If Walls Could Talk: The Old State House Museum Still Has A Lot To Say
Overlooking the juxtaposition of bustling downtown Little Rock and the serenity of the Arkansas River stands the Old State House Museum. Preserved from the withering touch of the hands of time, the Old State House Museum is the original state Capitol building of Arkansas and is the oldest state Capitol building still standing west of the Mississippi River. Since construction began in 1833, the Old State House building and its grounds have witnessed many of the most important events in Arkansas history.
In 1833, Arkansas Territorial Governor John Pope could feel it in his bones: Arkansas would soon reach statehood. The territory had boomed since its settlement with no signs of stopping. Pope hired architect Gideon Shyrock, who had drawn the blueprints for the Kentucky state Capitol, to design a state Capitol building for Arkansas, overlooking the river.
Shyrock drew up plans with the help of his associate, George Weigart. Construction was well underway by 1836 when Arkansas became a state. The legislative branch of the state government was located in the center of the building, with the executive branch in the west wing and the judicial branch in the east wing. The Arkansas General Assembly met in the building for the first time in 1836 while construction continued. Gov. Archibald Yell declared the building complete in 1842, as covered walkways were added to connect the three wings.
The State House was expanded in 1885 to create more room for the larger House of Representatives as Arkansas’ population grew. Some more modernized interior and exterior designs were added as well, in addition to statues of the Three Graces on top of the building.
Over the span of the 19th century, the Old State House’s walls witnessed events that would be discussed for years to come. In 1837, on the floor of the Old State House, Speaker of the House John Wilson stabbed Representative Joseph J. Anthony to death after a debate over taxes. Anthony had made a derogatory comment about Wilson’s company, Real Estate Bank, while Wilson was debating another bill on the floor — and Wilson took that personally. Anthony explained that the comment was not directed at Wilson, but Wilson descended into the chamber with his Bowie knife drawn, where Anthony drew his as well. With Anthony being killed in the chamber, the House voted to expel Wilson. However, Wilson was put on trial and found not guilty. A jury decided that Anthony’s comments justified his murder, according to a 200-year-old newspaper excerpt from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dug up by Jeanne Lewis.
Decades later, with the spread of the Civil War in May of 1861, all but one delegate of the House of Representatives, Isaac Murphy, voted to secede from the Union. The building was affiliated with the Confederacy until Union forces took Little Rock in September of 1863. This led the Confederate government to relocate southward to Hempstead County. In a stunning turn of events, Issac Murphy was sworn in as governor of the Union-controlled Natural State, writes Georganne Sisco with the Old State House Museum.
Even the end of the Civil War would not bring peace to the steps of Arkansas’ Old State House. In 1872, the building was the scene of the Brooks-Baxter War, where gubernatorial candidates Joseph Brooks and Elisha Baxter fought over who had won, leading to clashes between the candidates’ supporters.
By 1911, the Old State House was in dire need of repair, as the state’s government had outgrown the building and many legislators didn’t want to spend money on a building that was already too small. As the new and current state Capitol building was completed in 1912, all government offices moved. The University of Arkansas Medical Department (now known as the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) moved into the Old State House from 1913 to 1935. During this time, the Old State House was entrusted to the Arkansas Department of the American Legion and was renamed the Arkansas War Memorial in 1921. The building offered services for veterans, and was home to a host of patriotic and civic organizations such as the Arkansas Veterans Service Bureau, the Arkansas Pioneers Association, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. This was in conjunction with the building’s usage by UAMS.
These patriotic organizations lobbied the Arkansas General Assembly to preserve the Old State House by turning it into a museum for Arkansas history. In 1947, legislation was passed that did just that — costing $350,000 to carry out a series of renovations that opened to the public on Feb. 14, 1951. The Old State House was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Dec. 3, 1969. The building housed the Arkansas History Commission until 1979.
The museum’s first curator, Agnes Loewer, initiated a donation and collection policy. As a result, the museum has collected materials, such as items related to Arkansas’ first families, 19th-and-20th century politics, architecture, quilts made by Black Arkansans, art pottery, 19th-century battle flags and memorabilia of the Arkansas State Police, writes Sisco. The museum also sponsors and publishes original research as part of the permanent and changing exhibitions.
In the 1990s, Gov. Bill Clinton announced his run for the presidency on the front lawn of the Old State House. He also held watch parties there on election night in 1992 and 1996.
On Dec. 9, 1997, the Old State House was made a National Historic Landmark, which is the highest recognition a building can receive, due to the medical experiments that took place in the building during UAMS’ tenure.
Today, the grounds of the Old State House maintain several famous landmarks. The three-tiered fountain adorned with cranes is a recast of the original fountain from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The original fountain traveled by train to Arkansas after the exposition and was installed in front of the Old State House a year later. The Lady Baxter cannon that rests on the front lawn of the Old State House is a Civil War-era cannon used against Union troops during the siege of Little Rock. The cannon was moved to the Old State House during the Brooks-Baxter War, where it was used by Elisha Baxter’s supporters, and has remained ever since.
Today, the Old State House Museum is open all but four days of the year, free of charge, with exhibits from the territorial days to the present. Some of the permanent exhibits feature memorabilia from the first families of Arkansas, the first state’s first House of Representatives, and architectural changes over time. The museum offers hourly on-site tours and provides free on-site programming for visitors of all ages, including gallery talks and lectures, musical concerts, family programs, summer youth camps, hands-on activities for K-12 audiences, and living history.
The Old State House has seen the history of Arkansas from the territorial days to the present. Her eyes have laid witness to war, disease, political upheaval, economic upset and several civil rights movements. Today, the Old State House stands proudly and silently amid the hotels and skyscrapers downtown, serving as a dutiful reminder of Arkansas’ past and the promise of the future.