REX NELSON: The preservationists

It's a rare winter indeed when I miss the Slovak Oyster Supper. Traditionally held on the final Friday night of January, the Knights of Columbus event on the Grand Prairie combines the things I love most about Arkansas--good food, colorful characters, lively conversation and a strong sense of place. I've been to Slovak almost every January since moving back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989.

This was a year when I missed the event. I was invited to serve as the emcee for Preserve Arkansas' annual awards banquet. The chance to honor some of my favorite people in Arkansas was appealing. For too long in this state, we not only ignored our past but also seemed intent on erasing things that make Arkansas unique. Rather than rehabilitating old homes and historic commercial buildings, we knocked them down, often replacing them with cheap metal structures. Things have begun to improve in recent years, and I want to do my part to ensure the momentum continues. This was a chance to let the honorees know that others appreciate their efforts. Allow me to introduce you to these people.

There's Ginger Sandy, who has spent thousands of hours preserving the history of the Cedar Grove community in northern Independence County (there actually are two communities in the county that go by that name). This Cedar Grove was only three miles from Old Jackson Military Road, and settlers arrived there in the early 1820s. Sandy became the community's historian, amassing a large collection of materials and starting a Facebook page that has become a valuable resource for genealogists.

There's author Patsy Watkins, who recently retired as a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas. She's responsible for the book It's All Done Gone: Arkansas Photographs from the Farm Security Administration Collection, 1935-43. Published by the University of Arkansas Press, the book includes about 200 of the more than 1,000 FSA photos taken during the Great Depression. Thanks to Watkins, we can experience workers picking cotton, families evicted from their homes because of their connections to the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the effects of floods and droughts on what already was a poor state.

There are the people who led efforts to preserve the former First Presbyterian Church at Des Arc and transform it into a public library. The building was completed in 1912 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. The last church service was held there in 2011. The vacant church became the property of the Des Arc School District, which planned to use it for storage. But Prairie County Judge Mike Skarda and a group of preservationists had a better idea. The roof was replaced, exterior bricks were repaired, the front doors were refinished, the portico was repainted and the interior was redone for a library that opened last July.

There are the business and civic leaders of El Dorado who transformed the Griffin Auto Co. building downtown into a first-class concert venue and a place for fine dining. Built in 1928, the Griffin now anchors the Murphy Arts District, which is drawing people from across Arkansas, north Louisiana and east Texas for concerts and other events. Known locally as MAD, the district has provided new life for a city that has watched its population decline from 23,000 to 18,000 since 1990.

There are the folks at WD&D Architects who renovated the 1908 James Mitchell School at 2410 S. Battery St. in Little Rock. The school originally was a four-room structure designed by famous Arkansas architect Charles L. Thompson. It was used by the Little Rock School District for almost a century and received additions in 1910, 1915 and 1952. The building was empty from 2005-17 when the Arkansas Department of Education approved a charter school that would go there. The school opened last fall.

There are the employees of the state Department of Parks & Tourism and of WER Architects/Planners who oversaw the renovation of the Brunson House in southwest Arkansas. The 1860s home at Columbus was owned by Dr. Robert Brunson. His family occupied the house until 1872, when the doctor fled the state after killing a man in a street fight. In 1979, the house was purchased by Edwin and Ruth Evans and donated to the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation. The structure was moved to Washington in Hempstead County in 1987. With funding from the Arkansas Natural & Cultural Resources Council, restoration efforts began in 2017.

There's architect John Greer, Jerry Leach and the rest of the team behind the restoration of the Methodist Manse at Cane Hill in western Washington County. A group of Cumberland Presbyterians founded Cane Hill in 1827 and organized one of the state's first public schools there in 1834. That school later became Cane Hill College, which operated until 1891. The Methodist Manse is the only symbol of early Methodism at Cane Hill. It was built in 1859 and acquired by Historic Cane Hill Inc. in 2013.

There's the team from the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History and Clements & Associates Architecture who oversaw the renovation of the 1871 Shiloh Meeting Hall at Springdale. The building originally served as the meeting place for three churches and the Masonic Lodge. It later was the meeting hall for the Odd Fellows, who donated it to the Shiloh Museum in 2005.

There are Mary Ann Lee and Greg Gallagher. Lee opened Indigo Blue Coffeehouse at 212 W. Barraque St. in downtown Pine Bluff. The building housing her business was constructed in 1883. Lee began restoring it in 2015 and opened the business last June. Gallagher, meanwhile, restored the Paulk House in Texarkana's Beech Street Historic District. The house was built in 1914 by lumberman Louis Paulk. By the time Gallagher purchased it, it has been abandoned for almost 40 years. Gallagher personally performed most of the restoration work.

There are the many people behind the Rohwer Reconstructed website, which tells the story of the Japanese-Americans who were forced to live at Rohwer during World War II. An archive on the website contains more than 1,300 items related to Rohwer.

And there's Congressman Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs, who helped lead efforts in Washington to save the federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, which is essential if the types of projects outlined above are to continue across the country.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 02/24/2019

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