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OPINION | REX NELSON: Revitalizing Capitol Avenue

by Rex Nelson | February 24, 2021 at 3:44 a.m.

The stretch of Capitol Avenue near the state Capitol in downtown Little Rock is normally quiet during the pandemic, but on this day there was plenty of activity in front of what had most recently been the Hotel Frederica.

The hotel was locked tight for nonpayment of taxes in 2019. A film crew was setting up shop in the abandoned building. A commercial perhaps?

I contacted Parth Patel of Hot Springs, whose VIPA Hospitality purchased the property and plans to reopen it as a hotel following extensive renovations. Patel informed me that the building was being used to film "The Chariot," a science fiction comedy produced by SkipStone Pictures and starring Shane West and John Malkovich. The movie is written and directed by Adam Sigal.

It was good to see life in the building again. It will be even better to see a hotel accepting reservations, especially one operated by a company with a solid track record.

On the final Sunday of 2020, I devoted a column to things I would like to see happen in Arkansas in 2021.

Here's one paragraph of that column: "I would like to see Mayor Frank Scott and the city of Little Rock restore Capitol Avenue. This should be Arkansas' grandest boulevard -- a beautiful, vibrant street leading to the steps of the state Capitol. Instead, it's a route filled with tacky surface parking lots and empty buildings. In addition to marketing property for new construction and renovating existing buildings, a beautification project is needed with extensive landscaping, better lighting, banners and the like. Capitol Avenue should be a street that all Arkansans can take pride in."

A successful hotel is essential for the revitalization of the depressing stretch west of Broadway.

"We officially closed on the hotel on Oct. 23," Patel says. "It had been closed since September 2019. Unfortunately, the building was in sad shape. Vandals had broken in several times and done a lot of damage. We're ready to take it on. Our company has been investing in Arkansas since 1992. We entered the lodging market in Hot Springs in 1997 when we opened the current Hampton Inn.

"I moved to Arkansas in 2005 and have called this home since then. We had three hotels at Hot Springs when I moved here. That has since grown to six."

In April 2019, VIPA unveiled a plan for the $30 million Falling Waters Resort at the former site of the Majestic Hotel in downtown Hot Springs. Due to the pandemic, the company decided not to submit when the city of Hot Springs issued a formal request for proposals. Hot Springs' loss was Little Rock's gain.

"We decided to pursue this project because it's a historic building with significance to the state," Patel says. "It's smaller than the Majestic project, and that makes it friendlier for lending in this environment. We're estimating that we will spend almost $7 million." VIPA is part of a $40 million project in downtown Chicago, so the company knows how to renovate aging structures and take advantage of tax credits.

Businessman Fred Allsopp chose the corner of Capitol Avenue and Gaines Street to construct a five-story hotel in 1913 with one bathroom on each floor. Rates were $2 per night for a room, $20 per month and 50 cents for meals.

Allsopp was born in 1867 in England (the country, not the town in Lonoke County). His family moved to Prescott when he was 12. Allsopp began selling newspapers and by age 16 was setting type for the Nevada County Picayune. He applied for a job at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock when he was 17 and was hired. Allsopp started work in the mailroom but was ambitious and quickly moved up the ladder.

After learning shorthand and typing, Allsopp transferred to the business office as a stenographer and subscription clerk. He wrote letters, kept files in order and took dictation. He later moved to the newsroom. After some bad experiences as a reporter, Allsopp returned to the business department.

James Newton Smithee became majority owner of the Gazette in May 1896 and appointed Allsopp as the newspaper's secretary and assistant business manager. Allsopp later was promoted to business manager and was asked to stay when a new group of owners came along in 1899.

Several years later, Judge Carrick Heiskell of Memphis bought the newspaper along with his two sons. Allsopp became a minor stockholder in the company, though the Heiskell family later bought back his shares.

"Allsopp developed a reputation for his penny-pinching ways," the late Dennis Schick wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "He insisted on keeping advertisements on the front page long after that went out of style. He dragged his feet on virtually every proposal, from daily and color comics to going to a seven-day publication. But in 1906, the newspaper added a Monday edition, becoming a seven-day-a-week publication, and the newspaper added color comics in 1908, a first in the state.

"A lifelong lover of books, Allsopp recognized that he had a book-publishing opportunity within easy grasp with his newspaper's printing department and bindery. In addition to publishing books, he collected them and opened a bookstore, Allsopp & Chapple, the leading bookstore in Little Rock."

Allsopp also wrote five books. In 1935, Sam and Henrietta Peck bought the Hotel Frederica and immediately began making changes. Bathrooms were added, as was a sixth floor of suites. The Pecks lived on the fifth floor, and the hotel's name was changed to the Sam Peck Hotel. The hotel's golden years were just ahead.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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