We met at the courthouse on a chilly overcast morning; a group of about eighty to ninety who were interested in the people and the historic buildings in the town of Benton, Arkansas.
The beautiful courthouse was built in 1902. It was the third courthouse to be used by the county. My favorite part of courthouses is the clock towers. I don't know if there's a real bell in the tower or not, but it still rings out the hour.
Rachael Silva, from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, led us around town beginning inside the courthouse. The painting beside her, The Bauxite Mines, was painted by Julius Woeltz as part of the New Deal-sponsored Art in Post Office project. It was originally installed in the US Post office of Benton in 1942, but was later moved to the courthouse. Woeltz chose to depict the importance of the mining of bauxite to the surrounding area.
I love to wander around old downtown streets. I'm fascinated by the unique brickwork, doors, windows, and trims of these historic buildings. It's always interesting to hear the history and stories about these buildings.
The Royal Theater opened in the spring of 1949 after an older theater built in 1920 was extensively remodeled and enlarged. In the 1950's the owners acquired the neon sign and marquee from the recently dismantled Royal Theater in Little Rock and remodeled the entrance. The Royal continued showing movies until 2000 when it was converted into a community playhouse.
The Gann building was constructed in 1893 to be a medical office for Dr. Dewell Gann, Sr., by a group of patients who couldn't afford to pay for the doctor's services. The exterior walls are made of hand-cut bauxite blocks. Bauxite is relatively soft out of the ground, the builders sawed the blocks square with handsaws and allowed them to harden in the sun for six weeks before assembling them into this gingerbread style house. This is the only know bauxite building in existence in the world. Note, Dr. Gann had separate entrances built for men and women to assure his female patients that they could avoid any rough workmen who were visiting the office at the same time. In 1946 Dr. Gann Jr. gave this building to the city to serve as a library and later a museum.
In 1895 Dr. Gann's home, a beautiful Queen Anne Structure, was built next door to his medical office. The home's design features a rounded turret, a wrap-around porch supported by fluted columns, and leaded and stained glass windows. It's so sad to see it in such disrepair. Hopefully someday it will be restored.
I love the porch swing!
Another very interesting building was The Bell Building constructed in 1888. It housed the Bell's Hardwood, Dry Goods, and Grocery Store. The facade has been changed by the removal of some windows and the addition of stucco. What is interesting is not the front, but what's on the side of this building.
A beautiful mural, painted by Dianne Roberts and Mark Davey, has just recently been completed depicting the history of Benton. The mural concept originated with Arlene Rainey, now 97, when she shared her desire for a downtown mural. She commented that the Bell Building was "a building that is speaking to me and telling me that it would be a perfect place for a mural." The mural's story begins with the 1400's when Native Americans inhabited the area and ends in 1900 when the trains were in their heyday and pottery was a thriving industry.
The figures on the mural are painted from photographs taken of local people dressed in period costumes.
At the end of our tour we were treated by the History and Heritage Society to cookies and punch. After two hours of walking, we were ready for a little sweetness.
Many thanks to Rachael and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program for this fun tour through Arkansas history. Most of the information I've shared here is from Rachael's research. The AHPP provides programs including Walks Through History featuring historic sites around Arkansas and Sandwiching In History featuring historic sites around central Arkansas.