Tony Curtis' house at 1221 S. Louisiana St. has gone from what was once called "The House of Shame" to what present-day guests might call the "House of Acclaim."
The Samuel B. Kirby House was built in 1886-'87. A story with an artist rendering of the Queen Anne-style home ran June 19, 1887, in the Arkansas Gazette. The story called the home a "palatial residence."
Kirby, who owned a sewing machine distribution company, lived in the house with his wife, Dovenia "Dovie," until his death in 1905. The home was listed for sale in 1921. It eventually was converted into five apartments. Curtis' grandmother lived in one of those apartments from 1958 to 1965. And Curtis' parents also lived in the house.
"My parents were here briefly after they were married so I was more than likely conceived here," says Curtis, who was born in May 1965 and grew up in Sheridan.
Though his grandmother moved out of the house in 1965, the Curtis family continued to visit the other residents of the house — mostly older women who became Curtis' "surrogate grandmothers."
Kirby House: From Shame to Acclaim
Tony Curtis’ house at 1221 S. Louisiana St. has gone from what was once called “The House of Shame” to what present-day guests might call the “House of Acclaim.”
After the last of the women moved out, the house changed hands between "slum lords" in the 1980s and the house became overrun with "prostitutes and drug dealers," Curtis says.
Curtis moved to Little Rock in 1987 and he and his sister wanted to drive by the old house. He could remember the street number but not the name of the street.
"I saw it when we past what was Juanita's [restaurant] in the background so we stopped in. It was open and abandoned and falling apart," Curtis says. "So I took care of it until I bought it in 1992."
The house was in foreclosure and Curtis took it upon himself to keep the house padlocked, ran off vagrants and cleaned up the yard. At that time, he was an assistant manager at a Target making $5.85 an hour.
"It changed my life coming here. It really did," Curtis says.
He learned about Capitol Zoning laws and tax credits. He went to work for a real estate brokerage company that focused on saving old houses. He eventually got his real estate license. He credits Mark Abernathy, then owner of Juanita's, and Charles Marratt, who owned the brokerage company, with putting him on a new track.
Curtis ended up selling the house in 1995 to a couple who wanted to restore it but the repairs were more than they could manage. He bought the house back in 1999. But the restoration proved costly and time consuming.
In 2005, the city waged a sign campaign to embarrass homeowners of abandoned properties into cleaning and fixing up their houses. A news conference was scheduled at his house, but it was postponed after Curtis told city officials he had building permits in place and was in the process of restoring it. He learned later that the permits had expired and quickly bought new building permits.
It took Curtis 20 years to rehabilitate the house. He worked to make sure the structure was true to the way it looked in 1890s. He found old photographs of former residents, which he sent to China to have painted as portraits. They hang in many rooms and stairwells of his three-story mansion.
During the past two decades, Curtis extensively researched the Kirbys as well as other former owners of the house. He says genealogy and restoring his house are his biggest passions. In July, he opened his home to members of the Quapaw Quarter Association. He has also welcomed descendants of former owners to the house.
He dreams that one day his house will become a museum where people can learn more about genealogical research. And he says he does not know where he would be today if it wasn't for the Kirby house.
"I don't know. You know, I've owned it a bit longer than Sam Kirby did. So I don't know. I really just don't know."