Capitol and Main’s Unshuttered Corner

NEW INFORMATION just in! I’ve added it to the bottom of the post. (Sept. 5)

As I’ve said in prior posts, I didn’t get to enjoy Main Street Little Rock in its commercial heyday. By the time I was conscious of the area, on periodic visits from Stuttgart, it was on the downhill side of the Metrocentre Mall days.

Seeing the once-bustling storefronts now empty, boarded over or worse, makes me sad. I’ve seen photos and own post cards showing how it once was. We live on Louisiana Street, one block west of the 500 block of Main. And I work just four blocks west, so I naturally pass through the Main Street area many times a day and have become accustomed to the way things are.

I was thrilled this week to see the dusty windows of the former Baker’s Shoes store and the Boyle Building (aka MM Cohn’s) at the southwest corner of Capitol and Main visible for the first time in many years. You probably know this corner most recently as the location of the “Bucket List on Main” chalkboard project where passersby were invited to answer the question, “Before I Die I Want To…”.

Above photo by Brian Chilson of the Arkansas Times.

The Downtown Little Rock Partnership and other like-minded organizations smartly covered the boarded-up corner with chalkboard paint in the spring of 2011 and provided chalk, which attracted a lot of attention and activity. I have enjoyed reading the responses and occasionally added one of my own. The interactive exhibit is gone, along with other sheeting that had covered and protected the store fronts and entrances on that corner. And that’s fine. They served a protective purpose.

Uncovered: the southwest corner of Main Street and Capitol Avenue on Sept. 1, 2012

In early August, Oregon-based real estate developer, Scott Reed, purchased the Main Street buildings between Capitol and 6th Street (the 500 block of Main) with plans to develop the block into street-level commercial space and residential space in the upper floors. The buildings he purchased are our back-door neighbors, just south across the alley from our home at Lafayette Square. Our condo’s bedroom windows overlook that block of real estate.

You know how these things often go. A real estate deal and development is announced, but actual activity isn’t seen for months or years – sometimes never. That’s why I was surprised and delighted to see the plywood down so soon and evidence of work inside MMCohn’s former entrance on Capitol. The open-work, metal roll-down security door at that entrance has been engaged for years – it is now rolled up revealing the building’s official Boyle Building name in the glass. There is clear evidence of workers coming and going, and that makes me so happy. I can’t wait to witness and support what’s written in the next chapter of Main Street’s history book.

To see the recent revitalization of this and other blocks on Main Street after such a long dormancy makes me wonder if these silent spaces weren’t whispering their own answers to, “Before I Die I Want To …”

ON FOOT, CAMERA IN TOW

This Saturday afternoon, right before another wave of Hurricane Isaac’s outer-band storms rolled into Little Rock, I took a few minutes to explore this corner on foot with camera in tow. You can see what I saw by looking at the photos: dusty display windows and the Baker’s Shoes logo imbedded into the sidewalk, a Crayola soldier who’s flipped his lid, and the MMCohn script marking the store’s entrances.

What you can’t experience is the smell coming through those panes of glass and door cracks. It’s something you’ve likely experienced elsewhere, an olfactory time capsule. The smell of another time, yet in the current place. It said to me, “Let some fresh air in, we’re ready to breathe again.”

GALLERY

HISTORY OF THE BOYLE BUILDING

A photo from Arkansas Historic Preservation Program showing the beautiful Boyle Building which has/had Baker’s Shoes and MMCohn at street level. This photo was taken before the chalkboard and other coverings were removed from the corner.

The still-impressive, 11-story white skyscraper was Little Rock’s second tallest building when State National Bank built it in 1909. The bank went out of business in 1911 and local realtor, John Boyle, paid the back taxes and took over the building in 1916, renaming it the Boyle Building (name still evident today on the Capitol Street side). In 1949, a penthouse was added to the top floor, which I have often thought would make a fantastic modern-day condo. The views of downtown and the river must be amazing from up there. Next time you’re downtown, take a look at how beautiful the building’s upper floors are. It’s easy to let a building’s street-level condition distract from its overall beauty and character.

In 1960, MMCohn signed a 45-year lease of the space (which now we know was an overly-optimistic plan).

The above information is from what I think must be the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program’s nomination that the Capitol-Main Street district be added to the National Register of Historic Places – which it was in April 2012. Hooray! No doubt that designation made available historic preservation tax credits that Scott Reed took advantage of.

The entire document can be read here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/87075038/4/BLOCK-MAIN-STREET

RELATED

A Bucket List on Main, Arkansas Blog, June 2011 – http://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2011/06/09/a-bucket-list-for-little-rock

Before I Die, I Want To …, ArkansasTies blog, July 2011 –  http://www.arkansasties.com/WhatsNew/2011/07/before-i-die-i-want-to

NEW INFORMATION (9/5/12) Very exciting funding and development news for my ‘hood!

In an email from the Downtown Little Rock Partnership this afternoon (thanks Becky Falkowski!) I learned that the City of Little Rock is making a big announcement tomorrow morning at the corner of Main and Capitol – right where the photos of the Baker’s Shoes storefront, above, were taken. When you read the announcement below, you’ll see that it adds important information to the big picture of Scott Reed’s purchase of the 500 block of Main Street. Great example of grant money, a preservation mindset and private real-estate investment all coming together for good. Fingers crossed it all comes to pass.

I hope I can get out of the office tomorrow morning to attend; I’d like to hear all the details for myself. The following is the notice from the city:

  • What: Main Street Redevelopment Announcement
  • When: Thursday, September 6, 2012 – 10:00 a.m.
  • Where: Corner of Main Street & Capital Avenue

Almost a million dollars will be infused into Main Street to revitalize approximately 250,000 square feet of vacant property. The announcement of this capital from the Pulaski County Brownfield Revolving Loan Fund will be announced Thursday, September 6th at 10:00 a.m. at the corner of Main and Capital.

The Brownfield Program is an intergovernmental collaboration between Pulaski County and the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock. The agreement was formed in 2000 to redevelop contaminated properties in the downtowns on both sides of the Arkansas River. The Brownfield Revolving Loan Fund is funded with a $3 million Environmental Protection Agency grant for cleaning up environmentally impacted sites.  The EPA Region 6 administrator for this program, Amber Perry, will be on hand to discuss the importance of this project

The project that will be discussed tomorrow consists of four buildings which comprise the west side of the 500 block of Main Street in downtown Little Rock.  The twelve story building at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Main Street was built in 1909 and was originally named the State Bank Building. Immediately south of the State Bank Building is the MM Cohn Building that was built in 1941. The Arkansas Building at the corner of 6th and Main Streets was built in 1899 as the headquarters of the Pfeifer Brothers Department Store.  The Arkansas Annex, also known as the Kahn building, is adjacent to the Arkansas building and was built in 1954.  The buildings each has historic significance to Main Street and downtown Little Rock.

These four properties have been vacant for many years and suffer from environmental contamination which is a major barrier to putting these historic properties back in to productive use.  The very first step that must be taken is the top to bottom environmental remediation of all four of the buildings so that they are once again safe for occupancy.

Once the environmental remediation is complete, work will begin to preserve, repair and restore the historic elements of these great properties.  With the assistance of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and the National Parks Service, the historic elements of the properties will be carefully inventoried and plans for their protection and preservation will be put into place.

The next phase of the work program will involve improvements to convert the buildings from their original uses as office buildings and department stores to a mixed use concept consisting of residential lofts on upper floors with retail spaces on the ground floors.  In keeping with the vision of Mayor Mark Stodola for an Arts District and the location across the street from the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, the project will have an emphasis on retail tenants, both for-profit and non-profit, who contribute to the fine arts, visual arts, and performing arts.  With the continued assistance of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership and the entire Little Rock community, Main Street Lofts, LLC expects to begin rental of the loft apartments as early as next year.

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A Silent Sentinal: Henry Moore sculpture

A sculpture by Henry Moore graces front lawn of Two Union National Plaza Bldg, Capitol and Louisiana Streets, Little Rock

I first became aware of this sculpture in downtown Little Rock when I worked in the office building across the street. I would examine it as I walked by. Sometimes I would stare at it from my co-worker’s window several stories above.

What was this supposed to be? A distorted puzzle piece? A flattened piece of silly putty? An armless human?

Why was it in front of this triangular building? Were the building’s developers such lovers of public art that they included this display in their plans? It was a mystery to me.

Despite working so nearby for a year, it wasn’t until my husband and I moved to the Lafayette Building in 2011, a half-a-block to the south of this sculpture, that I took the time to examine it more closely. Once we lived downtown, I made a deliberate effort to explore my new neighborhood on foot (and still do).

As I walked home from a friend’s going-away party at Copper Grill one evening, I paused to take a photo of the sculpture – the photo at the top of this post.  A closer examination revealed the following inscription on its base. Now I had something to go on.

Large Standing Figure: Knife Edge, 1961. Henry Moorehttp://www.theartstory.org/artist-moore-henry.htm

The inscription reads: “Large Standing Figure: Knife Edge, 1961. Henry Moore. Purchased for the Metrocentre Mall by Metrocentre Improvement District No. 1 and paid for by private funds from property owners within the district. 1978.”

Ah ha! It’s a relic from a prior downtown development.

Further research revealed – thank heaven for Google – that the  purchase price was $185,000. That’s quite a significant investment! No doubt its value is much higher these days. Henry Moore’s work is world-renown and very highly regarded. We’re fortunate to have this treasure on public display.

I have very faint memories of the former pedestrian shopping district, called the Metrocentre Mall, which closed a portion of Main Street in the late 1970s. Only pedestrian traffic was allowed.

I applaud the Metrocentre Mall visionaries for giving the concept a go, but they were up against an insurmountable beast of suburbanization and urban sprawl. The project was an attempt to revive downtown Little Rock’s profile just as the more modern and popular shopping destinations of McMain Mall, Park Plaza Mall and University Mall were coming into being elsewhere in the metroplex.

The sculpture was originally placed in the center of Capitol Avenue at Main Street. This photo shows how it looked there.

Henry Moore sculpture in original location

Fantastic shot of the Henry Moore sculpture at its original location in the middle of Capitol Avenue at Main Street in downtown Little Rock’s now-defunct pedestrian mall. Notice Arkansas State Capitol in the distance.

Remnants of the Metrocentre development can be seen yet today in the brick-paved raised portions of the Capitol and Main Street intersection. Vestiges of the vibrant downtown that existed prior to that, in the late 1800s through the 1950s, can also be seen in the gorgeous architecture of empty buildings.

The Henry Moore sculpture was moved in 1999 from the center of Capitol Avenue to its current location one block to the west at Capitol and Louisiana streets. Capitol and Main streets reopened to automobile traffic at that intersection then; the former “mall” buildings long since converted to office space.

I can see the logic of moving the sculpture only a very short distance – the monolith is 11 feet five inches tall and it weighs 1,200 pounds! The backdrop of the Union Plaza building was a good choice.

Right now it’s the only public art structure in the heart of original downtown.

After learning about the sculpture and why it came to be in downtown Little Rock, I now see it as a silent sentinel who represents the hope for a revived downtown. That “Large Standing Figure” stood watch over the Metrocentre Mall. It probably seemed to dance with the live music at early Riverfests held downtown (see photo below). But I suspect it has mostly stood under appreciated and misunderstood by those who pass by it during their busy work days, as I did.

The sculpture seems to dance during this band’s performance at an early Riverfest.

Many months ago I heard there was consideration of moving the sculpture to the very vibrant Rivermarket area which hosts other public art installations. Clearly, it should be in a place where there is significant and leisurely foot traffic. But I hope that’s not done. I hope it stays where it is until it witnesses a resurgence of life in the Main Street corridor – and I believe we’re on the cusp of that coming to be.

Just a few blocks away, the Arkansas Repertory Theater occupies a former department store from Main Street’s heyday. The recent multi-million-dollar renovation of The Rep has breathed new life into downtown. The update influenced the awarding of  an arts-focused grant to rehabilitate the surrounding store fronts into an arts corridor.

Just this morning, the newspaper announced the sale of other Main Street buildings, right in the shadow of our Lafayette and diagonal to The Rep. Plans are to develop the former bank and department stores into retail and event space along with living space above. This announcement follows others in recent months that indicate a revived interest in our city’s core which is emanating from the decade-long vibrance of the River Market district along the river.

In the mean time, the Henry Moore sentinel and I will be standing by, cautiously waiting and watching. Hoping this century’s version of downtown is one filled with life, light and longevity.

Related references:

Garden & Gun: Little Rock Rising (mentions Henry Moore sculpture in original place at Capitol and Main) http://gardenandgun.com/article/little-rock-rising

Encyclopedia of Arkansas article about the Henry Moore sculpture: http://alturl.com/dp687

Artistic description of the sculpture from catalog of Moore’s art on display in public spaces: http://www.henry-moore.org/works-in-public/world/united-states-of-america/little-rock/100-west-capitol-main/large-standing-figure-knife-edge-1961-lh-482a

Henry Moore bio: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-moore-henry.htm