Arkansas's Five Most Endangered Historic Places For 2014

May 22, 2014

Members of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas announce the Fragile Five: 2014 List of Arkansas's Most Endangered Places.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

The Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas Thursday released its annual "Fragile Five" ranking of the most endangered historic places in the state.  Three are in Hot Springs, one is a Little Rock neighborhood, while the other represents the cultural heritage of American Indians.

Courtney Crouch, president of the non-profit, said it's "designed to raise awareness for our historic properties generally, but obviously, more importantly, for these specific properties that we’ve listed, hopefully to try to generate more interest and more support and more resources to save those places and bring them back to being vibrant parts of our communities.”


A burned out home at 1523 Wolfe Steet, near Central High School.
Credit Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas

The area around the Little Rock school, which was under a national spotlight during the 1957 integration by nine African-American students, is struggling, the group said.

“While private investment has been made in pockets of the district, decades of disinvestment have led to vacancies, neglect, alterations of character-defining features and demolitions at the hands of the city of Little Rock and private owners," said board member Jodi Barnes.

"The alterations and demolitions particularly jeopardize the historic district’s designation and access to state and federal historic tax credits.”

The homes were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while the school was constructed in 1927.


The fire-damaged Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs.
Credit Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas

“The fire that destroyed the oldest section of the historic Majestic Hotel back in late February let our whole state understand the issues that are facing these legacy structures that define one of the most recognizable commercial districts in the state, and I would contend, in this part of the country," said columnist Rex Nelson during Thursday's press conference.

"Despite general recognition of the importance of the buildings along Central Avenue, some property owners remain resistant to making required updates and investing to making their buildings safe and suitable for occupancy.”

The group says the recent designation of a Thermal Basin Fire District allows for installation of fire suppression systems to preserve historic features while meeting modern safety expectations.


The Thompson Building on Central Ave. in Hot Springs.
Credit Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas

The building, one of Central Avenue’s most recognizable landmarks, is also at risk, Crouch said.  It was built in 1913.

“The building, which features an ornate glazed terra cotta façade, was designed in the neo-classical style by architect George R. Mann, the principle architect of the Arkansas Capitol," Crouch said.

"Like many of the other structures in the district, the first floor is occupied, but the upper floors are vacant. The Thompson Building is particularly vulnerable to fire due to the vertical shaft that runs through the top four floors that would inevitably spread fire quickly through those upper floors.”

The group said that while it is eligible for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, the current owner of the Thompson Building has not made the investment to improve or update the property.


The John Lee Webb House on Pleasant Street in Hot Springs.
Credit Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas

While much of historic Hot Springs is linked with a past in tourism, one home holds a place in the state’s early civil rights history.

Cheryl Batts says community leader John Lee Webb’s house was built in about 1900.

“The house, at 403 Pleasant Street was home for three decades to one of the most influential leaders of the African-American community in Hot Springs and the United States. The house has been vacant for many years and it is vulnerable to vandalism and fire in its current state. Limited resources for rehabilitation and its deteriorated condition make the building’s future uncertain,” Batts said.

The house was a wood-clad frame structure, but the red brick veneer and green tile roof were added in the 1920s, the group said.


An American Indian mound in Coy, Arkansas.
Credit Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas

Historic, endangered places in Arkansas also reach back to a time before recorded history.

Jamie Brandon noted the more than 1,200 mounds built by American Indians that he says are increasingly at risk

“Prehistoric archeological mounds statewide in Arkansas are in danger from land leveling in the eastern portion of the state and development and looting by people actually digging what Native Americans consider sacred places for artifacts to sell," Brandon said.

"So statewide, these things are endangered by a variety of fronts and we’re very interested in trying to preserve them.”

For more than three decades, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas has been releasing the annual list.  While it has had some successes, like the Johnny Cash boyhood home in Dyess, there have also been many places that haven't been preserved, like the Saenger Theatre in Pine Bluff.

Places are nominated by individuals, communities and organizations, with criteria for inclusion in the list including its eligibility for the Arkansas or National Register of Historic Places, the degree of significance and the threat to the property.

One possible setback ahead for preservation efforts, the group said, is a proposal in Congress to end the Federal Historic Tax Credit program. Offered since 1976, it provides a 20 percent dollar-for-dollar income tax credit.

Executive Director Vanessa McKuin said after Thursday's announcement that it’s important to preserve such locations.

“The most basic reason is these historic places are part of our continuous continuity of our history and they provide us information about our past which of course informs the decisions we make in the future.”