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story.lead_photo.caption The 120-year-old Baker House that sits just off Main Street in North Little Rock was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

As communications director for North Little Rock's government, part of Nathan Hamilton's job is talking up city projects to not only inform, but also to encourage residents, visitors and investors to take advantage of the city's amenities.

In buying the longtime bed-and-breakfast Baker House, at 109 W. Fifth St., in the Argenta Historic District on Nov. 2, Hamilton and his wife, Stacy Johnson Hamilton, are securing themselves as investors in North Little Rock's history and its future.

"You could say we're putting our money where my mouth is," Hamilton said last week.

The Hamiltons plan to refurbish the inside of the 120-year-old, three-story Baker House, which closed three years ago, and turn it into a "boutique hotel" with either a part-time staff or as a self-serve Airbnb property for short-term rentals, he said. If all goes well, it could be open in the spring, he said.

Built about 1898, the Baker House -- older than the city -- is a visual icon just off Main Street because of its distinctive architecture and 35-foot-high front tower. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 as a contributing property to the Argenta Historic District and for its Queen Anne Victorian style.

The house is a half-block walk from where the city is building Argenta Plaza, which is to feature jetted fountains and is meant to become a downtown "gathering place." Verizon Arena (to be renamed in 2019), the River Trail bike path and Dickey-Stephens Park baseball field also will be nearby draws for Baker House customers.

The Hamiltons bought the five-bedroom, five-bathroom property for $404,000 from Argenta Holdings LLC, owned by downtown residents Scott and Sonja Miller. The Millers bought the house in November of 2005 and continued with its bed-and-breakfast format from previous years. It has been vacant since the Millers ceased its operation Nov. 1, 2015.

"We very much look forward to restoring it," Hamilton said, mentioning removing wallpaper, refinishing the floors, and modernizing fixtures and furnishings. "We'll make it fresh, clean and updated.

"I think the property was being passed over by many commercial developers because they might not know exactly what to do with it," Hamilton said. "We're going into it with eyes wide open. It's a historic house, 120 years old. You have to think about maintenance all the time. We crunched the numbers and did our research. We're confident we can make it work."

That confidence, he added, also comes from his wife's knowledge of real estate and historic homes, he said. Realtor Stacy Johnson Hamilton is a $10 million real estate seller with a Little Rock agency. She was president of the Little Rock Realtors Association in 2017 and now is on the board of the Arkansas Realtors Association.

"Stacy's specialty is in historic homes," Hamilton said. "Combine that with so much going on in downtown North Little Rock and the rest of North Little Rock, it seems like the perfect time to make a personal investment in our city."

Because Historic District restrictions pertain only to the outside of a historic structure, the Hamiltons are free to modernize the inside of the Baker House, said the city's History Commission director, Sandra Taylor-Smith.

"They're going to take down a privacy fence and remove that covered walkway that connects the carriage house to the main house, which will open up that space," Taylor-Smith said. "Those are not historic. They are not original to the house.

"I'm thrilled that someone who cares about it and appreciates its historic significance has purchased it," she said. "Absolutely thrilled."

Hamilton said "the last thing we would do is jeopardize the historic nature of the house."

What won't return, he said, will be anything to do with an infamous legend associated with the Baker House.

An inaccurate back story about the house's origins was described on a historical marker that stood on the front lawn for many years and became part of local lore, even after the tale was debunked by city historians. The story was that a black jockey had built the house but never lived there because racism forced him away.

In truth, the owner was white and a jeweler. The Baker House was confused with the Engelberger House, at 2105 N. Maple St., a similar Queen Anne Victorian house built in 1895, now near North Little Rock High School.

There was a black jockey, Alonzo Clayton, who owned and lived in that house, but sold it in 1899 and left the area. Clayton didn't leave because of racial discrimination, but because he fell behind on property taxes, according to commission research.

It wasn't until more commission research on Clayton after a May 2005 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article about the Baker House legend and a Kentucky Derby winner named Lonnie Clayton, that it was known that Alonzo and Lonnie were one in the same.

At age 15, Lonnie Clayton had ridden Azra to a Kentucky Derby win in 1892. Clayton was learned to have had a stellar career as a jockey and later twice rode horses that finished as Kentucky Derby runners-up.

The Millers eventually removed the marker. In 2007, they and the city's History Commission hosted some of Clayton's descendants at the Baker House to formally recognize Clayton's connection to the city. In 2012, the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame posthumously inducted Clayton, who as a one-time North Little Rock resident was eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Hamilton has an undergraduate degree in history, so he said he doesn't agree with an old movie line that "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

"I am an advocate for the true story," said the city's official spokesman. "We won't be peddling the false narrative of the house."

Metro on 11/11/2018

Print Headline: 'Boutique hotel' planned for 1898 home in downtown North Little Rock

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