Saving Our Capitol

Old State House Museum - Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The story of the Old State House is anything but simple. As the original Arkansas capitol, the building itself has been through its fair share of ups and downs. For a comprehensive look at the life of our original state capitol, visit the Old State House Museum and see the Pillars of Power exhibit. For now, let’s take a look at few of the Arkansans who saved our capitol and fought to preserve this integral part of our state history:

the original Old State House building in disrepair

Construction of the Old State House began in 1833 and was complicated from the beginning. Much of the material for the building was obtained locally, even bricks which may have been made on-site. Because of a lack of funds, the construction for this elegant design was not declared complete until 1842, even though the doors opened for the first assembly in 1836.

The building remained essentially the same for the next 40 years although there was constant need for repair. Problems in the interior appeared as early as 1837, and even the grounds were in poor condition, trampled by nearby livestock. In reality, the State of Arkansas could not afford to attend to these matters.

The first real attempt at repair began in 1875. The legislative chambers were fortified and the grounds were beautified by the Ladies’ Benevolent Association of Little Rock and Pine Bluff with bronze statues, newly planted trees and sodded grass. Despite the improvements, the repairs were not adequate.

damaged remains of the old capitol building

With the exception of the entire building being repainted in 1902, nothing major was undertaken for 30 years. The building served as the state capitol until 1911, when construction was completed on a new building. Questions arose concerning the future of the first state house. Would it be office space? Would it simply be torn down?

The Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs passionately advocated keeping the building as an historic monument, since the structure was the site of Arkansas government proceedings for 75 years. This women’s organization served as a major influence in the survival of the Old State House. Other groups credited for championing the Old State House (as cited in the book Celebrating 175 Years) were Daughters of the American Revolution, United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Colonial Dames, the Arkansas Historical Association, the Arkansas Pioneers Association, the Arkansas Historical and Memorial Association and the United Daughters of 1812. The State Historical Museum Association was created for the purpose of preventing the sale or destruction of the building. In 1913, the Arkansas Medical School was given space in the building.

In 1932, architect Frank Ginnocchio was hired to inspect the building and list the needed repairs. The state then applied for funds from the newly created Civil War Administration (later renamed as the Works Progress Administration), which resulted in the federal agency approving and beginning work in 1934.

From 1936 to 1942 the Old State House served as the headquarters of many New Deal projects. One of its most successful efforts, under the direction of Bessie Moore, was its nursery school program, which introduced the notion of kindergarten education to Arkansas. Perhaps the most unusual effort was the Women’s Measuring Project, which measured thousands of women to inform the design of the first uniforms for the Women’s Army Corps.

The new patriotism from World War II inspired many Arkansans to support restoration of the Old State House. Governor Ben T. Laney pledged in 1944 to restore the Old State House, and the Legislature approved the Arkansas History Commission’s proposal to restore the building and use it to store their collections. However, no funds were allocated. When the Legislature convened again in 1947, Louise Loughborough and Agnes Loewer of the Federation of Women’s Clubs posted themselves in the halls of the House and Senate and “button-holed” every legislator who passed. The Old State House bill passed without a single opposing vote.

Reconstruction of old capitol building

Thus began the support and commitment to repair and preserve the Old State House. In 1996, the Old State House Museum, a museum of the Department of Arkansas Heritage since the 1970s, closed to undergo the most extensive restoration in its history and became what you see today. Come and explore this beloved building today and tour the Old State House Museum.