When state government moved into the new capitol building in 1912, members of the Legislature threatened to sell the Old State House. To forestall such efforts, Secretary of State Earl Hodges, a supporter of preservation, gave space in the building to the University of Arkansas Medical Department.
Many of the medical school's activities were ill-suited to such a historic site. Sheep pens erected behind the building for anthrax testing proved highly aromatic and unpopular with other tenants. The Humane Society, which also had its headquarters at the Old State House, particularly objected to the keeping of dogs for medical research. This practice stopped, however, when a Pulaski County Deputy Sheriff discovered one of his bloodhounds in the pens.
The often-rowdy medical students were also a cause for concern. School tradition required students who made egregious errors to publicly confess in the form of graffiti. These mea culpas soon covered the walls of the building.
The aspect of the school deemed most distasteful by the other inhabitants of the Old State House was unquestionably the dissection lab, which housed the human cadavers. The pickling vat in the basement was particularly repugnant, and it was not uncommon for club ladies, who were attending meetings at night, to encounter carts laden with human remnants en route to the incinerator on the third floor balcony.
The graveyard humor of the medical students did not help matters. Sometime in the 1920s, a fight (involving human internal organs) erupted in the dissection lab, shocking and appalling all who learned of it. Students often played pranks by hiding bits of anatomy in the belongings of other students. When a jacket left in a local restaurant by a medical student was found to contain severed human fingers, the entire community was scandalized.
For almost two and a half decades after the seat of government departed the Old State House, policymakers had struggled with indecision over the building’s fate. Hard economic times during the 1930s aggravated the potential threats to the landmark’s existence, most notably the move of the Medical School to the MacArthur Park area. But national political events brought new hope to those Arkansans who wanted to bring new life to the home of the state’s beginnings. Not only did Franklin Roosevelt bring a New Deal to the American people, but brought one to the Old State House.
The year before the New Deal took root in the nation’s economic life, the War Memorial Board of Trustees directed architect Frank Ginocchio of Thompson, Sanders, and Ginocchio to inspect the Old State House and evaluate the restoration and repair needs of the structure along with its costs. In November 1933, the board applied for a grant from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of almost $24,000 to perform a variety of tasks from roof and skylight repairs to restoring the well house and custodian’s house. The WPA also eradicated termites; replaced steps, patched stucco and plaster, and repainted the building inside and out. In appreciation for the federal efforts, the board adopted a resolution in 1935 offering them the use of the space vacated by the medical school. Until 1942, the Old State House served as the headquarters of many New Deal agencies in the state that included the Historic Records Survey; the National Youth Administration; the Recreational Project, which staged events and activities around the state; the Housekeeping Aide Project; and the Commodity Distribution Project, which gave out so-called “surplus” goods to the poor that were bought up as part of the government’s farm price support programs under the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA).
Space for other public and private entities was also provided in the building in the 1930s, including the Little Rock Garden Club, the American Automobile Club, the State Plant Board, and the Arkansas State Rangers, the forerunner of the Arkansas State Police. It was also during this period that the discovery of Secretary of State Jacob Frolich’s briefly used cistern brought a bit of mystery to the Old State House, although it wasn’t until the 1990s that excavations and research established the cistern’s true use. While the General Assembly continued to appropriate modest sums for routine maintenance, New Deal aid stopped in the early 1940s with the nation’s entry into World War II. While federal support for the building dwindled, patriotism spawned by the war translated into increased support for state efforts to restore the Old State House. Its preservation was one of the campaign promises of Camden Mayor Benjamin T. Laney, known as “Business Ben,” who was elected governor in 1944. Laney pledged in his 1944 campaign to restore the Old State House and to build a Governor’s Mansion. In doing so, he was carrying on a family tradition. His brother William Harvey Laney, who represented Monroe County in the House of Representatives, had introduced a resolution to preserve the site in 1913. In early 1945 the governor formed a committee to begin raising funds for improvements to the state’s first seat of government.
The same year, the General Assembly gave the Arkansas History Commission the authority to conduct a study of the condition of the state’s historic sites. Commission Chair Dallas Herndon suggested a new use for the Old State House: a new home for the archives and special collections held by the Commission. Later that year the Arkansas Museum Commission was established, and two years later, the Arkansas Commemorative Commission, which became the governing board for the Old State House, came into being. The spearheads for these successful efforts were the women’s groups led by Louise Loughborough and Agnes Loewer, and a young war hero and State Representative named Bob Riley, who would later serve as Lieutenant Governor and Governor. The Commemorative Commission was soon staffed with well-known active supporters of the Old State House from all over the state, and their first charge was the structure’s restoration.
With a $150,000 appropriation from the 1947 General Assembly and the expertise of architect Bruce Anderson and general contractor Baldwin Company, the friends of the Old State House looked forward to correcting damage to the structure and flaws in design dating back to the 1830s that caused the structure to be in danger of collapse in places. The 1947 appropriation was used to perform vital work such as replacing the metal roof and guttering, improvements to the exterior woodwork, new steel floor joists, reinforced foundation walls, stabilization of exterior walls, and the building’s first automatic sprinkler system. Interior renovations had to wait until a $200,000 appropriation from the 1949 General Assembly. Improvements in lighting, heating, plumbing were implemented, and the restored showplace was reopened in 1951 as the General Assembly enacted Act 114 to authorize the use of the building for the use of the Arkansas History Commission to use as an official state archives and museum, and officially adopted the name in which succeeding generations would know Arkansas’s first state capitol as: the Old State House.
The transformation of the crown jewel of Arkansas’s statehood continued apace. In order to prevent space-starved state agencies from demanding the newly restored space for their operations, the Commemorative Commission stated early on the mission of the Old State House:
“It is the intent and purpose of this commission that this historic building should be reserved for the benefit of the state as a whole and should not be filled with the offices of various organizations, and that all organizations are requested to refrain from seeking quarters in this historic building and to join with the commission in making this beautiful structure the shrine it should be in order that the legislative intent as stated in Act 256 of 1947 creating the commission shall be carried out.” (Arkansas Gazette, August 15, 1950)
After the Old State House was officially reopened on Valentine’s Day 1951, efforts at formal organization culminated in the appointment of Agnes Loewer as the new museum’s curator and full-time director of the Commemorative Commission. A businesswoman and leader of numerous patriotic and civic organizations, Loewer was long active in lobbying efforts to save the Old State House. Combined with the presence of the Arkansas History Commission and its director, Dallas Herndon, the intent to use the structure for strictly historical pursuits quickly became established in state government. In 1953, a new annex was built to the north of the west wing to house the History Commission and its archives. As time passed, the transformation of the building into a museum pressed forward, and by 1954 six rooms had been designed and furnished as period correct rooms sponsored by organizations such as the Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Daughters of the American Revolution. As new items were donated, the work expanded, and notable donations, such as the Edward Payson Washburn painting of The Arkansas Traveler in 1960, received great publicity in the Arkansas press.
While the period rooms were nostalgic recollections of the past, they came to be viewed as focusing on a small segment of Arkansas life. In response, Loewer worked tirelessly to develop new exhibits that showcased the state’s heritage. The first, and one of the most enduring, was that of the gowns worn by Arkansas’s first ladies, begun in 1955. Five years later, the flag gallery opened, and as permanent and temporary exhibits were developed and expanded, the reach and reputation of the museum expanded as well. By the 1970s and 1980s, after Loewer’s retirement, changes came to the management and organization of the Old State House. In 1975, the museum came under the newly created Department of Arkansas Natural and Cultural Heritage (now Department of Arkansas Heritage), and educational programs targeted to schoolchildren were added. The period rooms were also reduced as the need for space for exhibits keeping with the museum’s mission increased. In 1979, the History Commission moved to new quarters on the State Capitol Mall, and as changes continued, the Old State House earned its place in the ranks of professionally-managed museums. Soon, two events would place the original seat of government in an international spotlight: a final restoration and the election of a President.
William Jefferson Clinton earned his nickname, the "Comeback Kid," after his strong resurgence in the 1992 New Hampshire primary kept his campaign on the road to the White House. It could also refer to his relationship with Arkansas's Old State House Museum.
As Arkansas Attorney General, Clinton played an important role in transforming the Old State House into a modern museum. Later, starting with his first term as governor in 1979, Clinton returned, time and again, to use the Old State House as a backdrop for important milestones in his political career. It was here that Clinton announced his candidacy for the presidency, and later celebrated his victory on election night in 1992. During the weeks that followed, the place Clinton characterized as his "favorite building in Arkansas" served as the stage for his cabinet appointments. On the evening of November 5, 1996, the Old State House once more became the center of the world's attention as President Bill Clinton became the first Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be re-elected for a second term.
Clinton stated that, to him, the Old State House embodies both a reverence for the past and a hope for the future. When work began on the State House in 1833, Arkansas was still a wilderness on the edge of the American frontier, and Little Rock was little more than a humble collection of log cabins. But the people of Arkansas chose to erect a grand edifice reflecting the glory and democracy of ancient Greece to house their new government.
For more on Clinton, see his entries in The Road from Conway to Clinton: Arkansas Governors' Biographies.
Structural problems plagued the Old State House since it was built. By far the most serious was the inadequacy of its foundation. By the mid-1990s, gaps were appearing between the walls and the central staircase and also between the walls and the floor in the large 1885 House of Representatives Chamber. The situation could no longer be ignored. So in 1996, the Old State House Museum closed to undergo the most extensive restoration in its history.
For many years, visitors and staff noticed cracks in the inner and outer walls of the Old State House Museum. In the summer of 1995, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program awarded the Old State House Museum a grant to conduct a structural analysis of the building. The contract was awarded to the Witsell, Evans & Rasco architectural firm of Little Rock. Project architects Charles Witsell and John Greer subcontracted with the engineering firm John Milner & Associates, of Pennsylvania, to consult on this monumental project, with work beginning that fall.
The analysis revealed serious problems with the building's structural integrity, mostly due to an inadequate foundation. The original foundation, often repaired but never substantially improved, consisted mainly of local field stone, or rubble. This foundation is easily viewed on the west side of the lawn, where it rises above ground level.
The original foundation, which varied in depth from only 16 to 24 inches, was thought to be sufficient by 1830s construction standards. It also lacked spread footings, which serve as a stabilizing element to resist lateral and vertical forces. Today's standards require spread footings that extend below the frost line, which the original, narrowly laid foundation did not do. Laying these footings beneath the frost line protects them from the damaging effects of extreme temperature variations.
In addition, the original drainage system no longer worked, leaving standing water around the foundation. A small spring located near the west wing did not help, either. Another contributing factor to the foundation's deterioration was that the foundation stone was covered with an outer coat of Portland cement, which trapped moisture. The constant presence of water caused the field stones, held together with mud-based mortar, to shift. The exterior walls, made of soft clay bricks, soaked up the water along the foundation, which then evaporated during dry periods. Frequent wet-dry cycles eventually caused cracks to form in the bricks.
The extremes of Arkansas weather also took their toll. Outside walls are subjected to temperatures that range from freezing cold to blistering hot. Inside, the museum must try to maintain constant temperature and humidity levels, to protect the artifacts and people, by keeping windows shut and using modern heating and air cooling systems. These two opposing forces exacerbated cracking of the walls.
The following solutions for the foundation problems were developed:
10' deep pits were dug under the exterior walls in six foot intervals, and the existing foundation rock was removed.
Reinforcing steel was placed in each of the pits, and concrete poured to create concrete piers.
Once the concrete piers cured, workers removed the rock foundation between each pit to allow a 24" deep concrete grade beam to be poured.
Lastly, noticeable sagging of the wooden floors had occurred on the second level, which houses the legislative chambers. This is typical in older buildings; the wooden floor joists that support the flooring will slowly crush soft brick wall pockets where they rest and create the sagging.
So that future generations will be able to enjoy the Old State House, these effects of age and use were corrected by:
Removal of a 3' strip of plaster ceiling along all exterior walls on the first floor, exposing the floor joists and masonry bearing pockets
Repair and reinforcement of damaged joist ends (with steel plates)
Repair of beam pockets, addition of 2' band of masonry tuck pointed all around the building where joist pockets exist, and replacement and repainting of the ceiling
The Natural and Cultural Resources Council awarded the Old State House $2 million dollars [funds from the Real Estate Transfer Tax]. In 1996, the governor's office allocated $1 million from the emergency fund and another $400,000 from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance funds. [During this renovation, a new ADA-compliant elevator was added, as well as accessible bathrooms.] The remaining funds were provided from other grant sources, including the Division of Arkansas Heritage.
Foundation stabilization involved hand-digging pits approximately ten feet deep and six feet apart around the entire circumference of the building. The foundation was then dismantled and a new concrete foundation poured. Finally, the old field stone foundation was replaced where possible to retain the building's original appearance.
A 1950s annex and breezeway, which at one time housed the Arkansas History Commission, was demolished. Removal of this architecturally-incompatible addition proved essential to the Old State House Museum being granted National Historic Landmark status in December, 1997. With the 1950s annex removed, the back doorway that once led into the breezeway was restored to a window — its original function.
Wooden floor joists were repaired or replaced. Cracks in the interior plaster also were repaired. New electrical wiring replaced the outdated 1940s system. Bathrooms also were made wheel-chair accessible, and a new elevator was installed in the East Wing. Lifts were installed between the Central Chamber and the East and West Wings to allow wheelchair access to the entire building. Construction of a new annex for staff offices and collections storage completed the construction. Prior to this project, staff offices were scattered throughout the museum, creating problems with the heating and cooling systems due to variances in temperature and humidity. Removing staff offices from the historic structure also provided more exhibit space within the museum
The museum received accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 1993. In early 1996, the staff and public learned that the building needed major foundation work to preserve it for future generations. Staff and collections moved out in May 1996. The restored museum re-opened to the general public in June 1999.
The Old State House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and it was declared a National Historic landmark in 1997. The American Association of Museums renewed the museum's accreditation in 2003.