Preserving the Character of our Past

November 1, 2007 | By More

Story by Dianne Edwards

To many of us, it’s just an old building. To others, it’s the center of our city government. But, to the Russellville City Council Renovation Committee, it’s a historic building well worth saving.

Begun in 1926 and completed during the summer of 1927, the Russellville Masonic Temple was located in the 200 block of South Commerce Avenue and West Second Street. The property was once owned by J.L. Shinn, businessman and pioneer settler of Russellville. It was later owned by Jeff Davis, Pope County/ Russellville attorney and Arkansas governor 1901-1906.

The two-story building housed the Russellville City Hall, central fire station and offices for the Chamber of Commerce. Also located there were a number of businesses including the Tucker Candy Company, Vance Electric Company and Dr. A.J. Caisson, dentist.

The City of Russellville rented space on the lower level of the building from the Masonic Lodge from 1927 until 1943, when they purchased the building for $12,500. The Masons later paid monthly rent to the city until they moved in 2002.

The Russellville Masonic Temple and city hall building was recognized by the State of Arkansas as a historical building, but it was not eligible to be listed on the National Historic Registry because of exterior changes, the windows in particular, that had been made over the years.

A previous first-floor remodeling project was conducted in 1962, involving the offices of the mayor, city treasurer, building inspector and the police and fire departments. A new central fire station was opened next door and the department and its trucks moved out in 1977.

A small city jail and the city police department were housed on the first floor until the early 1980s when the department moved, first to larger quarters on North El Paso Ave., and later to their new location on West H. St.

According to Bill Eaton, chairman of the recently-created City Council Renovation Committee, more emphasis is placed on exterior rather than interior changes when National Registry eligibility is considered. Before becoming eligible for grants from the Historic Preservation Society and applying for National Registry status, replica windows had to be found and installed.

The current move to rehabilitate the building began in 2003. The Russellville MasonicLodge274hadmovedintoanew building in October 2002. Grants were initiated, and City Council and general public interest peaked. Eaton, who had always had an interest in historical areas and was a newly-elected councilman, stepped up to chair the committee. Preserving the old Masonic Lodge and expanding city offices to the second floor to accommodate and “cluster” our city services became even more important for the overall good of the community.

The building has been nominated to the National Register for (Criteria A) its association with the Masonic Lodge and city government in Russellville, and (Criteria C) as the best example of a Classical Revival style building in downtown Russellville.

“Thank goodness Main Street Russellville has been doing everything they could these past 15 years to help in this area. Their efforts have been tremendous,” praised Eaton.

“What we are seeing is a trend for U.S. cities becoming more cognizant of their history — like the Europeans, who have maintained vital downtown areas and, as a result, seem to relate better to their historical past. Our focus should be on preserving our heritage as well.”

“As we become more ‘in-tune’ with our own past, we find ourselves saying, ‘Oops! Look what we have let go of.’ Now we have vacant lots where historical buildings once stood.”

City Council passed Resolution #983 earlier this year, which created the eight-member renovation committee. The committee includes four aldermen, Eaton, Freddie Harris, Phil Carruth and Randall Crouch, plus Jeff Pipkin, CEO and President of the Russellville Chamber of Commerce; Betsy McGuire, director of Main Street Russellville; Garry LeeoftheRussellvilleHousingAuthority,and ‘at large member’ Steve Newby. Newby is a photographer who also plans to document the renovation process.

Work on the City Hall/Old Masonic Lodge building will be “pay as you go,” explained Eaton. Since city funds for renovation are not readily available, the process will be completed over the next several years as grants and funding can be secured. Some funding will be available in part from the recently extended one-cent sales tax.

“But that will require several months accumulation before enough money is available for work to begin. The project will be completed without a great deal of capital overlay, unless the city council wants to obligate the money for matching funds when they are needed to receive grants,” said Eaton.

“We will do what we need to do to keep our city government centralized in one downtown location — none of this ‘well, you need to go to this building for this, and go to that building for that,” explained Eaton.

The offices of the mayor, city attorney, municipal judge, treasurer and their respective support staff, and the fire department, as well as council chambers and the district courtroom, are currently located on the first floor of the building. The Public Works Department, including the offices of building officials, city building inspector and street department, is located on North El Paso.

“The current piece-meal situation is simply not adequate, very unacceptable for our citizens, our officials and our community,” he added.

Renovating the two-story building will more than double the square footage being used on the first level. Eleven individuals share cramped office space with multiple entries, an uneven, sloping floor, inadequate lighting and limited handicapped accessibility.

Of primary importance in the project is the installation of an elevator linking the first and second floors of the building. The committee will reapply for a grant from the Historical Preservation Program to pursue available grant monies for that project.

“This rehabilitation project is not something that can be rushed or hurried to completion,” stressed Eaton. “It will take several years to complete.”

The project will require a number of phases — beginning with a needs analysis and assessment. Public comments, a letter of intent from the city, and a committee recommendation for an appropriation of funds must be conducted as well.

Greg Barborek of Crafton, Tull & Associates, Inc., an architectural and engineering firm, informed the committee that no contaminants had been found in the upstairs areas. Their discovery could have stalledtheforwardmovementoftheproject considerably. According to Eaton, Barborek also reported that the attic space above the second floor has been explored and there is plenty of room to “do what needs to be done.” Plumbing and wiring also will be updated and brought to code in the building.

“Once these phases are done and moving forward, one of our challenges will be to keep the offices operational and keep the staff working during the renovation process,” added Eaton.

“But, we think the public will be very pleased with the planned renovation. The main objective is to get the building back to its original character and we hope to do just that.”

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