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Pleasant Valley Country Club: Watershed Little Rock Land Deal Nears 65th Anniversary

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A momentous land deal that launched a historic development in west Pulaski County is approaching its 65th anniversary this spring. The purchase of a 1,100-acre tract started the construction clock for Pleasant Valley Country Club and its namesake neighborhood.

The acquisition of the rural property closed at $1.15 million on April 20, 1959. The land sale, which equates to $12 million in today’s dollars, was considered a showstopper at the time.

Prominent businessmen of the day were on both sides of the transaction, which helped shape west Little Rock and produced significant redevelopment ripples elsewhere in the state capital.

Charles Minor Taylor, a 55-year-old real estate investor and principal at the Taylor & Richter mortgage loan and insurance firm, enjoyed a big payday on the seller’s side.

1) Fulbright Elementary. 2) Jack H. Wilson Water Treatment Plant. 3) First Baptist Church. 4) Pleasant Valley Office Park. 5) Pleasant Valley Country Club. 6) Congregation B’nai Israel. 7) Pleasant Valley Church of Christ. 8) St. James United Methodist Church. 9) Second Presbyterian Church. 10) Today’s site of the Cypress Plaza office building was owned by Mildred Camp, a holdout who didn’t sell her country home to Charles Taylor or Pleasant Valley Inc. (Google Maps)

On the buyer’s side was Pleasant Valley Inc., an investment group that included future Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller. Other investors were Rockefeller’s financial right-hand man, R.A. “Brick” Lile, a CPA and head of the Lile & Co. accounting firm; Ernest Phillips, partner in the Rector Phillips Morse realty firm; and Sam Rowland, a top executive at Rector Means & Rowland Insurance.

During the 1960s, the Pleasant Valley group transformed a countryside landscape into a network of streets lined with hundreds of homesites served by underground utilities, a rarity back then.

Looking Back

What other things were going on to shape Little Rock’s real estate scene circa 1959 when the Pleasant Valley land deal closed?

Winthrop Rockefeller was bankrolling the 1959-60 construction of the Tower Building at 323 Center St. in downtown Little Rock. At 18 stories, it was the tallest building in the state and the first instance of composite steel frame construction in Arkansas.
Hayes Street was renamed University Avenue in 1959 and would be widened to four lanes in 1960.
Construction of Lake Maumelle (1956-58) was complete, and the Little Rock Municipal Water Works would bring the Pleasant Valley Water Treatment plant online in 1966 to serve the reservoir.
Interstate 430 was already a drawing board development moving toward reality. The nearly 13-mile roadway was completed in 1975.
Envisioned before World War II, the Eighth Street Expressway (later known as Interstate 630) remained a conceptual project.

Lot sales would culminate in more than 950 homes, and bigger plots of ground became addresses for five houses of worship, townhomes, commercial projects along Rodney Parham Road, an elementary school and a new water treatment plant to serve the future growth of Little Rock.

The sugar on top was building Pleasant Valley Country Club, with its 37,000-SF clubhouse and 27-hole championship golf course designed by renowned golf architect Joe Finger.

That showcase amenity and drawing card was the product of a famed swap with the Riverdale Country Club.

In exchange for the 250-acre Riverdale property now bisected by Riverfront Drive, Pleasant Valley Inc. would build Pleasant Valley Country Club plus assume $170,000 in outstanding Riverdale Country Club debt.

See the sidebar for a look back at Little Rock’s real estate projects around the same time.

Career Intersections

The 60-year real estate career of Ed Willis intertwined with business opportunities put in play by the Pleasant Valley land deal. In addition to developing houses in the neighborhood and developing pieces of Riverdale, Willis also lived in Pleasant Valley and enjoyed the privileges of club membership.

He remembers when the presentation was made for the proposed trade of a shiny newPleasant Valley Country Club for the Riverdale Country Club property along the Arkansas River.

“I was a member of the Riverdale Country Club at the time,” said Willis, 82, president of Little Rock’s Financial Centre Corp. “A brand-new, debt-free golf course with a splendid clubhouse, tennis facilities and swimming pool — it was almost too good to be true. With the Rockefeller money and support, it was the real deal.”

“A brand-new, debt-free golf course with a splendid clubhouse, tennis facilities and swimming pool — it was almost too good to be true.” Ed Willis on the Riverdale-Pleasant Valley
Country Club swap. (Karen E. Segrave)

The trade first was proposed in 1963, but the controversial swap agreement wasn’t completed until 1966. W.M. Apple, an insurance executive, and Tom Gulley, former Pulaski County sheriff, were among a group of Riverdale Country Club members who filed suit in 1965 to stop the deal.

They sued Vernon Giss of Stephens Inc. fame, who was Riverdale’s president, along with other club leaders, arguing the executive board of the country club couldn’t consummate the trade without a vote by the full membership.

The opponents also believed their riverfront property was worth $5 million, about twice the value of the proposed swap. In any case, the Riverdale Country Club voted 347-133 in favor of the trade, and the Riverdale Country Club moved west and became the Pleasant Valley Country Club.

“I wasn’t involved in the negotiations, just an interested party,” Willis said. “I didn’t see any downside for a young guy like me who liked to play golf.”

In addition to a westward migration of Riverdale members to their new country club, an estimated 75,000 cubic yards of Riverdale topsoil were hauled in to build the Pleasant Valley golf course.

After the country club property exchange, there was talk of the city of Little Rock acquiring the Riverdale property as an extension to Rebsamen Park. That proposed deal involved swapping acreage at the southwest corner of War Memorial Park plus $1.5 million.

The Pleasant Valley investors transferred ownership of the newly built 256-acre country club development to the Riverdale membership in 1968. Founded in 1947, the Riverdale Country Club was no more, and Pleasant Valley Inc. gained ownership of the Riverdale property, which set the stage for a reimagining of the former golf course.

“We were just ecstatic,” said Willis, a member of Pleasant Valley Country Club during its first 25 years. “Riverdale probably wouldn’t have survived as a country club. Because of where it was located, the property was more valuable for commercial development.”

Willis had a hand in developing industrial space, office buildings and condos in Riverdale with projects such as the 160,000-SF warehouse at 2201 Brookwood Drive, 52,000-SF Rebsamen Center at 1500 Riverfront Drive and Round River condominiums, Riverdale’s first big residential project. Mixed in with that was work on the Alltel campus.

“That was an important part of my career,” Willis said of his resume of Riverdale projects.

Before delving into commercial development, Willis began his real estate development career in 1963 working in his in-laws’ homebuilding business. His work with Wickard & Co. led to constructing houses in new neighborhoods of the day such as Leawood, Cardinal Heights and Cloverhill Place.

When Pleasant Valley lot sales began rolling in the mid-1960s, Wickard & Co. was among  contractors drawn to the opportunity to build custom homes as well as spec houses.

“While I was with the company, we built more than 50 homes in there,” Willis said. “That was the place. It attracted the best homebuilders there were.”

He notes that Wickard & Co. built most of the big homes along Pleasant Valley Drive between Shenandoah Drive and the country club entryway at Rodney Parham Road.

Among those Pleasant Valley projects, one residence stands out for its significance in helping draw new homeowners: 172 Pleasant Valley Drive. The spec house was built in the traditional Williamsburg style, a brick home featuring a larger roof with a steeper pitch and dormer windows to accommodate living space on the second floor.

Built in 1965, according to real estate records, the 5,100-SF home was the first house of that size to appear on Pleasant Valley Drive. (The adjoining 2,955-SF carriage house was added in 1978.)

Marketed under the Parade of Homes banner, the house was opened for public touring before selling. The buyer caused a stir among the Heights community.

“Can you believe Herschel Friday [lead partner in the Friday Eldredge & Clark law firm] has moved all the way out there to Pleasant Valley?” Willis recalls the talk at the time. “That’s when Heights people started moving out of the Heights and moved west.”

A year after the country club was completed in 1968, Willis built a house on Eden Lane and his family moved in. “As soon as Pleasant Valley became a reality, that’s where we went,” he said.

Jack Ramer remembers the schism caused by the Riverdale-Pleasant Valley swap and a resulting fall out of members. That contributed to early financial travails of building membership to support the upkeep and ongoing expenses of operating a top-flight country club.

“It was a long way to drive back then, something like 25 minutes from downtown,” Ramer said of the journey to Pleasant Valley. “People thought they were driving all the way to Perryville. But it all took care of itself over time.”

The club’s coming-out party was held on Nov. 24, 1968. The memories of that debut remain vivid for Ramer.

“When we had our grand opening, it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like it in my life.”

The Decades-Long Suburbanization of Pleasant Valley Farm

Charles Minor Taylor pieced together the Pleasant Valley acreage in dozens of buys over more than three decades. His assembly of parcels was interrupted by World War II, where he served in Europe with the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Overseas in England, Col. Taylor found a war bride: Joan Richards, a well-known model. They married in 1946 and lived on his Pleasant Valley Farm homestead at the southeast corner of a graveled Rodney Parham Road and Highway 10.

A member of the Princeton University polo team during his collegiate years, Taylor could on occasion be seen whacking around a polo ball from horseback on his spread. An avid flight enthusiast since his youth, Taylor owned a plane that he piloted out of his grass airstrip. Another of his rural amenities was a skeet-shooting range.

Taylor excluded about 90 acres surrounding his country home from the 1959 sale to Pleasant Valley Inc. Over time, the arrival of Interstate 430 and other road improvements projects reduced the property to 65 acres, which was developed into the Pleasant Valley Office Park during the 1980s and became the home of Systematics.

Bick Satterfield was two months away from completing his naval service when the Pleasant Valley land sale closed in 1959. In later years, Satterfield did bond business with Taylor and they became friends. What was the plan for the property?

“He accumulated it with the idea that he was going to develop it,” Satterfield said. “But I don’t know why he didn’t.”
Taylor was the only son of a Little Rock doctor also named Charles Taylor, whose local business credits included serving as president of the Electric Lighting Co. and director of the German National Bank and Union Trust Co.

His mother, Julia, made local headlines in 1929 for buying Trapnall Hall to prevent the razing of the historic home. She donated the downtown property to the Junior League of Little Rock in memory of her husband.

Proceeds of the Pleasant Valley transaction live on as a financial legacy through the Charles M. & Joan R. Taylor Foundation, with a charitable coffer of $20 million supporting nonprofit endeavors since 1997.

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