There’s no denying that the 1836 Club, perched at the top of the downtown portion of Cantrell Hill, has borne witness to nearly all of central Arkansas’ history following the Civil War. From political skirmishes to the Civil Rights Movement, the 1836 Club is rooted in Natural State history.
Until it became the 1836 Club, the building that hosts the now swanky Southern private club was known as the Packet House. Before that, the building, distinguished by its outstanding Second Empire architectural style, was the McDonald-Wait-Newton House. For the sake of brevity, we will refer to the 1836 Club’s building as the Packet House.
The Packet House was constructed before Cantrell Road was even called Cantrell. The building’s original address was 1406 Lincoln Ave., due to people along that street, in one way or another, being pro-Union, either having been Union sympathizers of they’d moved here from the North. The houses built along this strip were referred to as the “Carpetbagger’s Row Mansions.” Out of the five of which only the Packet House remains.
The house was constructed in 1869 by Alexander McDonald, who moved to Arkansas in 1863, shortly after the Union took Little Rock. McDonald was president of Merchant’s National Bank and was involved in the railroad industry. He was the first Republican U.S. Senator from Arkansas, a position he held from 1868 to 1871. The house was built while he was a senator, and for a while, McDonald was considered the richest man in Arkansas. Unfortunately, his bid for re-election to the Arkansas General Assembly were in vain, and McDonald sold the house and moved to New York.
The house was sold to William B. Wait, who moved from Knoxville, Tennessee, to the Arkansas Post, then to Little Rock as part of his merchandising and real estate business. He, too, was the president of Merchant’s National Bank for some time. His tenure in the household was a quiet one, and not much is known about it.
In 1887, the Packet House was bought by Ann McHenry Reider, and was soon full with her two daughters and their families. The Reider daughters had married two brothers, Thomas and Robert, of the prominent Newton family, who remained in the home for four generations.
In 1946, the home was sold, turned into apartments and renamed the Packet House for the overlook to the Arkansas River which once teemed with packet boats.
When the house was built, it was considered to be on the outskirts of Little Rock, but is now considered to be in one of the busiest and most central areas. The architecture of the Packet House is unique, right down to the roofing tiles, which were once on the roof of the penitentiary that sat where the state Capitol currently sits.
The McDonald-Wait-Newton House (Packet House) was added to the c on June 14, 1978 thanks to the efforts of Susan McDougal. In addition to apartments, the Packet House was used for various purposes over the years, including as office space and as several different restaurants.
In 2016 Mark Camp, a pilot, aviation enthusiast and artist in Little Rock, added “political adviser” to his list of positions when then-Mayor Mark Stoloda appointed him to the Little Rock National Airport Commission. That same year, Governor Asa Hutchinson appointed Camp Executive Director of the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission, where he led statewide efforts to preserve the beauty of the State of Arkansas.
Growing up, Camp’s grandmother enjoyed talking about their geneology, sparking his enthusiasm for diving deep into history. Camp shared a desire for an upscale private dining venue in Little Rock with his primary business partner. Most cities had private dining clubs, but Arkansas had none.
In 2015, while driving down Cantrell Road during his morning commute, Camp noticed the for sale sign in the front yard of the Packet House. Camp and his wife, along with two business partners, purchased the house and restored it. The house was called The 1836 Club, in honor of the year Arkansas became the 25th state. Kaki Hockersmith, one of the most accomplished interior designers in the country, aided them in their restoration journey.
Camp is in the final stages of publishing a book about the history of the Packet House, titled “If Walls Could Talk: The Packet House Remembers — A Unique Glimpse of Little Rock History from the Perspective of an Historic Landmark.” In the book, set to by published in early 2023, Camp writes of the unique history of the Packet House; its strategic position to bear witness to some of Arkansas’s most crucial historical events.
“The Packet House has quite the history in Little Rock politics, from the Reconstruction period to the present, from the owners to events that happened around the house,” Camp says. “It was the Packet House restaurant back in the ῾80s, and a lot of people have stories about it. When I’d bought the house and we were redoing it, one of the contractors was working alongside his brother-in-law and pointed out a spot near the window, and that’s where he’d proposed to his wife. We’ve met lots of people who remember that restaurant. So many prominent people lived here, including one of the Stephens brothers, who lived up on the third floor.”
Camp shares that he still bumps into people today who talk about their ancestors being born in the house or living in the house.
“It’s neverending, as far as the stories go,” Camp says.
If you have the privilege of dining at the 1836 Club today, you’ll get to see the Pilots Lounge, featuring pieces and parts of planes and aircraft, pieces from the Clinton National Airport, as well as a tribute to Arkansas’ own “Wingman to the Aces,” Floyd Fullerson. Additionally, guests will find the Churchill Cigar Lounge, a well-ventilated cigar lounge that has over 50 pictures of cigar enthusiasts Sir Winston Churchill.
Camp is proud to see how the 1836 Club has come full circle. While the Packet House that houses the Club has witnessed events that would make one question their confidence in humanity, the Club welcomes some of the most diverse audiences every evening for dinner, making up a host of ethnicities and creeds.
Camp says it best: “The 1836 Club serves as a reminder of our past and is a tribute to our progress towards redemption.”