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OPINION | REX NELSON: Rockefeller and Stone

by Rex Nelson | February 27, 2021 at 4:01 a.m.

Once VIPA Hospitality finishes renovations on what was most recently the Frederica Hotel in downtown Little Rock, I hope the company will name rooms after Edward Durell Stone and Winthrop Rockefeller. There should be recognition given to the roles those men played in the hotel's history.

In 1935, Sam and Henryetta Peck bought the Hotel Freiderica (the original spelling) on Capitol Avenue. The hotel was built in 1913 by Little Rock businessman Fred Allsopp. The name was changed to the Hotel Sam Peck. In 1938, the Pecks hired Stone to design an art deco annex. Stone, who had been born at Fayetteville in 1902, would go on to become one of the most famous architects of the 20th century.

"The youngest of three children, Stone attended Fayetteville's public schools but was not a serious student," Robert Skolmen wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "His mother encouraged his talents for drawing and building things and allowed him to have a home carpentry shop. At age 14, he won first prize in the countywide birdhouse competition, the judges of which included an architect and the president of the University of Arkansas."

Stone attended the UA from 1920-23 and then moved to Boston, where his brother was an architect. Stone was hired as a draftsman by Henry Shepley, who was among the city's leading architects. Stone later attended Harvard's architectural school and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, though he never graduated.

He headed to Europe in 1927 and stayed two years. When he returned to the United States, Stone settled in New York, working on projects such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Goodyear House. He was chief of the planning and design section of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.

Stone returned to Arkansas after the war, designing buildings such as University Hospital in Little Rock and the Sigma Nu house on the UA campus in Fayetteville. Childhood friend J. William Fulbright even asked him to design a line of furniture, which was manufactured by Fulbright Industries of Fayetteville in the 1950s.

The Arkansas-born architect would go on to design such well-known structures as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, the General Motors building in New York City, the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, the El Panama Hotel in Panama City, Panama, and the Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif.

When Rockefeller fled New York in 1953 for Arkansas, the Sam Peck Hotel was the first place he called home. Rockefeller, who was among the world's richest men at the time, was in a sense a refugee from a highly publicized divorce and the constant scrutiny of his drinking and nightclub adventures in Manhattan. He was a far different man than his brothers, having withdrawn from Yale after three years in order to serve as an apprentice roughneck in the Texas oilfields. Rockefeller would later tell friends that it was the happiest period of his life.

In 1937, at age 25, the man who later would become known in our state simply as WR returned to New York and went to work for a family oil company, Socony-Vacuum. He didn't like it.

Another happy period came during Rockefeller's Army career. He enlisted as a private more than 10 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By the end of World War II, Rockefeller was a lieutenant colonel who had seen action at Guam and Okinawa.

"Rockefeller's years after World War II weren't happy ones," writes noted Arkansas historian Tom Dillard. "Still working at Socony-Vacuum, he chafed at the restrictive lifestyle expected of him and his siblings. A heavy drinker known for his playboy lifestyle, Rockefeller frequented chic cafes late at night with a movie star on his arm. He abruptly married an attractive blonde divorcee named Barbara 'Bobo' Sears on Valentine's Day in 1948. Soon they were the parents of a son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, but the marriage dissolved within a year."

Rockefeller came to Arkansas and the Sam Peck penthouse at the invitation of an Army friend, Frank Newell. He arrived June 9, 1953. Within a year, Rockefeller had purchased a large tract atop Petit Jean Mountain and set out to create a model ranch in the poor state that had been rapidly losing population. Ultimately, he would change the trajectory of this state.

The third and final section of the Sam Peck was built in 1960. The 49-room addition was designed in the fashion of motor inns of the era and was intended to capture business that had been lost to motels being built on roads leading in and out of the capital city. Downtown Little Rock was about to begin a long decline, and the hotel declined with it.

The original building was renovated in 1984, and the hotel reopened as the Legacy. A number of owners were involved during the years that followed, and the hotel closed for a time in 1996. Another group of owners performed renovations in 2003. They enclosed the exterior corridor of the motor inn and connected it to the original hotel. The most recent closure came in September 2019 for nonpayment of taxes.

I was there on a hot June day in 2003 when Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller re-enacted his father checking into the hotel on the 50th anniversary of that important date in Arkansas history. The then-lieutenant governor even used the suitcase that his father had carried. Now, VIPA plans to spend almost $7 million to polish this aging jewel. Anyone interested in Arkansas' heritage should wish the company success.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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