Storied Office Space Opens Up

by Chip Taulbee  on Monday, Sep. 20, 2004 12:00 am  

The sunburst design stamped on the metal elevator doors portend good fortune, but the bumpy ride to the top floors is a reminder that Little Rock's One Union Plaza has seen its share of blunders along with colossal success.

Millions and millionaires have been made on the 20th and 21st floors of what was called the Union National Bank Building when it opened in 1968.

Its past tenants include one of Arkansas' shrewdest bankers, the corporate crook who paved the way for his success, one of the state's oldest clubs and most recently a company that underwrites and distributes municipal bonds.

That outfit, Crews & Associates, is moving in November to the new office and hotel tower that its parent company, First Security Bancorp of Searcy, is building on President Clinton Avenue in the River Market. It will leave vacant one of the city's most storied high-rise office spaces.

Besides the spectacular skyline views, the spiral staircase in Crews & Associates' 20th floor lobby has always been the building's most notable feature.

Don Winton, Crews' chief operating officer, said the company books weddings and business photos for the popular spot.

But the oak staircase is certainly more of a relic than a staple of the office space. It's a reminder of a time when office decor once had timeless character before being replaced by the functional, uniform and almost sterile appearance common to contemporary offices.

Crews didn't even want the staircase when the company moved there in December 1989.

"We thought it would be dead space," Winton said. Indeed, 2,000 SF seems like quite a bit of room to dedicate to a two-floor circular stairwell. But because it would have cost Crews $260,000 to remove it, the staircase stayed.

It was Little Rock's Wittenberg Delony & Davidson Architects that first included the staircase in their design of what was then Union National's 20th and 21st floors. It was one of many ornate elements included in the plans. Oak-panelled walls shouldered dozens of brass light fixtures and coffered ceilings.

The bank's controlling shareholder, Harlan Lane, even installed a dumbwaiter, or a mini service elevator, that delivered food and beverages from the kitchen on the 21st floor down to the executive level on the 17th.

But Lane's lavish tastes ended up costing him after only a little more than a year in his new digs. The federal government accused him of masterminding a kickback scheme for which he later served 2.5 months in federal prison.

Enter Herbert McAdams II.

In 1970, in the wake of Lane's legal troubles, McAdams rescued Union with a $10 million investment. He had already bought and built a string of successful banks in northeast Ark-ansas, and Union National was no exception.

In 1992, McAdams made $115 million through a stock swap sale of Union National's holding company, Union of Arkansas, to Worthen Banking Corp.

And in 1994, the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System paid (or overpaid, as many believe) Worthen $11.65 million for the 285,000-SF tower it renamed One Union Plaza. Former state Sen. Nick Wilson went to federal prison in part because of his failure to pay income taxes on a $250,000 referral fee he received from broker John Flake in that deal.

By then Crews & Associates had been settled in the 20th and 21st floors for five years. Before then, however, the building's top floors were for 17 years home to one of Little Rock's most prestigious dining clubs.

The Little Rock Club

Everything about The Little Rock Club proved that you could mix business with pleasure. In 1970, the club made the top two floors of Union National its home, and members couldn't have wanted for more creature comforts.

The Little Rock Club was — and still is, in a different location — regarded as a popular rendezvous for business professionals, with its power lunches and posh meeting spaces. But in the 1970s and '80s, the club was renowned for its classy entertainment as well.

On the 20th floor, eight separate meeting rooms, along with lounge space, shared walls with a billiards room, a cards room, and for those who wanted to make card games a bit more interesting, a poker room.

In the halls and lounges, one could sit down for a shoe shine.

The men's grill was also on that floor, but most of the dining area was upstairs, which had no fewer than five private dining rooms in addition to the main dining area that overlooked the east side of Little Rock.

Then, the airport was a popular view along with the curving Arkansas River. Of course, the growing River Market and a certain library now compete for attention.

In 1987, The Little Rock Club took quarters atop the First Commercial Building (now the Regions Building), which was formerly occupied by Restaurant Jacques & Suzanne.

The club has been there ever since.

The Little Rock Club's current manager, Gene Baxter, brags about the current location's superior views. Indeed, the Regions Building's extra eight stories adds even more perspective. But the Regions Building's top floor doesn't share the same dark elegance as its shorter predecessor.

Even as light floods into the offices of Crews & Associates, the oak paneled walls and the oriental rug-adorned hardwood floors yield little to the brightness.

The Little Rock Club's former location still has many of its original sconces and other dated accessories, but notably absent is the haze of cigar smoke.

Back to the Future

These days Winton can see the into the future — at least the near future — from Union Plaza's unique vantage point.

"I can see storms roll in from the north," Winton said. "And I can see if traffic is backed up," which makes deciding which route to take home that much easier.

Winton thinks whoever lands the top floors of One Union Plaza, once the space becomes available around the first of next year, will be getting a steal, and not just for the sentimental value.

"This space will probably cost one-third of where we're going," he said.

Crews president Jim Jones said, "I have mixed emotions [about the move]. We're going to miss this place."

From his office on the building's south side, Jones watched a police chase one night a few years ago. He could see the fleeing driver weaving around the city blocks, hitting other cars before being caught on foot downstairs.

Despite all the nostalgia, Crews & Associates is making the move to the First Security Tower in order to get all its Little Rock workers, who are currently spread all around the city, under one roof.

Space was actually one of the reasons The Little Rock Club left that location, according to a November 1986 Arkansas Gazette article, as the club wanted to consolidate its operations to a single floor.

 

 

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