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Arkansas college town gets high marks for its active cultural scene, storied history

This 1875 building at the University of Arkansas campus is known as Old Main. The community enjoys theater and other performances inside this architectural gem./ A.C. Haralson-Arkansas Parks and Tourisn photo
By Margaret Dornaus
Published: Sep/Oct 2001

William Jefferson Clinton married Hillary Rodham and purchased their first house here. Philanthropist and statesmen J. William Fulbright grew up here. And the state’s first land-grant university is located here.

Fayetteville, a college town of more than 56,000 people, is a pleasing mixture of form and function. Visitors can soak up collegiate culture, history and an active arts scene.

University of Arkansas

The university that is a huge part of this community opened in a self-contained architectural gem of a building in 1875. Known as Old Main, its graceful ornamental French second empire facade overlooks an arboretum of majestic native trees. Walkways engraved with the names of more than 100,000 graduates encircle the building.

Residents point to Old Main with pride. Its twin towers crown the town from the campus’ hillside location. They have become a symbol of collaborative cooperation.

Combined efforts of university leaders and Fayetteville residents saved the historic structure from the wrecking ball 10 years ago. Millions of dollars were raised, and today, Old Main serves the university and the greater community with a historically preserved 126-year-old theater that hosts performances, symposiums and concerts.

Active art scene

Walk a few yards down the hill to the multi-million dollar Walton Arts Center, built in 1992 as a direct result of public and private funding. Named after one of the area’s most prominent families, and one of the building’s most significant contributors, (Sam and Helen Walton of Wal-Mart retailing fame), the state-of-the-art center includes four performance spaces.

Visitors enjoy art exhibitions, plus a variety of musical and theatrical performances. This year, the Broadway show “Titanic” comes to the center Sept. 21-23. September through May, the North Arkansas Symphony entertains audiences.

The Walton Arts Center is on Dickson Street, the main artery joining Fayetteville to the hilltop campus. In the decade since the arts center took center stage in Fayetteville, Dickson Street has changed dramatically.

Entertainment and dining out

Today, outdoor bistros and trendy boutiques have replaced the honky-tonks that dotted Dickson Street. A stroll down this eclectic, collegiate boulevard now offers visitors dining experiences that range from Tex-Mex and Italian to Greek and German or even Japanese sushi.

The two-storied Ozark Brewing Company–with its balcony directly facing the Walton Arts Center–is a particular favorite for pre- or post-theater bites accompanied with a sampling of micro-brewed ales and lagers.

Dickson Street’s nightspots sway with rhythm-and-blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll refrains. And a loyal following frequents George’s Majestic Lounge, a perennial favorite that offers a beer garden, musical happy hours and weekend dancing.

Another Dickson Street fixture is its eponymous bookstore, a 6,000-square-foot used-book emporium showcasing 70,000 titles on every imaginable subject. Described by bibliophiles as the best bookstore west of the Mississippi, the Dickson Street Bookshop ranks high with both browsers and buyers.

Historic sites and homes

Just south of Dickson Street is the city’s other centerpiece, a downtown square with specialty shops that operate out of 19th- and early 20th-century buildings. A 1911 classical revival gem, which once housed the town’s post office, is surrounded by gardens, and is the backdrop for an abundant farmer’s market that operates from April through October, and on Saturdays in November.

Nearby neighborhoods, like Fayetteville’s Washington-Willow Historic District, provide passersby with more glimpses into the stately architecture that defines the town’s past. Walking brochures of the district are available at the Washington County Historical Society’s headquarters, located in one of Fayetteville’s most significant structures.

Formerly the home of judge Jonas Tebbetts, Headquarters House on East Dickson Street is a white frame Greek revival built in 1853. Restored to its pre-war glory, the building once served as a base for Union and Confederate officers after Tebbetts (a Union sympathizer) and his family fled Fayetteville during the Civil War. In addition to tours of the home and its grounds, visitors can glimpse the daily life of the Tebbetts household through scheduled living history re-enactments based on diary entries of the Tebbetts’ eldest daughter.

Fayetteville experienced one brief Civil War skirmish during 1863, but the war played out in a more significant way on two nearby battlefields: Prairie Grove, just west of Fayetteville, and Pea Ridge to its north.

For a view of the area’s more contemporary history, a visit to two local museums proffers a different panorama. At the Arkansas Air Museum, housed in a wooden hangar at Fayetteville’s Drake Field, a collection of military and commercial aircraft spans 80 years of aviation history.

For football fans planning to attend a Razorbacks’ home game (Oct. 6, against Middle Tennessee, Oct. 27, against Auburn), additional insights into the state’s "Hogwild" fever requires a post-stadium trek to the Bud Walton Arena, where interactive exhibits trace the history of the university’s award-winning athletes. Visitors should note that Razorback games quickly sell out.

A wealth of area arts-and-crafts fairs held the third weekend of each October to coincide with the Ozarks’ brilliant display of fall foliage.

Margaret Dornaus is a contributor from Springdale, Ark.

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