The Lafayette Hotel in downtown Little Rock (Pulaski County) opened in 1925 and was one of the state’s best-known hotels until its closure in 1973. Now known as the Lafayette Building, it houses offices and condominiums. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on September 30, 1982.
Little Rock was experiencing solid growth during the 1920s, and an entity known as the Little Rock Hotel Co. decided to capitalize on that growth with a new hotel. A. D. Gates of St. Louis, Missouri, was the company president, and John Boyle of Little Rock was the vice president. The ten-story structure, which has a full basement, was designed by St. Louis architect George Barnett.
The Lafayette opened on September 2, 1925, with 300 fireproof guest rooms. The rooms, which featured private baths with running water, rented for $2.50 per night. The building’s exterior featured elements of the Renaissance Revival style of architecture with its decorative terra cotta detailing, arched windows on the top floor, and a projecting copper cornice. The interior public spaces were designed by decorator Paul Martin Heerwagen.
The Great Depression hurt the hotel industry, and the Lafayette closed in 1933. The building remained vacant until a housing shortage due to an influx of soldiers at Camp Joseph T. Robinson increased the demand for hotel rooms and apartments. The Lafayette was purchased by Southwest Hotels and reopened on August 23, 1941. Southwest Hotels, which owned three other Little Rock hotels at one time or another, reduced the number of guest rooms from 300 to 260. A coffee bar and lunch counter were added with an entrance off 6th Street. An Arkansas Gazette article the day after the opening said: “Guest rooms, suites and efficiency apartments are the newest, freshest and most livable rooms in the city, high above the street, light and airy.” The newspaper described the coffee bar as “truly the most beautifully decorated and artistically designed coffee bar in the state.”
The interior of the hotel had been completely repainted. The lobby ceiling was stenciled and painted by John Oehrlie, a Swiss mural painter. Oehrlie and his crew had redecorated the hotel in eight months, spending three months of that working on the lobby ceiling. Oehrlie had been Heerwagen’s foreman in 1925, so he was familiar with the hotel. The Optimist Club, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club, and Civitan Club all began having meetings at the hotel. The Missouri Pacific and Rock Island railroads had ticket offices in the lobby. There also was a telephone answering service, a coin shop, and a beauty parlor. The Gaslite Club opened in the basement and remained in business until the 1960s.
There was another remodeling effort in 1953 as the hotel’s owners tried to keep up with the growing number of motels and tourist courts on the highways leading in and out of Little Rock. Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing updates were made. The interior décor was changed to incorporate a red-and-white color scheme. However, the Lafayette closed on November 23, 1973. The Gazette described the hotel as the “victim of more modern competition, one-way streets, and no parking facilities.”
In the early 1980s, the investment banking firm Jon R. Brittenum & Associates purchased the building and began renovations. Witsell, Evans & Rasco of Little Rock was hired as the architectural firm, with Baldwin & Shell of Little Rock as the general contractor. Federal historic rehabilitation tax credits were tapped, and company officials said they were prepared to spend up to $6.3 million on the renovations. The renovation effort began in the fall of 1983 and was completed by December 1984. The black-and-white marble floors in the lobby were repaired, the red gum walls and columns were stripped and finished, the kitchen on the first floor was enlarged, and new elevators were installed. The Little Rock firm Designed Communications, owned by Suzanne Kittrell and Becky Witsell, was hired to research and document the original decoration and then re-create it. A team of six women—Witsell, Kittrell, Ovita Goolsby, Kathy Worthen, Susan Purvis, and Susan Leir—spent a year repainting the ceiling.
In January 1986, Brittenum & Associates filed for bankruptcy a day after Jon Brittenum had filed a personal petition for protection from creditors. State securities regulators earlier had alleged in a complaint that the firm misappropriated $3.3 million in customer funds. Brittenum’s personal Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition showed that he and his wife owed more than $17 million. In 1989, Brittenum pleaded no contest to theft by deception charges.
Brittenum’s 1984 project had focused upon the exterior, the lobby, the top three floors, and the mechanical systems. A company known as American Diversified Capital Corp. of Costa Mesa, California, announced plans in late 1984 to do work on the floors that Brittenum was not using, but little was done. Tower Investments of California began efforts in 2005 to create condominiums and office space. Tower completed its renovations in 2008, but the economic recession slowed condominium sells. With downtown revitalization efforts gaining steam in Little Rock, Tower sold the building in January 2014 to Chad and Jessica Gallagher of De Queen (Sevier County) and Scott and Deborah Ferguson of West Memphis (Crittenden County). The two couples said they planned to bring a restaurant back to the building and once more make its lobby a major gathering spot.
For additional information:
“Lafayette Hotel.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/PU0234.nr.pdf (accessed June 2, 2015).
“Little Rock’s Lafayette Hotel.” Rex Nelson’s Southern Fried. http://www.rexnelsonsouthernfried.com/?p=5586 (accessed July 24, 2014).
“Tower Investments Sells Lafayette Building for $3M.” Arkansas Business, February 4, 2014. http://www.arkansasbusiness.com/article/96965/tower-investments-sells-lafayette-building-for-3m (accessed July 24, 2014).
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