See Rock City

See Rock City

Friday, August 1, 2008

Old State House Museum

Front Facade and Front Door

Greek Revival structures are defined by their front facade, which typically consists of a porch or portico, topped by a triangular pediment supported by columns. The result is an entrance that must appear daunting to many visitors who opt to enter by the handicapped entrance on the West Loggia, robbing themselves of the spectacular first view down the Central Corridor.

Riverfront Room

This space and the boiler room below it were built in 1885. It initially served as the Office of the Commissioner of State Lands. The photograph from that era is one of the rare interior views of the State House while it was the seat of government. After state government departed in 1912, the room was briefly occupied by the Arkansas Pioneer Association, who mounted a modest museum of Arkansas history. The Pioneers, however, were soon pushed aside to make way for a chemistry laboratory for the Medical School. The Pioneers and other history-minded groups from that era then shared space in the 1836 House of Representatives. Today the Riverfront Room serves as the conference room for the Old State House Museum staff and is available to rent as a meeting room.

North Breezeway

This T-shaped space lies between the three rooms added to the north end of the Central Wing's first floor in 1885. These three rooms -- the present day restrooms and the Riverfront Room -- served as the foundation of the immense expansion of the legislative chamber above. The 1885 renovators saw themselves as modernizing the structure along Victorian lines, so they felt no compunction to preserve the State House's Greek Revival characteristics. Evidence of this is that the brickwork in the North Breezeway was left exposed and not plastered over. The longer passageway of the North Breezeway ran completely through the building from east to west and was open at both ends, exposing the entire breezeway to the elements. The shorter north-south passageway led to the same northern exterior doorway that existed prior to 1885. (This shorter passage is obscured on the floor plan by the male and female icons.) The North Breezeway was not closed to the elements until the mid-1980s.

Spanish-American War Room

When the Old State House became the seat government in 1836, its three distinct wings were designated for the three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. Executive offices were situated in the West Wing. The Arkansas General Assembly met in the Central Wing. A variety of state, federal, district, and even municipal courts occupied the East Wing.

The Old Statehouse in 1934

It was intended that the governor occupy the suite of four rooms on the second floor of the West Wing, while the other offices were distributed among the auditor, treasurer, attorney general, and secretary of state. Structural problems soon developed in the wing's westernmost wall, however, and these persisted in varying degrees until 1885. During that period it is not clear which offices were occupied or by whom. One newspaper account mentioned walking past on the lawn and looking in to see the governor at work, which may indicate that for a time his office was located in this room.

After 1885 the space became part of the State Library. It was the office of the veterinarian during the Medical School's tenure at the Old State House. During that time the structure was rechristened the Arkansas War Memorial Building and entrusted to the American Legion. It is known that the Legion assigned at least part of one of the rooms on the second floor of the West Wing to the Spanish-American War Veterans and their Women's Auxiliary. The Spanish-American Veterans Auxiliary would be assigned a "period room" in the West Wing when the Old State House became a museum after WWII.

The West Wing, including this room, was occupied by the History Commission from 1950 until their departure in 1979. After that it was a popular hands-on exhibit for children known as Granny's Attic. When the History Commission left, the Span-Am Room returned to the West Wing and occupied what is now the right-hand gallery of First Ladies' Gowns exhibit. It was shifted to this location during the restoration of the late 1990s.

General Federation of Women's Clubs Room

No organization played a more important role in the fight to save the Old State House than did the Arkansas Federation of Women's Clubs, now know as the General Federation of Women's Clubs of Arkansas. They were one of the first to create a "period room" when the Old State House became a museum in 1950. In the early 1980's their room was moved to the space now occupied by the Governor's Case in the First Families Galleries. It was moved to its present location during the restoration of the late 1990's.

The Federation had not been in its new home long before the room began experiencing water damage. Water wicking has been a historical problem in the West Wing, due in part to the porous nature of the brick and plaster structure and the fact that the West Lawn is a natural site for springs. The room was closed while attempts were made to solve the problem. The solution has so far stumped several contractors, but the effort continues.

1812 Hallway (West Wing Stairwell)

Not long after completion of the State House in 1842, an internal load-bearing wall was mistakenly removed in an attempt to enlarge a room in the West Wing. The result was a sagging roof and a dangerous bulge outward by the wing's western wall. The interior wall was quickly restored and efforts were made to brace the exterior wall, but structural problems persisted, compromising the stability of the wing's staircase. For decades access to the offices on the second floor was by means of a steep, single-flight external staircase.

The present staircase was constructed in 1885 and is probably configured as was half of the original Central Staircase. The artifacts of the United Daughters of 1812 have been displayed here since the 1980's.

Women's History Exhibit

The only room on the first floor of the West Wing whose original use we know is the one labeled here as #5, now the inner gallery of As Long as Life Shall Last: the Legacy of Arkansas Women. Remnants of an exterior attached vault indicate that this was likely the Treasurer's Office. After 1885 it was the Records Room of the State Library.

Though plans indicate that both these rooms served as part of the Medical School's library, we also know that soup lunches were cooked in Room 5 throughout the Depression, and then dispensed to needy veterans in what is now the Pillars of Power gallery through the open top half of a Dutch door.

After the departure of the History Commission in 1979, Room 5 served as the Old State House Museum's library, while Room 4 was a gallery. Both were converted into a women's history exhibit in the late 1990's.

Daughters of the American Revolution Room

When the Old State House opened as a museum in 1951, the Daughters of The American Revolution established their "period room" in the old Supreme Court Justices' Chambers in what is now the Learning Center of the museum's education department. When the History Commission departed in 1979, the DAR Room was moved into part of the space that currently houses Pillars of Power. The room was relocated to its present site in the late 1990's.

Pillars of Power Exhibit

When the Old State House was completed in 1842, it was composed of three distinct structures connected by covered walkways. In 1867 the federal government constructed a United States District Court in the space between the West and Central Wings. It served in this capacity until 1885 when it became the Treasurer's Office. During the War Memorial Building era, the room served as the Medical School's library and also provided a venue for free soup lunches for deserving veterans. After 1951 it served as the display room of the Arkansas History Commission. After the departure of the History Commission in 1979, the room was divided to house the DAR's room in its northern half and a changing exhibit space in its southern portion. It became the Pillars of Power gallery during the 1990's.

Treasurer's Vault

Greek Revival Buildings tend to be obsessively symmetrical. If this was the case, this was likely an entrance and exit corridor in the structure as completed in 1842. This apparently changed when a federal court was constructed between the West and Central Wings in 1867. At that time the opening connecting this space with the Central Corridor was walled in on its east end. The room that this created housed the office of the clerk of the court. In 1885 a safe was placed in the room, which was sealed by an iron door on its west end to create the Treasurer's Vault. The ability to pass from the Central Corridor into Treasurer's Vault was not restored until the 1980's, nearly a hundred years later.

The Central Stairwell

When the original State House was completed in 1842, the Central Staircase consisted of straight flights with a landing halfway up. It is likely they resembled the one presently in the Old State House's West Wing. Large windows on the landings provided interior lighting for the stairwell, which at that time had no skylight. This lighting was ultimately blocked when permanent, two-story masonry structures were built between the wings in 1885. At that time the old staircases were replaced by spiral ones, which were not only more elegant, but were less steep because they contained more steps. Behind the rounded walls built to accommodate the new staircases, the old landing windows were preserved. These served as a model of the original faux graining in the State House and aided in the restoration of the 1836 House of Representatives. The skylight and the opening in the floor of the second floor landing were both also added in 1885.

The Information Desk

When the State House was completed in 1842, this corridor and its opposite led outside to covered walkways that connected the Central Wing to the other two wings of the capitol. This one led to the West Wing. After 1867 it also led to the entrance of the federal court. After 1885 it led to a balcony covered loggia outside the Treasurer's Office. Despite the fact that the West Wing and Central Wing were joined together since 1867, it was still necessary to go outside to get from one to the other until 1980.

The Museum Store

It is thought this room served as the Land Office when the State House first opened in 1836. After 1885, it and its mirror image across the hall were occupied by the Auditor's Office. During the Medical School's tenure, both rooms were sub-divided to provide office space. Since at least 1980, the room has housed the Old State House Museum Store. Be sure to plan a stop during your visit to the museum. The Store has a wide selection of books on Arkansas history, souvenirs related to the building and its exhibits, antebellum and Victorian-stle gift ideas, as well as numerous items of interest to children. The Store is open when the museum is open: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday-Saturday, and 1:00-5:00 pm on Sunday. If you have questions you can reach the store at 501-324-8653.

The Clinton Exhibit

Currently closed for renovation

This updated version of the exhibit From the Old State House to the Whitehouse features Clinton artifacts, a partial recreation of the Oval Office and the famous Harrison desk, images from the 1992 and 1996 campaigns, and a special video greeting by the former president. Because this exhibit will be rendered largely superfluous when the Clinton Presidential Center opens in November of 2004, plans are already underway to replace it with an orientation gallery that will serve as an introduction not only to the Old State House, but to all the other museums and cultural attractions in downtown Little Rock.

The Central Corridor

Apart from the Old State House's facade -- with its pediment, colonnade, and portico -- the view down its long Central Corridor is perhaps its most impressive architectural statement.

The first view is from the North Breezeway, looking past the restrooms, through the original North Entrance, and down the Central Corridor. The other two views are looking northward.

Grandmother's Cottage

In this hands-on exhibit visitors of all ages are encouraged to interact with a variety of objects from the 1920s and 1930s. This space probably served as an office when the State House opened in 1836. When the building was expanded toward the river in 1885, the room was also enlarged northward to serve as a display room for Arkansas products, making it the first exhibit gallery at the Old State House. During the Medical School years it served as one of the Chemistry labs. The room was divided during the post-WWII restoration and the northern half turned into restrooms. From 1983 to 1996, the southern half served as home for the First Ladies' Gowns exhibit and now is Grandmother's Cottage.

The Wilderness Gallery

This space was built in 1885 as the Office of the Commission of Mines, Manufactures, and Agriculture, which had the responsibility for promoting Arkansas to the rest of the nation and the world. The late-19th and early-20th centuries constituted the golden age of "expositions" and Arkansas vigorously attempted to "boost" itself in this fashion. To this end the CMM&A also maintained a nearby Display Room. During the Medical School era it served as a lecture hall. The Wilderness Gallery was installed in the late 1980's and extensively renovated in 2003.

East Breezeway and East Wing Stairwell

We have so little to say about these two spaces, we decided to combine them on a single page for economy's sake.

The East Breezeway was an open-air passage running north-south left by the 1885 Renovation between the Office of the Commission for Mines, Manufactures, and Agriculture and the Supreme Court Library in the East Wing. The space was not closed to the elements until the 1980s.

The East Wing Stairwell is narrower that that of the West Wing. The stairs are steep and straight, except for a shallow turn at their foot. The most intriguing aspect of the space is that in 1885 there does not appear to have been any doorway in the north wall on the first floor. This would seem to indicate that the western part of the space on the first floor may have been separated from the rest of the hallway by a doorway and perhaps served as the clerk's office. This would explain why the East Breezeway was necessary, since it provided the only access to the rooms of the Supreme Court Library that constituted the majority of space in the first floor of the East Wing. By the Medical School era the western part of the stairwell serve as a women's restroom. The doorway was apparently cut in the north wall in 1949.

2nd Floor

United Daughters of the Confederacy Room

During the 1880's this was the inner office of the Attorney General, whose reception area was in the adjoining room. During the War Memorial period most of the rooms on the second floor of the West Wing were occupied by the American Legion and other veterans and patriotic organizations. At that time this particular room was divided into two offices. One was probably assigned to Spanish-American War Veterans and the other to their Women's Auxiliary, though this is not certain.

Arkansas Pioneer Association Room

During the 1880's this room served as the reception room of the Attorney General's Office. Since the 1980's it has been the "period room" of the Arkansas Pioneer Association.

First Families Galleries

For most of the State House's tenure as the seat of government, this suite of four rooms made up the Governor's Office. Proceeding clockwise from the lower right, the first room was the reception area or waiting room. To the left through large pocket doors was the office of the governor's secretary. The northwest corner office was the governor's private inner sanctum. There is a photograph of Jeff Davis and his secretary in what is identified as his law office. The space, however, is virtually identical with this room and probably gives a good idea of what it looked like. The fourth room was the governor's official office where he would receive visitors from the waiting room.

Today these same four rooms constitute the galleries of our First Families exhibit. Once again proceeding clockwise from the lower right, the first room is an introductory gallery with a number of cases. One features Chelsea and Hillary Clinton's presidential inaugural gowns and another has a complete place setting of dinnerware from the present Governor's Mansion. The second room features an enormous case with memorabilia from past governors. The final two rooms are devoted to the Old State House Museum's collection of inaugural gowns of the governors' wives. The northwest room houses the more recent gowns; while the oldest pieces in the collection are in the final gallery.

1885 House of Representatives Chamber

There is a tradition in America that the House of Representatives Chamber is located on the south end of state capitols and the State Senate situated on the north end. This was the case when the State House was built in the 1830s. By 1885, however, the original House Chamber was too small to accommodate the growing number of representatives. So the north wall of the Central Wing was knocked down and the building extended an additional 70 feet toward the river. The accompanying photograph shows this enlarged chamber in action during a joint session of the legislature on the occasion of the inauguration of Jeff Davis to the United States Senate in 1907.

During the Medical School era this large space was divided to create several laboratories. In 1951 Mrs. Loewer attempted to restore it as a legislative chamber, employing a carpenter to make exact records of a senate desk from 1911. This was undercut, however, by the inappropriate inclusion of plush red carpets and red velvet drapes.

Today the 1885 House is the museum's principal venue for special events and also houses the exhibit On the Stump: Arkansas Political History, 1819-1919.

1836 House of Representatives

This is arguably the most historic room in Arkansas. This was the scene of the famous knife fight in 1837. Here the vote was taken to secede at the outset of the Civil War. It was here that Arkansas's present constitution was adopted in 1874. In 1885 the room became the Senate Chamber. It housed the first exhibits of the Arkansas Museum Association following the departure of state government.

For more than a century, this room continued to reflect the Victorian modernization it had undergone in 1885. During the restoration of the 1990's, it was decided to attempt to return the room to something approximating its antebellum character. Though none of the original furnishings were known with certainty to have survived, this restoration was based on the written record and a great deal of detective work.

Learning Center

This room may have been the original courtroom of the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1836, but by 1885 it was serving as the Judges' Chambers for the Justices. It was divided into offices during the Medical School era, but restored to a single space in 1949. The Daughters of the American Revolution occupied the room until the 1980's, when it became offices for the museum's education department. Today it houses a classroom for use with school groups visiting the Old State House Museum.

External links