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Bankruptcy building.

Preserving Little Rock's Old Post Office Isn't Coming Cheap at $17.5 Million-Plus

THE BUREAUCRATIC machinery is slowly grinding forward in what will ultimately produce one of the biggest historic preservation jobs in Arkansas.

The now-vacant Old Post Office in downtown Little Rock will be renovated and expanded for use by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and related offices.

The project is estimated to cost between $15 million and $20 million, according to F.W. Dodge McGraw Hill Information Services Co.

The 60,000-SF building, which sits on half a block on the north side of Second Street between Center and Spring streets, was formerly occupied by the University of Arkansas Law School.

When the law school moved out, it seemed unlikely the building would be restored. Indeed, it appeared destined for a future appointment with the wrecking ball.

"I think it was the last chance that building had for being used as a federal court building," says U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Fussell of Little Rock. "You're not going to be able to ever build that kind of significant building."

The 111-year-old structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The nomination form notes, "It is and was undoubtedly the most solidly constructed building of its vintage in the city of Little Rock. The fact that it has survived in reasonably good condition attests to the original quality of the construction."

The federal government reclaimed the property in October with little fanfare, considering the high-dollar status of this endeavor.

Perhaps a low-key approach is a politically prudent stance given the government's avowed desire to reduce federal spending.

A Sensitive Matter

Refurbishing the building and adding 57,000 SF with matching granite and sandstone won't be cheap.

In fact, the General Services Administration initially wanted to develop a new building of comparable size. The courthouse would have been located on a vacant block, north of the post office building at 600 W. Capitol Ave.

The issue of cost is still a sensitive matter, as the variables of aesthetics and economics butt heads.

Unspecified GSA cost estimates for a new building are reportedly lower than the projected cost of renovating and expanding the Old Post Office. However, preservation-minded supporters insist a new building would have cost much more.

In any case, the combined political muscle of Little Rock federal judges and Arkansas congressmen forced GSA to shift its focus to rehabilitating the Old Post Office.

"Basically, we're going to totally restore and remodel the entire building to accommodate all of the bankruptcy courts and offices," says Gary Wike, GSA's project manager.

According to Wike, the redevelopment is about to enter the design phase. The GSA timetable has construction beginning by late 1994 with a possible completion in late 1996.

The revamped building is planned to fill the needs of the courts for a 30-year period as of 1991. Once complete the building will house 52 federal employees. By 2021, the number is projected to be 86.

"At this point, I think it's a done deal," says Fussell, who will relocate to Fayetteville in June. "Everything is on track right now."

Some politicos wonder if former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's presidential victory was the final push needed to grease the skids for historic preservation vs. new construction.

"The decision was made to go ahead with this project before the election," the GSA's Wike says. "I'm an engineer by trade, a nuts-and-bolts guy, so I'm not sure who made the decision."

But politics were definitely a key component in the decision to renovate the Old Post Office.

The lineup of heavyweight preservation advocates included Richard Arnold of Little Rock, chief judge of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; and Stephen Reasoner, chief judge of the Little Rock U.S. District Courts.

The well-connected supporters extended beyond the federal judicial system, too, and even crossed party lines.

A Long Process

Before leaving Congress, former Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, R-Ark., played a pivotal role in pushing a non-GSA-endorsed project through the House Public Works Committee.

It didn't hurt having other members of the Arkansas congressional delegation pushing to preserve the Old Post Office, either.

Faced with this clout, the central GSA office in Washington, D.C., redirected the efforts of the regional office in Fort Worth, Texas, away from new construction.

"We've been working on this thing for three years now," says chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge James Mixon of Little Rock. "It's been approved, and we've reacquired title to the building. It was a long, drawn-out process."

Bankruptcy judges Mary Davies Scott of Little Rock and Fussell are credited with being in the forefront of pursuing the Old Post Office renovation.

The new-and-improved Old Post Office will house four courtrooms, two original ones and two new ones. The historic building is envisioned as having the proper ambience for 8th Circuit to hear more oral arguments in Little Rock.

It also will house the U.S. Marshal, general office space, conference and training area and bankruptcy clerk's office.

Philosophically, GSA is in the business of building buildings, and the agency wasn't too excited about taking the building back after giving it away.

"I think they looked on it at straight cost without factoring in any historical considerations," Fussell says. "Some things in life are worth saving."

Restrictions required the building be used for judicial or educational purposes, which along with the high costs of preservation eliminated private sector redevelopment as a consideration.

Parking still will be a hassle for bankruptcy court devotees despite the future move to the Old Post Office.

"There's a lack of parking all over downtown," Mixon says. "We'll essentially be transferring a parking problem from one part of town to another.

"There were about 60 people in court today, and I'm sure many of them got a ticket on the meters if they could find an open spot."

Even a historic setting can't overrule some modern inconveniences.

Historical Perspective

THE OLD POST OFFICE Building was constructed in 1881 and designed to serve the Little Rock area as a post office, federal courthouse and custom house.

The entire first floor was used by the U.S. Postal Service. The building boasts an intricate wrought-iron elevator, touted as the oldest in continuous use in the state and among the first installed in Arkansas.

The second floor was used by various governmental offices, including the "Collector of Internal Revenue," the "Land Receiver," the office of the Federal District Judge and the U.S. District Attorney.

The third and fourth floors were devoted largely to the use of U.S. District Court with additional rooms for judges, juries and the offices of the U.S. Marshal.

The post office relocated to its new namesake building at 600 W. Capitol Ave. in 1932. The Old Post Office served as the Armed Forces examining and entrance station prior to the federal government transferring the property to the Arkansas Commemorative Commission in June 1976.

In December 1979, the state transferred the building to the University of Arkansas for use as the law school.

A historic survey conducted in 1972 commented that "in the past 10 years, several proposals have been made concerning the ultimate disposition of this building, including demolition and even presenting the citizens of Little Rock with another half city block of flat, black asphalt for parking.

"While the primary significance of the Old Post Office lies in its architecture and in the rarity of the Italianate Renaissance architectural style, in Arkansas, it is widely accepted as an important landmark in the central business district of Little Rock." The landmark is now all but assured of having a sesquicentennial celebration, come 2031.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on building's history; former Arkansas Post Office building to be renovated for use by the US Bankruptcy Court
Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Mar 15, 1993
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