Group fights to save piece of history on Petit Jean

Don Higgins said he wasn’t born on Petit Jean Mountain but “I got here as fast as I could.”

Higgins wasn’t quite 2 months old in July 1954 when he spent his first night on the mountain inside the cut native stone and mortar building known as Hardison Hall.

Today, with a military career behind him, he is retired and has been living on Petit Jean since 2006 with a mission to preserve that facility, as well as honor the memory of Dr. T.W. Hardison as the founder of the Arkansas State Parks system. Higgins is not alone. He has a group of supporters behind him, including Morrilton resident Eddie Ann Dixon, founder of the Facebook page Hardison Hall Memories in Petit Jean State Park. She joined Higgins in the goal, she said, in 2011.

“Dr. Hardison’s only monument is that ruin of a building,” Higgins said, referring to Hardison Hall, which closed in 1974 and is boarded up and being used for park storage. “Now that is a travesty.”

Higgins’ love for the mountain and Hardison Hall began when he was just a babe in arms. His grandmother, Clara Thines, managed the store in Hardison while his grandfather manned the park’s store. Of course, Higgins was too young to remember his first night in Hardison Hall but was told that he turned blue and had to be attended by physician Dr. T.W. Hardison, also a resident of Petit Jean Mountain.

That story, Higgins said, is documented in the diaries of the late doctor, who is also the namesake of Hardison Hall. Higgins’ love affair with the mountain and perhaps Hardison Hall probably began then, he speculates. A few years later, he said, he and his sister “ruled” Petit Jean State Park, developing an everlasting love for it.

As a child, he explored the banks of Lake Bailey and the area’s natural history. He spent many nights in his grandparents’ living quarters at Hardison Hall. Built as a dormitory with a large dining hall and conference rooms, Hardison Hall was fully equipped for meals and housekeeping, with an industrial-type kitchen, cooks and a wait staff.

“It was built to be and was the center of all activities for many years,” Higgins recalls. The doors were revolving with one group leaving and another coming in, he added. Scout troops, church groups and other social organizations frequented the facility. It was also used as an Arkansas State Police training center and as lodging for the Young Adult Conservation Corps. Orchestras and musical groups were common at events. There was also a daily ceremonial flag raising.

Although she never lived on the mountain, Dixon also has memories of being on the mountain as a child through adulthood. In the mid-’70s, she took a job working in maintenance at the park and developed an even closer bond to the site.

“I love the mountain and everything about it,” she said. “I grew up in Morrilton, and I will do everything I can to save the building and the history regarding this mountain.”

Presenting a united front, Higgins and Dixon would like to see Hardison Hall, as well as Hardison’s legacy, preserved. However, they have been told the building is set for demolition, and the cost of repair is prohibitive.

“I’m sure there are a thousand arguments why this can’t be done, but the facts are, the rocks are cut and native stone and still uncracked. And there is concrete set by Romans 2000 years ago that is still in good shape,” Higgins said.

Looking at the flat roof, however, they believe that to repair it would be costly. “Yes, it will cost some money. I guess it all comes down to — what is preserving history and the memory of Dr. Hardison worth?” Higgins said.

“Dr. Hardison was well-loved by the people of Morrilton,” Dixon added.

Higgins said the doctor has no living relatives, but there are reminders that he was there.

In the park’s visitors center, a sign is inscribed, “Dr. Hardison came to the mountain in 1906 as a contract physician for the Fort Smith Lumber Company. He quickly discovered the many wonders of the mountain and began to pursue its preservation. In 1923, eight individuals donated 80 acres of land for a state park.”

At Hardison’s urging, Gov. Thomas McRae signed Act 276 of 1923 assigning the land to the State Land Commission and creating Arkansas’ first state park: Petit Jean. In 1927, Hardison was appointed chairman of the National Park Service.

Hardison Hall, measuring about 14,000 square feet, was built by the Arkansas Resources and Development Commission in 1948 at a cost of about $95,600. The structure’s original tri-level floor plan includes six 1,100-square-foot barracks-like dormitory rooms, four 200-square-foot bedrooms, a 200-person-capacity auditorium with a stage, and a 360-square-foot kitchen with a pantry. Additional areas within the structure include a 1,200-square-foot lounge, a reception area, a staff meeting room, an office, four restrooms and storage closets.

The architects were Trapp and Clippard, and the building contractor was Tri-States Construction Co.

The building was dedicated to the memory of Hardison after his death in April 1957. He is credited with playing the leading role in the creation of Petit Jean State Park and is considered by many as the founder of the Arkansas State Park system. The dedication was attended by Gov. Orval Faubus and future Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, along with Hardison’s widow.

When Arkansas voters approved the one-eighth-cent conservation tax in 1996, Hardison Hall, after long years of disrepair, was placed on the Arkansas State Parks’ 10-Year Legacy Plan for renovation. In 2003, an outside contractor deemed the building too expensive to renovate and recommended that it be razed. With the staff recommending this as well, the commission approved.

Advocates for saving Hardison Hall disagree with its fate. Higgins has requested

a tour of Hardison but has been turned down by park officials citing dangerous conditions. Dixon said that she, however, was allowed inside the main entrance and dining hall a couple of years ago and took some photographs. The inside floor is concrete, she said, and appears in good shape. The walls also appear to be solid, she added. Large white columns still stand. There’s also a fireplace, she said, with a painting still hanging on the wall.

Walking around the grounds, Higgins shared many more personal memories. Even if the interior of Hardison Hall is beyond saving, there was discussion regarding preservation of the native stone exterior and converting it into a pavilion.

The property where it sits, he said, is “prime park real estate” and a perfect location for an interpretive center, a new visitors center or for building an Arkansas Civilian Conservation Corps museum. After all, V-CCC Company 1781 was assigned to Petit Jean State Park and worked there from 1933 to 1938. The first project was living quarters for the camp. Soon after, construction of Mather Lodge and the cabins began. Work was also started on the construction of a native stone dam for the formation of Lake Bailey. Once the lake of approximately 100 acres was complete, a water tower was constructed for Mather Lodge and the cabins. During the CCC’s tenure at Petit Jean, they made great strides in road building, trail building and the construction of structures still enjoyed in the park today, including Mather Lodge, the pavilions and the Davies Bridge over Cedar Creek to Red Bluff Drive.

The work of the CCC at Petit Jean, according to Higgins, has been recognized as an outstanding example of CCC work in Arkansas.

State Parks Director Richard Davies confirmed that Hardison Hall is scheduled to be razed. However, a date has not been set for the destruction. The building, he noted, does have concrete walls and floors with all the utilities in the walls. He said lead and

asbestos could be removed and false walls could be constructed inside with new wiring and plumbing installed.

“But the way the building was originally constructed makes it almost impossible to restore it to some useful purpose at a cost that is reasonable using public dollars,” Davies said. “Renovations of buildings are often more expensive than new ones. Nevertheless, we generally try to save the buildings in the parks if feasible at all. Hardison Hall, as built, simply presented too many obstacles to make it reasonably feasible.”

He also cited problems with compliance regarding the Americans With Disabilities Act because the structure is split into three levels.

The renovation of the facility, he said, has been considered periodically since the closure. In the early years, according to a state parks feasibility study published in December 2011, $134,000 was appropriated for repairs. After the bid process was complete, the plans were abandoned due to the cost. In 1977, it was determined a complete renovation would cost $550,000. Three years later costs were calculated again and ranged from $662,000 for an in-house work force to $1.75 million for contracted services. Adjusted for inflation, the 1980 renovation cost estimate exceeded $4.5 million. In November 1996, voters passed a conservation sales tax which went into effect July 1997 with money to be distributed among all Arkansas State Parks with the renovation of Hardison Hall, for use as a group dormitory and conference center, included as a part of the projected 10-year Legacy Spending Plan for Petit Jean State Park. The renovation was to be done in fiscal years 2001-2003. In 1998, a feasibility study was commissioned again to explore options with the structure. The result of the study, the report said, concluded that it would “be difficult, if not impossible, to meet modern building codes. The building no longer complied with a long list of codes including fire safety requirements.”

In the early 2000s, the cost to implement the 10-year spending plan would exceed generated revenues, according to the study. An engineering firm, Carter and Burgess Inc., was asked to prepare a Long Range Development Plan, approved by the Park Commission in February 2003, which proposed that both Hardison Hall and the adjacent Recreation Hall be replaced with a new, much smaller group multiuse facility to be built in a rustic architectural style. Another factor in the final

decision to tear down Hardison Hall, Davies said, was the establishment of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean, which also negated much of the need for a group facility.

“We generally try not to duplicate facilities in the neighborhood,” he said. “Good examples would be that we didn’t build campgrounds at the Ozark Folk Center or Pinnacle Mountain state parks because there were private and or Corps facilities almost next door.”

Davies said the problems with the plumbing and a drop in demand for dormitory-style lodging made the operation of the facility a losing proposition economically.

“Although it’s been closed since 1974, I remember it when it was open,” Davies said. “Dr. Hardison, in my view, was the founder the State Parks system, and George Trapp, the architect, was a good friend of my parents

(Janice and Ladd Davies). I have three of his etchings that he gave me on my wall at home. Do I think it’s a handsome building, inside or out? No. Do I think it fits in with the rest of the park? No. Do I think we’ve bent over backward trying to find a way to make it a useful building at a decent cost? Yes. Do I think it’s worth spending millions to get a building with little usefulness just because it’s named after Dr. Hardison? No. Do I think we need another building named for Dr. Hardison at Petit Jean State Park? Yes.”

On that note, Davies said there is a mini display set up at Mather Lodge now serving as a tribute to Hardison, and the department will continue to honor the legacy of the doctor through various other efforts.