Founders keepers

FOUNDERS KEEPERS

Visitors may have noticed the likeness of an older woman, captured in oils and photographs, keeping vigil over the rooms and halls of the Historic Arkansas Museum. For those unfamiliar, her name is Louise Loughborough, founder of the museum. And it’s all because of her. 

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LOUISE LOUGHBOROUGH wasn’t very tall. Or so I’m told by the three women I’m sitting with near the soaring windows on the upper level of the Historic Arkansas Museum. In an effort to learn as much about its founder as possible, I’ve decided to meet Elizabeth Reha and Tricia Spione, two historical re-enactors who have, at one point or another, portrayed Louise. Both Elizabeth and Tricia are charming, the kind of women who make jokes, laugh heartily and externalize everything. Neither bear any resemblance to Louise. Not physically, at least. To their right is Felicia Richardson, the museum’s living-history coordinator who uses news clippings, letters and photographs to piece together the actresses’ monologues—and who does a little acting on the side, too. “And all of us are tall women,” Tricia says, every inch of her face expressive.

Despite what the tall women tell me, I can’t think of Louise as being a particularly short lady. In a black-and-white photo displayed in an exhibit celebrating the museum’s 75th anniversary, she cuts an imposing figure, with birdlike features. She’s sitting in a floral chintz chair, her left elbow resting on its arm, her right hand loosely gripping an Antiques magazine. She’s not smiling. Rather, she has a preoccupied look on her face, eyes narrowed as if someone’s asked her something that took her by surprise, and she hasn’t yet thought of a proper answer. And you can tell, even by the way she’s positioned in her seat, that there’s an eagerness about her, a kind of toughness that made a giant of her—despite her diminutive stature.

There’s a reason why, whenever Louise’s name is mentioned, it’s always preceded by the words “pioneer” or “leader.” She accomplished something that was nothing short of extraordinary during the dysfunctional Great Depression era: She founded the Arkansas Territorial Restoration, or what is now the Historic Arkansas Museum, saving a half block of houses from condemnation at a time when historic preservation was still a novel idea—a time when women struggled with the burdens of domesticity, and the country with a great economic malaise.

“It was because of that powerhouse aspect of her,” Elizabeth chimes in, enunciating every word, the way stage actresses do to project their voices in an auditorium. “Here’s this little person making things happen for Little Rock and for Arkansas. She was one smart cookie, because she knew what she wanted.”

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The other two women nod in agreement. At this point, the sun is low enough that it briefly blinds me, and I shift in my seat to get a proper view of Elizabeth without having to squint, listening as they begin to tell the story.

We talk about how Louise, who desperately wanted to save the half block of dilapidated houses between Markham and Cumberland, made an appointment with the Little Rock branch of the Work Progress Administration—an ambitious New Deal agency that aimed to conquer unemployment by supporting infrastructure projects. As the women speak, I learn not only that Louise had a soft spot for historic preservation, but that there was also something nostalgic for her about the buildings.

As a child, she’d stroll down across Third Street on her way home from school, and every once in a while, she’d make a loop around Cumberland to a pay a visit to a candy store she was particularly fond of. As a young girl looking around the neighborhood, she could see nothing but magic. Sure, the houses were a little shabby, even by standards of the time. But they offered a quiet link to the past, to the stories she’d heard from family members. This house was where Scottish stonemason Robert Brownlee lived with his family and two slaves. That house was where William Woodruff turned out the territory’s first newspaper. In the 1880s, the block had been all but stripped of its virtue, surrendered to a cluster of brothels and transformed into an unruly slum. “The ladies of the night,” as Louise called the prostitutes living in the notorious red-light district, were plaguing an area that became known more for its squalor than the grandeur she’d heard of.

And that’s how Louise came to meet a man by the name of Floyd Sharp, the administrator of the WPA, who was less than convinced the undertaking would be something of interest to the administration. But Louise was blessed with the fluttery charm and gracious manners of a true Southern lady, and Floyd couldn’t quite bring himself to say no. To subdue her, or perhaps curb her ambitions, he cooked up the near unfathomable sum of $30,000 that would need to be raised before the WPA would even consider lifting a finger to help fund site acquisition and restoration. The compelling-needs statement (a proposal explaining why the project mattered and needed to exist) she was asked to turn in was meant to make the task close to impossible. For the project to become remotely appealing to the WPA, Louise had to do her fair share of what we would now call lobbying. After all, the structures she was trying to save—with the exception of the William Woodruff print shop—hadn’t really housed people of great importance or prominence.

“I think she was also aware of what she needed to [say] in order to get the Legislature to help her out, so she focused on the important, higher-up people,” Felicia says matter-of-factly, and that’s followed by a wave of Elizabeth’s and Tricia’s bobbing heads. Take the Hinderliter house, for example, which was perhaps best known for being a working-class bar. But Louise knew what to emphasize—the story of this log house being where the last Territorial Legislature met in 1835, where powerful lawmakers congregated after working hours over a drink or two. And that alone, Louise proposed, made the house an invaluable structure.

In addition to being charismatic, however, Louise had clout. Her earnestness and intellectual curiosity can be traced back to her lineage, which included the likes of Arkansas Supreme Court Justice George Claiborne Watkins and William Savin Fulton, Arkansas’ last territorial governor who later became a senator. What’s more, a life of civic activity had provided her with the tools necessary to get what she wanted. In addition to her husband’s connections—a well-known attorney, he had more than a few acquaintances in the state’s General Assembly—Louise had spent years developing her own. She’d been involved in the preservation of the Old State House, and active in the National Society of Colonial Dames. She was the vice regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which owns and maintains George Washington’s estate. In 1936, for example, the Arkansas Gazette noted that she spent 10 days at Mount Vernon, where she picked peonies and white iris from the president’s garden and used them to adorn tables for an afternoon-tea event, then spent the day with the Roosevelts on the veranda, overlooking the Potomac River.

The challenge Floyd threw her way was merely a hurdle. Louise’s plan of attack was simple. She tugged on the legislators’ coat lapels and asked them for 30 seconds of their time, to which, once again, they couldn’t say no.Ultimately, the General Assembly was convinced. The next time she waltzed into Floyd’s office, Louise had $30,000 in hand. Despite his shock and reluctance, Floyd kept his promise.

2015-10-21-14.09.36Being a vanguard for historic preservation, the ladies tell me, Louise had a vision. But it wasn’t just about saving old buildings. It was important that the block’s present be very much a product of its past—a relic of early Arkansas, its founding fathers and their “courage and fineness.” To her, the misuse of the houses by the “ladies of the night” was a personal offense. In that sense, she wanted to strip the block of its gritty reality—and who better than architect Max Mayer to make that vision come true? After all, Max had studied in Paris, snagged the then-prestigious Prix de Rome and spent some years learning and designing in Italy. With Max’s help, Louise restored the structures to their Colonial-era greatness. She went so far as to add boxwood cuttings from Mount Vernon to the Brownlee House’s garden—because there’s nothing more telling of the founding of the country than living things cut from the living things that once flourished where George Washington roamed. It was a connection she deeply cherished, and she wanted us to feel the same way. And in the summer of 1941, the Arkansas Territorial Restoration opened with the sole mission of restoring the historic structures. Louise served as its chairwoman—a position she held for 20 years until she fell ill in 1961.

“We’re here because of her, essentially, because of her vision, so we love those stories,” says Tricia. “Man, it was the ’30s, and she went to the Legislature and said, ‘Excuse me.’” Tricia’s voice thins into a flutelike tone, then softens into a whisper. “I love that she tugged on their collar or something and had her little note cards.”

Peering over Elizabeth’s head, I catch a glimpse of the brick chimney and white wood of the Hinderliter House, and the realization hits me: Louise had once stared at these buildings, walked these grounds many, many years ago. Surely, the structures themselves are the same, but I know they are somehow different. In looking at photographs, the befores and afters, it’s easy to see. The buildings are now neater, the square is tighter, almost like a freshly made bed. By the Hinderliter House, there’s a tree that now stands 40-some feet tall, tipping to the left like a drunkard. I remember stopping by it during a tour I’d taken a few weeks before, overwhelmed by the tree’s size and my smallness in comparison. The trees I’ve seen in photos of the museum’s early days—like the one in the picture of two ladies at the opening of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration, which stands near the museum’s glass doors with a space for visitors to stick in their grinning, camera-ready faces—are young and humble, with dainty limbs and a smattering of leaves. I think, so much of this place has changed. Grown up. Moved on, but still looking back.

This museum center where I we’re sitting didn’t even exist until 2001. Louise wouldn’t have recognized the theater space, certainly not the exhibits boasting the many artists who came long after she died in 1962, and definitely not the hashtags painted on the museum’s walls. But even though she’s not here to see how far the place has come, she was there to ensure its birth. And in being a steward for that legacy, she made a place for herself. After all, there’s a reason why these three women are so involved in keeping her spirit alive, and there’s a reason why, even when talking about themselves, the conversation somehow ricochets from acting back to the woman they’ve been charged with bringing to life.

“It’s the confidence. It’s the way you hold yourself. It’s the standing up straight. It’s the looking in the eye,” says Tricia, suddenly sitting up straight. It brings us back to Louise, who, as the women pontificate, always carried herself with certainty and poise. There is no way of knowing what was crossing the founder’s mind, of course, and all these little mannerisms the actresses assume to be Louise’s—our exchanges are peppered with “Louise must have” or “should have” or “probably did.” But there are things that we do know. Louise Loughborough might not have been a tall woman, but she certainly stood well above the fray.