Saving Caroline Row

In the late 1970s, Saturday mornings meant shuttling back and forth for Arkansas Arts Center classes for our pre-school daughters, usually down 10th Street. That route took Emily past three handsome brick buildings at 10th and Cumberland which she much admired. So she was shocked when friend and preservation architect Don Evans told her the buildings were doomed.

Two of the three were in fact row houses of the same vintage as the Little Rock Arsenal in MacArthur Park, now a military museum but an active U.S. Army post 150 years ago, before and after the Civil War. They had apparently been built to house officers with families, ample two-story apartments. The third one, of a different architectural style, seemed newer but was otherwise a mystery.

All three buildings were in horrendous condition, and the row houses faced the wrecking ball when the reclusive owner-occupant moved on. Plainly, the only reasonable course of action, in Emily’s mind, was to buy them and nurse them back to health through liberal applications of determination, mortgage money, Don’s architectural acumen and my legal background. Well, of course.

As it happened, we (including Don and his wife Audrey) had to make the purchase with only rough designs in hand, and had to work through a number of problems before real restoration could begin. I contributed a design that opened up the gloomy third building, but otherwise focused on manual labor, more suited to my actual skill set.

That first winter, I scooted under the third building to repair frozen plumbing in 20 inches of crawl space. Emily suggested we expose at least one brick wall in each of the eight apartments (which were adapted to eleven), a terrific design idea. Don and I hammered off the old mortar and then cleaned the brick with some ghastly acidic brew, which I inadvertently mixed much too strong.

Also in the dead of winter, Don and I stood on ladders with huge spray devices applying Thompson’s WaterSeal to the soft, ancient exterior bricks. When the spring following construction allowed some attention to landscaping, we did that too. One Saturday I decided to dig up and pry out an obtrusive chunk of granite in front of one unit, with the help of a new young tenant named Keller, not yet ordained.

The stone was much larger than expected, and when we finally dug it out and tumped it over, it turned out to be a carriage stone, with a name on it: “Dr. Brooks,” doctor to the Little Rock Schools and probably the city’s first female physician, whose office had been at the rear of that unit many decades before.

Other landlord chores included dealing with one tenant whose spurned boyfriend broke out all her windows in that third building and another who could not understand our reluctance to let him re-paint his apartment “saucy beige,” as well as drafting leases and cobbling together the application for the tax benefits associated with an historic preservation façade easement.

The benefits were less tangible but just as real as the tasks. We did not net a lot of rent money, but we got the huge satisfaction Emily envisioned at the start from saving Caroline Row (Caroline being 10th Street’s original name) from demolition. And we got the pleasure from unintentionally inspiring one of our little AAC students to become a trained historic preservationist, saving the world one crumbling building at a time.

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