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Three properties named to Arkansas’ Most Endangered Places list

by Bill Bowden, Joseph Flaherty | May 18, 2023 at 3:50 a.m.
Rachel Patton, executive director of Preserve Arkansas, talks about Arkansas’ most endangered places as Tim Maddox, a Preserve Arkansas board member, looks on at the William Woodruff House in Little Rock on Wednesday during the announcement of this year’s endangered places list. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Preserve Arkansas announced its 2023 Most Endangered Places list on Wednesday.

The list includes the Central High School Neighborhood Historic District in Little Rock, the oldest building in Osceola and a 118-year-old church in Helena-West Helena that was severely damaged by straight-line winds in 2020.

The Central High neighborhood and Centennial Baptist Church in Helena-West Helena have been on the most endangered list before, "but challenges persist," Rachel Patton, executive director of Preserve Arkansas, said during Wednesday's announcement in Little Rock.

"It is critical that we find cooperative solutions to save these important historic places before they are lost," she said.

The Most Endangered Places Program began in 1999 to raise awareness of historically and architecturally significant properties facing threats such as demolition, deterioration and "insensitive development," according to Preserve Arkansas, the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to saving Arkansas' architectural and cultural heritage.

After soliciting nominations, a selection committee of preservation professionals, architects, historians and Preserve Arkansas members chose the most endangered properties based on their level of significance, severity of the threat, and level of local support. The list is updated each year.

This year's most endangered places are:

Centennial Baptist Church in Helena-West Helena. In 1905, the Rev. Elias Camp Morris and architect Henry James Price, both of whom were born in slavery, built the Centennial Baptist Church in Helena, according to an article in Smithsonian Magazine. Centennial Baptist Church emerged as a center of leadership and a beacon of pride for the Black community, according to the article. It hosted civil rights leaders Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois, and entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker.

In 1895, Morris was elected as the first president of the National Baptist Convention, the largest denomination of Black Christians in the United States. He held that post until his death in 1922.

Designed in the Gothic Revival style, Centennial Baptist Church is one of only 17 National Historic Landmarks in Arkansas.

On April 12, 2020, straight line winds severely damaged the church, knocking the front wall down and taking the roof off of the sanctuary.

"It looks like a bombed-out World War II ruin," Mayor Kevin Smith said at the time.

But it was already in trouble before the storm.

By the mid-1980s, the building had reached a state of dangerous deterioration, and the last service was held there in 1998, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Centennial Baptist Church has been on the most endangered list twice before -- in 2006 and 2018. Patton said it's the only property to have appeared on the most endangered list three times.

"Although work has been done to stabilize Centennial Baptist Church, the structure continues to be threatened by structural instability and exposure to vandalism," according to Preserve Arkansas when the church was named to the most endangered list in 2018. "Work began to stabilize the structural trusses in 1998, but ended in 2003 due to budget shortfalls. The deterioration of these trusses has created cracks in the foundation and exposed the interiors, including the historic pews and 1908 pipe organ, to damage from the elements. Centennial Baptist Church is one of the most significant historic churches in Arkansas and its loss would be immeasurable."

"Urgent action is needed to preserve what remains," Preserve Arkansas said in a news release on Wednesday.

Central High School Neighborhood Historic District in Little Rock. This historic district is significant for its association with the westward expansion of Little Rock, the 1957 desegregation crisis and as a mixed-use neighborhood with buildings dating from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries, according to Preserve Arkansas.

"The district's National Register designation is compromised due to the loss of historic structures to demolition, neglect, and insensitive alterations," according to Preserve Arkansas. "A cooperative solution is needed to preserve historic resources, maintain affordability, and encourage investment."

The Little Rock Board of Directors recently voted down two measures that would have added a layer of oversight meant to protect historic structures in the Central High School neighborhood by creating what is known as a local-ordinance district.

One such district established by Little Rock municipal ordinance already exists in the area of MacArthur Park, where property owners must get the permission of the city's Historic District Commission for demolitions, new construction or exterior alterations to ensure the changes comport with the neighborhood's historic fabric.

City staff within the Little Rock Planning and Development Department pursued the proposed local-ordinance district for the Central High School area, citing the possibility that if left unchecked, neglected properties, incompatible alterations and demolitions could put an end to the neighborhood's inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

City board members last July approved a six-month moratorium on the issuance of permits for demolition and exterior building modifications within the Central High School neighborhood, with some exceptions, in light of the pending local-ordinance district proposal. They later voted to extend the moratorium until April 19.

But on March 7, members of the Board of Directors unanimously rejected two ordinances to create the Central High School local-ordinance district and increase the number of representatives on the Historic District Commission from seven to nine, respectively. At the time, City Director Virgil Miller Jr. of Ward 1, who represents the Central High School area, cited the opposition of two neighborhood groups.

Osceola Times building in Osceola. Located on the east side of Osceola's courthouse square, the National Register-listed Osceola Times building was constructed in 1901 and was the time home of the oldest weekly newspaper in eastern Arkansas.

It is now the oldest building standing at Osceola, , according to Preserve Arkansas. The building is vacant and deteriorating rapidly due to a partial roof collapse about a year ago.

"A successful save would see this significant property rehabilitated for a new use and encourage additional renovation efforts in downtown Osceola," according to Preserve Arkansas.

This year's most endangered list also includes "one to continue watching": Worthen Bank Building in Little Rock. The building was constructed in 1928 at the southeast corner of 4th and Main streets in downtown Little Rock. Founded in 1877, the Worthen Bank Co. was Little Rock's oldest, continuously operated financial intuition until it was acquired by Boatmen's Bank in 1994, according to Preserve Arkansas. From 1969 until January 2023, the building was occupied by KATV, the local ABC affiliate. It is now vacant.

"A successful save would be the rehabilitation of the facility into offices, housing, or even an urban grocery store," according to Preserve Arkansas.

  photo  The historic Centennial Baptist Church in Helena-West Helena, shown in this April 13, 2020 photo, was listed among Arkansas’ Most Endangered Places on Wednesday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)
  photo  The Worthen Bank Building at the southeast corner of Fourth and Main streets in downtown Little Rock was listed as one of Arkansas’ Most Endangered Places on Wednesday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Print Headline: Nonprofit releases ’23 list of endangered historic locales


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