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OPINION | REX NELSON: Coming back downtown

by Rex Nelson | March 3, 2021 at 4:02 a.m.

A given concerning this pandemic is that there will be a glut of retail space across the country once it ends. Consumers have become accustomed to shopping online, and it's a habit that will stick. The commercial real estate sector faces daunting challenges.

For the state's largest city, the lesson is clear: We need fewer strip centers being built along Cantrell Road and Chenal Parkway. We need more infill development downtown, making use of existing structures.

Little Rock has made progress downtown the past two decades, but there remain gaping holes. For example, the two tallest buildings on Main Street--Boyle and Donaghey--are empty and deteriorating. They cry out for redevelopment as capital city leaders try to increase the number of people living in the urban core.

In columns last week, I pointed out the sad shape of Capitol Avenue from Broadway west to the state Capitol. What should be Arkansas' grandest boulevard is bordered by surface parking lots and empty buildings. Here's hoping that city government will take the lead on a beautification project with extensive landscaping and better lighting so this stretch of street that leads to the steps of our state Capitol can be something in which all Arkansans take pride.

The columns last week also outlined a $7 million renovation plan for the Frederica Hotel, once the Sam Peck. If there's any good news, it's that Little Rock didn't tear down all of its historic downtown buildings. At least the Boyle and Donaghey buildings still exist, ripe for revitalization after the pandemic. And though we imploded the Marion and Grady Manning hotels, buildings that housed the Sam Peck, Capital, Lafayette and Albert Pike hotels are still in use.

There's fascinating history associated with those buildings. My office is just a block from the Albert Pike, and I pass it regularly during downtown walks. It debuted in 1929, not exactly the best time to be opening a large hotel since that's when the Great Depression began. Still, the Albert Pike, now a residential facility, would reign as one of the state's best-known hotels for decades.

In 1971, Second Baptist Church bought the hotel for $740,000 and transformed it into a residence hotel. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The block on which the hotel was built once had been occupied by a house constructed in 1827 for Robert Crittenden, secretary of the Arkansas Territory. The Crittenden House was among the first brick residences in Little Rock. Facing financial problems, Crittenden attempted to trade the house for 10 sections of undeveloped land, hoping the home would become the site of the territorial capitol.

Foreclosure followed Crittenden's death, and the house was sold to Judge Benjamin Johnson, whose heirs later sold it to Dr. E.V. Dewell. He then sold the house to Gov. James P. Eagle, and it was the official governor's residence from 1889-93. The Crittenden House was razed in 1920.

The 175-room Albert Pike was constructed at a cost of almost $1 million. The hotel was built in the Spanish Revival style, which was popular in California at the time. It featured tiled roofs, exposed beams, decorative tile, ironwork and stained-glass windows. The building is Little Rock's only remaining major example of Spanish Revival architecture.

When Farrell Hotel Co. opened it, the Albert Pike was considered to be among the finest hotels in the South. Architect Eugene Stern designed two main wings of eight stories each that extended toward Scott Street and were connected across the back by a 10-story section. Above the entries were terra-cotta medallions with heraldic shields and the initials "AP."

The two-story main lobby was overlooked by a mezzanine that featured a custom-made Hazelton Brothers grand piano designed to match the building's interior features. Hazelton Brothers Piano Co., established in 1840 by brothers Henry and Fredrick Hazelton in New York City, was among the top piano manufacturers of the period.

The owners decided to name the hotel after Albert Pike, a prominent lawyer who had died in 1891. Pike, a central figure in the development of Freemasonry in the state, was a poet, writer and Confederate commander in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

In 1976, the residence hotel received a $2.4 million loan from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for infrastructure improvements. In late 1985, it was purchased by a privately held corporation based at Jonesboro. The new owners continued upgrades to the interior, including restoration of what's known as the North Lounge in 1994.

In May 2013, BSR Trust of Little Rock and Montgomery, Ala., completed the purchase of the 130 apartments. Empire Corp. of Knoxville, Tenn., was hired to perform additional renovations.

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program notes: "The main significance of the Albert Pike Hotel lies not in the site on which it stands nor in the man for whom it was named; rather, the real significance lies in its vivid reflections of a bygone time and an architecture appropriate for that time.

"The Albert Pike was built in the year of the crash, but as near as the crash and the Great Depression were, the time was still the Roaring Twenties when the hotel was built. It was still a time of spending, speculation and naïve economic optimism. The lavishness of the hotel's architecture is a kind of social art reflecting that time of high living so soon to end."

There are many such jewels in downtown Little Rock. They just need to be polished.


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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