New Book Recalls Little Rock's Architectural History

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 12:00 am  

The architecture firms of Wittenberg Delony & Davidson and Witsell Evans & Rasco have been present for the design and restoration of scores of Little Rock landmarks.

Two retired principals of those firms, Gordon Wittenberg and Charlie Witsell, have completed a book profiling many of those landmarks and the stories behind them.

The book, “Architects of Little Rock, 1833-1950,” is scheduled to be published by the University of Arkansas Press next spring. It features structures built in Little Rock during those years, starting with the Old State House.

“The major thrust of the book is to describe and write about the architects of those buildings, who they were, where they came from, where they were educated, how they lived, what their families were, how they participated in the life of the city and then how the buildings contributed to the life of the city,” Wittenberg said.

The two architects have known each other much longer than their time working on the book, and each of them ties strongly into the architectural history of Little Rock.

Gordon Wittenberg

Wittenberg was born and raised in Little Rock. His father, George Wittenberg, founded the family firm with Lawson Delony in 1919.

Gordon Wittenberg said his father was president of the state’s board of architects and held Arkansas’ first architecture license.

“That was during the 1940s, when the Legislature adopted the procedures for licensing architects in Arkansas,” Wittenberg said.

Julian Davidson joined the firm in the 1930s and became a partner in the 1940s; the firm then changed its name to Wittenberg Delony & Davidson.

In his father’s time, the firm helped design such landmarks as Little Rock Central High School and Robinson Auditorium.

Wittenberg, 92, grew up with these projects blossoming around him.

“I was raised, obviously, with the architectural world all around me,” he said. “I traveled with my dad to projects and worked there in the summers as an apprentice draftsman.”

The Wittenberg firm developed and struggled through the Great Depression. Similar to the situation faced by young architects during the recent recession, Wittenberg recalled that for a time, architects had almost no job prospects.

“They had at least two years where they didn’t have a single project to work on,” he said.

But when the Works Progress Administration was founded, federal funding started flowing into new building projects, and Wittenberg’s firm found its legs again.

Eventually, Gordon Wittenberg succeeded his father as a principal in the firm.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the firm pioneered innovations in the redesign of some of the state’s mental health facilities.

“In the old days, it was just a matter of locking them up,” he said. “But when the innovation of new drugs came along, proper drugs, it changed the way they could treat patients. All those influenced the type of buildings you could do.”

New buildings had bigger spaces, Wittenberg said, so patients could see and interact with each other.

“It was an openness to help the patients not feel closed or closeted in,” he said.

Later, Wittenberg’s firm worked with Winrock International, and Wittenberg got to know former Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.

“We were personal friends,” he said. “I knew him from my participation at the Arkansas Arts Center. I was president of that for one year, and I worked with his wife, Jeannette Rockefeller.”

In those years, the firm started working on the state’s correctional facilities, making improvements similar to those made in mental health facilities. “There were just deplorable conditions,” Wittenberg said.

The prisons were also redesigned with more open spaces and more emphasis was placed on private cells. This was to better facilitate rehabilitation, Wittenberg said.

It was “to have a feeling of getting out of there, that there was a better world than this, while at the same time treating humanely, which hadn’t happened particularly in the past,” he said. “The spaces accommodated all that and at the same time gave the inmate the opportunity to recover and get back into the real world. That was the driving factor in it.”

During and after Gordon Wittenberg’s guidance, the firm designed or participated in some of the city’s more visible modern landmarks like the current Regions Bank Building downtown, the expansion of the Statehouse Convention Center and the Stephens Inc. tower.

Charles Witsell

Friendships between the Wittenberg and Witsell families go back generations.

“We were doing a project at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, which was across the street from where Charles [Witsell] lived,” Gordon Wittenberg said. “He used to come over as a young boy, and we’d let him have lumber and nails and so forth. So he credits me as the person who gave him interest in architecture.”

Witsell himself could not be interviewed for this story due to health issues. However, his longtime friend and business partner Don Evans provided some insight.

“When we were starting out, Gordon was at the top of his game,” Evans said.

In the early 1970s, Witsell was working for Cromwell Architects Engineers in Little Rock. Evans lived in Washington, D.C., and had a contract with Cromwell.

“I came to Little Rock and spent a week here, and I stayed with Charles and his wife,” Evans said. “Occasionally he came to D.C. and stayed with us. We developed a close relationship.”

In the mid-1970s, Evans moved to Little Rock and the pair started their own firm, Witsell & Evans.

The firm was one of the first in the city to focus entirely on restoration.

“In 1975, that was an emerging opportunity,” Evans said. “It was driven a lot by tax credits. People were getting tax credits for restoring old commercial buildings and lesser tax credits for residential buildings. So we decided to jump out and try to get into that market, and for quite a while that’s what we did — we restored old homes. We worked with people to restore homes downtown and in the Quapaw Quarter.”

By that point, Evans said, Witsell had bought and was restoring a home on Scott Street that had been scheduled for demolition by the Little Rock Housing Authority.

“His original intention was to renovate it and put sort of a contemporary touch on it,” Evans said. “But once he got into it, he decided to do a really authentic restoration. He learned a lot about styles, colors and materials that set him off on track.”

The firm’s analysis of paint to determine the original color of buildings often shocked clients, Evans said, when they learned how vibrant some buildings once were.

“You peel all that stuff off, 50 or 60 years of bland, institutional government colors, you find spectacular colors,” Evans said.

The firm worked on dozens of houses downtown and helped restore a sizable portion of the Quapaw Quarter. It started transitioning into commercial and institutional work as the residential jobs started to dry up.

In the 1980s, the firm restored the Old State House, but Evans said the “first big break” was the restoration of the early 20th century Pulaski County Circuit Court at 401 W. Markham St. and the former post office, now the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, at 300 W. Second St.

“I remember finding out that we had gotten the opportunity to restore two courthouses,” he said. “It was a big deal. That was our first big nonresidential project.”

Also in the 1980s, Terry Rasco joined the firm as a principal and its name changed to Witsell Evans & Rasco.

WER continued to restore historic spaces and worked on projects like the Little Rock Visitors Center at Curran Hall, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and the old Washington County Courthouse.

Eventually, the firm changed its focus from strictly historic restoration to design as well. Some of the projects it’s contributed to since then include the Clinton Presidential Center, the main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System and the Richard Sheppard Arnold U.S. Courthouse at Capitol Avenue and Broadway in downtown Little Rock.

Up to Now

Both Witsell and Evans have since retired from their firms. Wittenberg has been retired so long that architects had just barely started using computers when he departed the business.

“In my day, when we started out, we drew plans with a T-square and a triangle, sitting at a drafting board,” he said. “And today, there are no drafting boards in any office; they’re all CAD (computer-aided design) machines.”

As for their legacy, Wittenberg’s son, Gordon Wittenberg II, is a professor of architecture at Rice University in Houston, and his nephew, George Wittenberg III, is also an architect. No Wittenberg, Delony or Davidson now works for the firm of that name, however.

The same will be true for WER soon as well. Terry Rasco told Arkansas Business that he intends to retire at the end of September, exactly 30 years after he started working with Witsell and Evans.

He said the book by Witsell and Wittenberg will be a testament to the legacy of the two firms and other architects in the state.

“I think it will be a great book,” he said. “I know they worked hard on it. Gordon is such a swell person, and I’m delighted he and Charlie had something to do and did it while they could. It will be a great gift to the state and the profession.”

 

 

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