RHEA ROBERTS WALKS UP to a tired mansion on a quiet, crumbling stretch of East Eighth Street in downtown Little Rock, pulls a cordless drill from an orange neoprene case and—bzzzzz—buzzes screws from the whitewashed plywood sheets barricading the front door. Her blond hair is pulled back in a messy, let’s-get-down-to-business bun, and a pair of red-rimmed sunglasses sits on the top of her head. When asked if she needs any help, she declines the offer.
As the executive director of the Quapaw Quarter Association removes the makeshift barrier, we stand there waiting, exploring with our eyes, our expressions uncertain in the face of so much dereliction. We’re a diverse group of people, each here for a different purpose—a painter searching for inspiration, a writer hoarding information for a novel and me. And there’s a reason why we all think we’re going to find whatever we’re looking for here. Encased within the walls of this house is a century and a half of history. It was Arkansas Gazette founder William Woodruff’s longtime home—a dramatically spacious private escape that has now become a rescue project not for the faint of heart. And in looking at the house—a wreck of its former self—it could easily be mistaken for an abandoned estate whose cry for help had once turned into a howl and has since dwindled to a soft whimper.
When the doors open, the aroma of old cigarettes, mold and something indiscernible wafts out of the house. By the light of flashlights, we examine the foyer. Inside, the Woodruff House’s grandeur isn’t immediately obvious. Instead, my gaze falls on the mounted wooden mailboxes, their doors unhinged or broken altogether, a bulky, unopened padded envelope resting atop the number “11.” I look at the cracked, peeling paint, the coffee-colored stained ceiling whose corners seem to be held together by cobwebs, the gouged paneling, the thick layer of dust coating every possible inch of every possible surface. As we walk up the white-railed staircase, built in the 1920s (no one knows what the original staircase looked like, Roberts says), it wheezes and groans beneath the unfamiliar pressure. There are bathrooms and kitchens and more bathrooms and more kitchens on every floor, and it’s hard to think that decades ago, when the house was split into apartment units, they were habitable.
Then there are other disheartening sights, ones not caused by mere inattention, but a lack of sympathy for this downtown jewel—an empty bag of Brim’s Classic potato chips, soda cans and broken blind slats jutting at all different angles like the points of a weather vane. There are dusty bottles of J.W. Dant’s Olde Bourbon and Italian Swiss Colony’s California muscatel with grimy labels dotting the floors. And even if I look at it with as cool an eye as I’m able, I can’t help but feel slightly deflated by these facts of neglect.
But in the midst of all the rubble, garbage and bits of glass strewn on the floor, there are glimmers of promise. There is a strip of accent wallpaper in the second-floor bathroom, a series
of teddy bear illustrations right above two beach-ball-sized gashes in the wall, where the guts of the house remain exposed. There is the white-brick fireplace, embellished with intricate golden appliques. And when we move to the third floor, where it’s bright and throat-tighteningly humid, there is the stiff, brittle wallpaper in what I assume was once a bedroom, flaking to reveal layers of patterns that graced the walls throughout the years—162, to be precise.
IT WAS IN 1819 THAT WOODRUFF, a New York native, published the first issue of the Arkansas Gazette. Thirty years later, he ordered the construction of a Greek Revival residence on a 25-acre plot of land that he’d bought for himself and his family of 12. And when they moved into the house in 1853, the almost-7,000-square-foot manor had all the makings of an opulent mansion—13 bedrooms, a 40-foot hallway and a library (or the “father’s room,” as it was referred to back then). By the large fireplaces that were built in every room, Woodruff and his family gathered every winter, burning as many as 100 cords of wood. But you didn’t have to go inside to understand its remarkable lavishness. It opened to a circular carriage driveway, nestled in what was, back then, a piece of the countryside, dotted with an orchard, a poultry yard and beehives. On its east side, the Woodruffs tended to their vegetable and fruit garden; on its north side, the horses rolled in the stables and the pigs fed in their pens. At the time, the house faced south, and its circular upper-floor balcony overlooked Ninth Street (it would be later flipped to face north).
In the heat of the Civil War, when Woodruff was banished for his support of the Confederacy, the Union Army commandeered the house to serve as a makeshift hospital, patching up combat wounds and recovering after sieging the surrounding land. And although Woodruff reclaimed it in 1865, the manor was sold out of the family six years after his death in 1885. Since then, it has been restructured to suit many purposes—a cottage home for out-of-town working women in the 1920s, a Colonial Club for Business Girls in the 1930s. For the following decades, it functioned as apartment homes. But in 1999, a tornado tore through the Little Rock area, and the stoic structure felt the toll deeply. It ripped the roof. It blew out 60 of the home’s 75 windows. Its then-owners, Vickie and John Karolson—a North Little Rock couple who’d bought the house in 1986, renovating and restructuring it into 14 apartment units and then renting it out to low-income tenants—couldn’t shake the disbelief. They decided to sell to Eric McDuffie, a Bank of the Ozarks vice president, and Mike Helms, an attorney, who spruced up the apartments, escalated the monthly rent and kept their fingers crossed that, upon the construction of the Clinton Presidential Center, the surrounding neighborhood—which McDuffie described as a “dump” in a 2000 article by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette—would somewhat improve.
But even though much of the land east of Interstate 30 was bought up after the presidential library’s location was announced, says Brian Minyard, a planner with the city’s Planning and Development Department, the land was never developed. And this surprises him. “I do think there was a possibility that [the house] could have been demolished during that time,” he says in his cramped office on West Markham Street. “There are also people who demolish buildings just for the bricks, and this house is three bricks thick.”
McDuffie and Helms’ efforts were only a temporary reprieve. (They ultimately sold the house to an LLC by the name of Allyn Ward Investments in 2003.) In 2005, the house suffered another blow from which it couldn’t recover. A fire damaged a first-floor room, leaving a hole in the floor. And ever since, the house has remained vacant, lingering in real estate limbo, waiting for a new owner.
In 2007, the house made the list of Arkansas’ most endangered places, raising alarm among preservationists and community members alike. That year, according to an article published by the Democrat-Gazette, it was on the market for $428,000. In an auction held in November of that year, two dozen potential bidders crowded the foyer of Woodruff’s home. Only one made a meager bid of $75,000, which was not accepted. The Quapaw Quarter Association (QQA) kept an eye on the property, wanting to restore it but unable to afford it.
Seven years later, the city and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program (AHPP) pitched in with $99,500. After years of waiting, the association was finally able to get its hands on the property from Allyn Ward Investments for a significantly reduced price of $107,000 in December 2014. The association also snagged a Certified Local Government grant of $49,500 to restore the house. But to use such a grant, which is drawn through the federal Historic Preservation Fund and offered to city and county governments enrolled in the AHPP’s preservation program, the home had to be a government entity, an obstacle the association managed to get around by donating an easement to the city (the facade) and an easement to the AHPP (the interior).
“I guess the big thing is that, since I’ve been at this job with the QQA, it’s the only brick-and-mortar project that we’ve been able to [work on and restore],” Roberts says. Her soft voice echoes in the reception room of the historic Curran Hall (aka the Little Rock Visitor Information Center in which the QQA is headquartered), where she sits at an old dining room table on a wobbly wooden chair with a sunken cushion. There are Woodruff’s belongings in vitrines around the hall and, most notably, his elaborately carved grand piano quietly rests in a corner. “It’s exciting for me, to really get in there and do things. I’ve become quite familiar with the house, and I can see the potential, and I can see what it can be.”
Although things have been moving along slower than she likes, both the association and the city know what needs to be done: Fix the brick where it’s falling out, the roof where it’s leaking, the wood where it’s rotting. In other words, the goal is to get the first floor to a decent, perhaps not excellent, condition so it can be listed in January for a price Roberts says they haven’t determined yet. (Roberts says she wishes the same could be done with the second and third floors, but funding would be an issue). And once it’s stabilized, it’ll be stripped. Stripped of the walls that once separated apartment units. Stripped of the modern intrusions that disturb its historic appeal. Stripped of the unnecessary bathroom plumbing, the carpets, the chipped tiles, the nonhistoric doors and door frames.
When future buyers walk in, they should be able to envision themselves living there—or perhaps envision an office, or tenants cooking in their apartments, or a decluttered, airy space that could potentially be anything. (The historic tax credits they’d get for making it an income-producing property won’t hurt, either.)
The house has already garnered the interest of many, Roberts says. If not to buy it, then at least to play a part in its rebirth. Many folks have reached out through social media, unwilling to let an important piece of Little Rock’s history go. In August 2015, for example, community members and preservation devotees came together to help clean up the lot surrounding the house. But even after the effort, in which volunteers in closed-toe shoes and raggy clothes helped remove trash off the property, some items—a red shopping cart tipped on its side, a blanket, a cardboard box—remain scattered on grass that looks tired and withered with no prospect of a triumphant resurrection.
ON A SUNNY OCTOBER AFTERNOON, a tree is about to fall—and Minyard, Roberts and Paul Porter are there to hear it. Most of its limbs have been chopped off already, the open wounds resembling giant mushrooms. Sitting in the belly of the 70-something-foot tree, which is now beginning to look like a fondue fork, an employee of Giraffe Tree Service wraps a thick rope around a branch and, with a chainsaw, cuts it off. There’s a moment of uncertainty when it finally lets go of the body it’s been a part of for years, swings back and forth and grazes the roof of the house before it’s lowered to the plush cushion of leaves ringing the trunk. And then, in the distance, as we hear the sound of a train chugging down the track, Porter, AHPP’s easement coordinator, tells me about the diseased trees that have met an unfortunate fate today.
“When they started cutting into it, they discovered that the trunk was rotting all the way through,” he says, suddenly speaking in a higher decibel as a Giraffe Tree Service employee begins to maneuver a growling mini skid loader, riding it as if it were an animal. “You kind of looked at the trees as—well, this one is an invitation to termites, and that one could potentially impact the house during a storm.”
We’re all squinting. Although the sun, no longer leaf-filtered, is a blinding disturbance, the fall weather carries a chilly note, and the occasional breeze sweeps the autumn leaves off the ground of the overgrown front yard and into a miniature twister of dust.
The house looks like a relic from the past—a display of grandeur and local history—wrapped in ropelike ivy that, over the years, has crept all the way to the top, and is surrounded by a metal fence. And as more century-old trees hit the ground, it looks more and more naked and vulnerable to a shift in the wind, a threat of decay, the passage of time. Although it has limped through times of uncertainty, there is one thing that’s for sure—there are many hopeful faces staring up at its eggnog-yellow facade, with its white columns and cactus-green shutters. And these are the folks who have not yet exhausted all hope in finding it a future that could be as grand as its past.