. “Just the fact that it exists in this terrific building,” Charles Bolton, a UALR historian who has written about Arkansas, said, “is promoting Arkansas history and it will be a great place for researchers to go.”

What's there now — the gubernatorial and other papers of Winthrop Rockefeller, a huge collection; the gubernatorial papers of Bill Clinton (Butler Center head David Stricklin has his fingers crossed that the first series from those papers will be open to the public soon), Jim Guy Tucker, Dale Bumpers, Frank White, Carl Bailey. George Donaghey's papers, Chester Ashley's papers. Papers just donated by the descendants of Gov. Thomas McRae. A significant collection of Civil War letters and diaries and photographs, papers the Butler Center has actively been amassing. And other records — like those of Immanuel Baptist Church and the federal Office of Desegregation Monitoring and the Daughters of the Confederacy and Arkansas Gazette editor and owner J.N. Heiskell. All waiting to be mined.

The institute's cost — $21.5 million, most of it paid for with property-tax-backed bond issues approved by Little Rock voters — has been faulted in local publications, something that, not surprisingly, irks Roberts no end. He's especially irritated by one paper's continued reference to the Arkansas Studies Institute as a bloated project in a couple of “rundown buildings.”

The Arkansas Institute did require the fixup of “rundown buildings” — the 1914 Geyer and Adams building and the 1882 Probst and Hilb (more recently known as the Budget Office Building), directly opposite the River Market. Purchased for $1.5 and $1 million, respectively, they did cause structural headaches. They needed new footings and the Probst and Hilb was in poor condition. Roberts would have liked to spend less renovating them for sure, and he acknowledges a cost overrun of around $2 million. That sum would have been well spent purchasing more books and materials for CALS and the Butler Center.

But the buildings are run down no more, and there's plenty of payoff in their revitalization on this street of historic buildings. The once-crumbling brick east wall of the Probst and Hilb — power-washed, shored up with star bolts as handsome as they are functional and sporting the ghost of signage from the 19th century — is history made tangible. This building, which 100 years ago housed a steam engine that ran machines packing coffee and spices and housed Little Rock's Jewish social club Concordia Hall, now contains classrooms for the Clinton School of Public Service on its third floor and UALR's urban design offices and the Arkansas Humanities Council on its second floors. (The latter two tenants are renting from CALS; the Clinton School contributed $1 million toward the renovation and has a 20-year no-cost lease.) The ground level, refloored in polished native woods, will one day hold a museum dedicated to the peopling of Arkansas, telling the story of Concordia Hall and migration to the state by the Chinese, the Italians, the Germans and Americans moving west. That will take more money, of course — about $250,000 to get started. Roberts refers to the space as the future “museum of the face of Arkansas.”

The Research Room, on the second floor of the 1914 Geyer and Adams building and separated from the new construction for the archives by a skylight-lit atrium, is 6,800 square feet, larger than the area formerly occupied by the entire Butler Center in the Main Library. (That space will now become a special space for junior high and high school students.) It's wireless and equipped with a large bank of computers. The Butler Center, which besides publishing the Encyclopedia of Arkansas and managing its own archival holdings publishes Butler Center Books (look for Little Rock Nine member Terrence Roberts' autobiography this fall), does educational outreach and provides assistance to historical and genealogical researchers, will occupy the third floor. The ground floor includes gallery space to exhibit both the CALS collection and work by area artists. Work is ongoing on what was once the tiled entry to the grocery wholesaler and will in the future be rental space for a small cafe.

The Geyer and Adams building was originally planned as the site for the archives, but a structural analysis done by architects Polk Stanley Rowland Curzon Porter determined the building wouldn't be able to support the heavy documents it would hold. Hence the new addition with the copper and Batesville sandstone façade. New piers were “pounded into the limestone,” Roberts said, so each floor could bear 210 pounds per square foot (triple what a normal floor can hold) for what currently amounts to 2 miles of documents. Forty percent of the $16.9 million cost of construction went into the new building.

The archival floors are spacious enough to house twice as many documents as they do now, so UALR and CALS shouldn't outgrow the Institute any time soon.

Design and education are combined in the more than 100 acrylic photographic panels that serve as guardrails around the atrium. The photographs, taken between 1861 and 1960 and in the collection of the Butler Center, depict the first headquarters of Wal-Mart and a Tyson Foods poultry truck, cotton farming and railroad scenes, tenant farming in 1934 and the Tuf-Nut factory in the 1940s, Scipio Jones and a visiting Barry Goldwater — all fabricated with a technology that architect Reese Rowland said is nearly as new as the archive building itself. The wings of glass that fan out along the Institute's curved west façade indicate the building's purpose with images of a Disfarmer photograph, fishermen, a black Union soldier, two women standing together, loggers, a portrait of aviator Louise Thaden and a photograph of Harry Truman marching alongside Gov. Sid McMath in a Little Rock parade.

(If the look of the new ASI doesn't bring travelers to a halt, 11 speed bumps on Rock Street, which runs along the west side of the new building and leads to the Main Library entrance, certainly will.)

Stone salvaged from work on the Geyer and Adams was used to build a wall along the 160-foot plaza at the rear of the Institute, where Southern Arkansas University artist Steven Ochs and assistants have created in concrete a representation of the Arkansas River on what is called Count Pulaski Way. Along the river, steel plates engraved with the names of antebellum towns — like Cadron and Huntersville — mark their location on the river. Limestone Doric columns salvaged from the 1910 Carnegie Library, torn down in the 1960s to make way for a new library on Louisiana Street, stand in front of the Main Library. The aesthetically pleasing architectural triangle — the columns, the clean lines of the Main Library in what once was the Fones Hardware Building, the darkening copper and slicing glass of the ASI — join past and present and show respect for what was and is Arkansas.

 

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