Hey y'all! Our quest continues with a quick springtime trip back to Dixie. Somewhat surprisingly, there are several daily direct flights between Denver and Little Rock (on multiple airlines even), so I found myself a very cheap fare for a brisk 30-hour trip to Arkansas. A state that had never before crossed my path.
I skipped out of Denver on a cold and dreary Friday morning and touched down into some lovely Southern spring weather a mere 2 hours later. After fishing through Lyft and Uber for about 30 minutes at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, I finally snagged a driver. I often forget when traveling to smaller cities that such modern contrivances as rideshare apps aren't as ubiquitous. Plus I forget to adjust my inner-clock to much slower pace of Southern time, or rather, small town time. But with the slower pace comes low-low small town prices, which is always appreciated. $14 ride from the airport? Yes, please!
I had booked a one-night stay at the spectacular AC Hotel on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock. They graciously let me check in early, so I dropped my bag and set out for the capitol.
Now I had hoped to hop onto a guided tour, which the Arkansas State Capitol website had promised were offered hourly on weekdays. This hope was dashed, however, when the kindly staff member at the tour desk informed me that they were understaffed at that moment, so I had to settle for the self-guided tour. She did mention, however, that the treasury department had its own staff who showed visitors around and that I should be sure to check that out. Duly noted. More on that later.
Arkansas was admitted to the Union in 1836 as the 25th state. They built their first capitol near the river in 1842, but had outgrown it by the turn of the 20th century. In 1899 they voted to build a new one on the hilltop site of the state's crumbling penitentiary. And who better to demolish the old prison than the prisoners themselves?
Ready for some architectural drama? George R. Mann was the winner of the 1896 contest to design the Montana State Capitol. Major feather in the cap, right? However, after it was discovered that the Montana Capitol commission was planning to scam the state out of thousands of dollars, Mann's winning design was nixed. Montana held a second contest and went with a different design. Poor old George Mann was S.O.L., but at least he had a winning design for his portfolio. States were building capitols left and right in those days, so he approached Arkansas Governor Daniel W. Jones who uttered to him the words a freelancer always dreads hearing: "I like your stuff. Let me share it with the team and we'll get back to you."
A commission was formed and Mann was eventually selected as the winning designer in 1899. A man by the name of George W. Donaghey was on "the team," and had been opposed to Mann's selection from the get-go, so much so that he decided to run for governor just so he could throw Mann's ass out in the street. Donaghey took office in 1908 and did just that, firing Mann after leading the project for nine years. Now that is vindictive. Who did Donaghey get to replace Mann? None other than Cass Gilbert, designer of the Minnesota capitol!
And get this: the foundation of the building was aligned incorrectly by the incompetent builder. That builder's name: George W. Donaghey. That's why the Capitol sits at a weird angle, askew from the rest of the Little Rock street grid. Somehow this Governor Donaghey character went down in Arkansas history as The Father of the Capitol.
They eventually got everything back on track, and the building was finished in 1915 at more than double the original budget (they splurged on a few upgrades). The result, however, is a very stately and elegant building. Not overly ornate like Gilbert's Minnesota capitol. Long, tall staircases, gleaming limestone, tons of natural light. This is a gorgeous building.
I immediately made my way to the top floor and was delighted to find an unmarked, well-appointed single-occupancy restroom. A delightful escape from the outside world.
Having accomplished my mission I set about exploring the rest of the building. I visited all the usual capitol checkpoints: the Senate gallery, the House of Representatives gallery, the old Supreme Courtroom. The Governor's reception room was hosting a meeting, so I didn't get to see that.
Among the unique highlights of the Arkansas Capitol are the six 10-foot tall brass doors on the buildings East side. Made by NYC's Tiffany studios in 1910, but sadly closed to the public since September 11th, 2001.
Another fun little feature is the old-timey four-story mail drop slot. Each level of the building has a slot wear you can drop postcards to your friends and loved ones, and they all end up on the first floor.
The jewel in the crown of the Arkansas capitol, however, is the office of the State Treasurer. This is an actual working bank within the capitol, with a very friendly staff to show you you around. The lovely Melissa, with her delightful Arkansas accent ushered me behind the old-timey barred teller windows and into the vault. A 100-year-old safe with an 11-ton door guards the funds of the state of Arkansas. They even let you hold all $600,000 of their money (hey, they had a good year)! That's enough to buy a 900 square foot home in Denver!
Melissa also told me about the recent renovations which had removed the loathsome drop-ceilings and restored the original ceilings with 17 shades of green paint. Or maybe it was 14 shades.
This is exactly the kind of unique experience you want in a capitol, much like the dome tour in Kansas. Arkansas really upped the ante - by $600K no less. Couple that with an excellent gift shop where they were kind enough to give me quarters for the souvenir penny machine, and their low-low prices on all manner of souvenir items (Arkan-socks anyone?), and you've got one excellent capitol experience. Georgia could learn a thing or two from the Arkansas Capitol.
After that I had about 24 hours to kill before my return flight to Denver. I proceeded to get drunk on a whiskey flight at the Rock Town Distillery, then stumble my way toward the river district to the Flying Fish for some fantastic fried food, before finally meandering back to the hotel to watch the Nuggets beat the Timberwolves in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.
I arose early-ish the next morning to explore a bit more of what Little Rock had to offer. I wandered back down towards the river front to find La Petite Roche - the officially designated Little Rock. Then I crossed and re-crossed the Arkansas River on the Junction Bridge.
Little Rock is home to the Bill Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, so I was obliged to pay $12 to revisit the 1990's, the greatest decade. This was my fourth Presidential library, after the Herbert Hoover library in West Branch, Iowa, the Lyndon Johnson library in Austin, Texas, and the Harry Truman library in Independence, Missouri where Grandma and Uncle Jim took my brother and I long ago.
I checked out of my hotel at noon and set out on foot to see one last Little Rock landmark. Little Rock Central High School was completed in 1927 at a cost of $1.5 million. The largest high school in America at the time (and the most beautiful), it was designed by a group that included our old friend, George W. Mann. It is still in use today with over 2,400 students.
This was a fitting follow-up to my visit to the Brown vs. Board of Education site in Topeka, Kansas. SCOTUS ruled in the 1954 Brown case that segregation was unconstitutional. Many school districts across the nation resisted desegregation for years afterward, however, and the most famous clash came in Little Rock in September of 1957. Governor Orville Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to blockade Little Rock Central High School in order to prevent nine brave black teenagers from attending class. On September 24th, President Dwight Eisenhower invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807 and sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to take control of the situation and enforce the desegregation of LRCHS.
There is a monument to the Little Rock Nine on the grounds of the Arkansas Capitol.
And that was all she wrote for La Petite Roche. I grabbed an Uber back to Clinton Airport and was bound for home. 22 Crapitols now complete. Stay tuned for our next adventure, friends.