Digs of the Deal: Historic Woodruff House, Living History in Little Rock
Home of the founder and first publisher of the Arkansas Gazette, the Woodruff House is one of the only antebellum homes remaining in the Little Rock area. Built from 1852 to 1853 by William Woodruff, the Woodruff House was home to families who saw Arkansas’ territory days, its statehood, the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. It stands in Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter as a reminder of how far the state and capital city have come in the last 150 years.
Long before Arkansas became the Natural State — or even a state, for that matter — territory residents soon found a growing need for news and statewide communication.
William E. Woodruff, a newspaper publisher’s apprentice from Long Island, New York, was eager to put nine years worth of trade skills to the test in uncharted territory. Woodruff arrived at Arkansas Post on Oct. 30, 1819, and published the first issue of the Arkansas Gazette on Nov. 20. The Arkansas Gazette was the first newspaper in Arkansas (and thought to be the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi.)
While building up what would become an incredible journalism influence, Woodruff was developing his political and social connections. Shortly after arriving at Arkansas Post, Woodruff found himself in a skirmish with Territorial Secretary Robert Crittenden. Crittenden was a force to be reckoned with, often being described as drunk with the unlimited power of his status as acting governor at the time. However, Woodruff refused to let Crittenden dictate his editorial policy. Woodruff got involved in local politics and chose sides as a Democrat and aligned himself with a well-known powerful lawyer, Chester Ashley, who became his close lifelong friend.
When a territorial charter was signed, determining that Little Rock would be the territory’s new capital, Woodruff packed up his publication and moved to the new capital, printing the first Little Rock edition of the Arkansas Gazette on Dec. 29, 1821.
Woodruff married Jane Eliza Mills in 1827, eventually going on to have 11 children. In the meantime, he had immense success with the Arkansas Gazette, selling it and buying it back several times. In 1846, when he discovered that he could not repurchase the Gazette, he decided to found a new paper, the Arkansas Democrat. After a few years, the Gazette was back on the market. Woodruff bought it and merged the two papers into the Arkansas State Gazette and Democrat.
Woodruff’s political and economic influence in the new territory capital grew. He founded other businesses, selling local commodities and goods out of his print shop. After establishing the first circulating library in Arkansas in 1826, Woodruff purchased a ferry and a steamboat called “The Little Rock.” In 1823, he formed a successful land agency that brought significantly more wealth than any of his publications. Woodruff heartily promoted agriculture and viticulture, even going so far as to experiment with silk culturing.
Woodruff also held public office in state and local positions.
Mary L. Kwas with the Arkansas Archeological Survey writes that Woodruff “…was a Little Rock councilman in 1833 and was town treasurer in 1834. In 1845, he was the Little Rock postmaster. He served as state treasurer in 1836 and, for twenty-three years beginning in 1833, served as agent for paying military pensioners. Although he was never a candidate for a major office, it was said he commanded more political influence than any territorial governor except John Pope…In 1863, he served as the first vice president of the Arkansas Historical Society.”
Woodruff was a great promoter of the territory-turned-state, and even influenced the final spelling of the name. Woodruff County, formed in 1862, was named for him.
At the height of his success, Woodruff built the Woodruff House after living downtown above the newspaper office. As his family and his publications grew, Woodruff was financially secure and in need of more room. The Woodruff House was described as an urban farmstead, resting in the middle of 25 acres of farmland. This urban farmstead included livestock, an orchard, gardens, beehives and plenty of open pasture. The Woodruff House is one of the oldest in Little Rock and one of just four remaining antebellum houses.
Shelle Stormoe, membership and activities coordinator with the Quapaw Quarter Association (QQA), describes the construction and architecture of the Woodruff House.
“The Woodruff House is a two-and-a-half-story home built in the Greek Revival style, using mostly local materials, including cypress and bricks made on site,” she said. “The original house had 10 rooms, with central halls on the first and second floors. The four core rooms of the home originally had 14-foot ceilings and measured 20 feet by 40 feet. In her 1931 description, Woodruff’s daughter, Jane Georgine Woodruff, detailed a walnut staircase that went to the third floor. The original entrance to the house was on the south side, facing opposite from the home’s current configuration. This included a portico flanked by two Doric columns.”
John Robins was a local builder and brickmaker who oversaw the work. While it isn’t clear what construction methods he employed, Stormoe says it’s likely that the house was constructed using slave labor, as Woodruff owned 14 slaves by 1860.
Cypress wood from the surrounding land and bricks made on site were used in the construction of the Woodruff house. The house was constructed differently when it was built, facing Ninth Street instead of Eighth Street. There were other buildings on the property for laundry with a large cistern, and there was a slave quarters building near Eighth. Changes to the house indicated the presence of a large kitchen on the back of the house, as well as renovations made to the front porch.
When the Civil War began a few years later, Woodruff, as a slave owner, supported the Confederacy. When Little Rock was captured in 1863, Union troops seized a letter written by Woodruff addressed to one of his friends voicing his support for the Confederacy.
Upon finding the letter, Union General Frederick Steele expelled Woodruff from Little Rock and took control of the house, letting only his wife, Jane, and their daughters stay in the house for several months before commanding them to leave as well.
The Woodruff House was then converted into an officers’ headquarters, then a Civil War military hospital for surplus patients, as St. John’s College was just to the southwest of the Woodruff House.
After the end of the Civil War, the Woodruff family returned to their home, and Woodruff began subdividing his 25 acres of property in 1866. This was known as “Woodruff’s Addition,” and the area was platted to the city of Little Rock in 1873.
Woodruff and his wife remained in the house until 1885 when Woodruff passed away, followed by Jane in 1887. Their oldest child, Alden Mills Woodruff, occupied the house until it was sold in 1891, when the building was reoriented in addition to aesthetic renovations.
By the 1920s, the house was the “Cottage Home for Girls,” which served as a boarding house for women coming from out of town to work and do business in Little Rock. Many of the current interior changes in the Woodruff House happened at this time.
“In their 2008 condition assessment, Witsell, Evans and Rasco Architects theorized that many of the interior changes made to the home originated at this time, creating more rooms that were much smaller than the original configuration,” Stormoe wrote in an Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry.
Afterward through the 1950s, the Woodruff House operated as a boarding house. Then, it was reconfigured into small studio-sized apartments. In 2005, a fire made the house uninhabitable, but it did not damage the building’s major structural elements. In 2014, the Quapaw Quarter Association bought the Woodruff House in order to prevent vandalization or further arson.
“Because of that concern and the significance of the building, QQA bought it, stabilized it, and put a new roof on it — now it’s up for sale,” Stormoe said.
Patricia Blick, the Quapaw Quarter Association executive director, details the fire that damaged the building, and the state of the building beforehand.
“At the time of the fire in the building, it was divided into 14 apartments, totaling 7,000 square feet. The owner rendered it uninhabitable. A family bought it and tried to fix it, but it was harder than originally thought. We feared the possibility of another fire.”
Blick notes that during the interim before the QQA stepped in, the building suffered significant vandalism.
“The Woodruff House was pretty beaten up. In 2014, the QQA got support from a preservation program to do some investigating to determine what could be saved and let go. We were able to clean out the first and second floors with the funds received.”
The Quapaw Quarter Association redid the building’s roof in late 2016. Since then, the Quapaw Quarter Association has been trying to get the house sold. Blick emphasizes that the construction and growth in East Village have been pivotal in raising awareness.
“I would say that what’s happening in East Village is good for Woodruff House. We’ve gotten more exposure now due to construction than we would have originally gotten,” she said. “We are looking for the right partner, group or organization to take over the property. There are plenty of incentives to take over the property because it’s on the national historical registry, so there are grant opportunities. We have some ideas about a new use for it as well. We don’t want to see it cut up again into 14 apartments.”
Stormoe emphasizes that in order to move forward, it is important to acknowledge the significance of the past as well as the distance that civil rights have come since the house’s construction.
The Woodruff House is a time capsule in Little Rock, standing historically as a reminder of how far Arkansas has come since the Civil War, not only in civil rights but in architecture, journalism and politics as well. For more information, visit WoodruffHouseAR.com.