|Little Rock Renewal||Published Jan/Feb 2005|
The new William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park is the cornerstone of a major downtown revitalization project that’s underway in Little Rock.
By Joe Pollack
|They call him the “Comeback Kid.” Now, Little Rock, the city that William Jefferson Clinton loves, is taking a cue from its favorite son.
Part of Little Rock’s major downtown renovation project, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park on the bank of the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock’s River Market district opened with much fanfare in November. Designed by James Polshek, the visually fascinating building is an engineering gem. The combination of steel girders and two layers of glass is handsome and utilitarian. The center resembles a bridge, reflecting Clinton’s political and campaign theme of building a bridge to the 21st century.
The $165-million park, library, museum, research center, school and archive is unique among presidential libraries in that it was planned and built to be a feature for revitalization of a downtown, not tucked away behind a residence or on an estate. The plan seems to be working. The old Excelsior Hotel downtown was remodeled and turned into a Peabody Hotel that comes complete with the famous ducks that march across the lobby every day at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. A multi-million-dollar world hunger charity, Heifer International, has established its headquarters just south and east of the park. The River Marketwith restaurants, shops and entertainment venuesis a short walk away on President Clinton Avenue.
Here’s what a visitor can expect to see while visiting Little Rock’s newest attraction.
The four-story museum and archives building is 420 feet long with 20,000 square feet of exhibit space, a café with outdoor seating, and a Great Hall for meetings, lectures, cocktail parties, banquets and more.
Tours of the building begin with a film about the museum. An exhibit area, 120 feet long, is divided into eight 15-foot panels, each representing one of Clinton’s years in office.
The prime focus is an exact replica of the Oval Office in the White House, with computer stations outside the office providing interactive tours of the building. Enter the office to face the giant desk that Clinton used as president. The area also holds a slightly smaller replica of the White House room where the president and his cabinet met. Furnishings are identical to the decor from 1993 to 2001, when Clinton lived and worked in the White House.
When asked about the Oval Office’s most infamous visitor, Skip Rutherford, a long-time Clinton associate and president of the Presidential Foundation, said he expects some cheeky questions, but added, “We’ll try to answer them as courteously and correctly as we can.”
The archives will include 80 million document pages, the most left by any president. During the first five years following a presidential administration, the records are closed. The Clinton museum staff will begin processing the materials, and on Jan. 20, 2006, will open to the public those records that are processed. At that time, the unprocessed records will be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
The south and west sides of the park will be landscaped to accommodate a playground, outdoor concerts and picnics.
The Choctaw Station, a railroad terminal built in1899, has been renovated to serve as the new University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. A library is designed to reflect both the Governor’s Conference Room in the state Capitol and the main reading room of the New York City Public Library. The school, which will enroll its first class in September 2005, is the first graduate school of public service in the country and is expecting a dozen or so students, a number in line with similar programs in their inaugural year, according to Rutherford.
Away from the sights and sounds of Clinton, Little Rock has its share of malls, water parks, concert venues, boutiques and attractions, including a zoo. But the city also has places that are as much an integral part of Little Rock as the former president.
Central High School brings a lesson in Civil Rights history. It’s the building where, in 1957, President Eisenhower called out the Army to protect nine black children on their way to school. It’s now a national historic site. A gas station across the street has been renovated into a visitors center that includes an exhibit that tugs at the emotions.
In addition, EMOBA is a private museum that traces the heritage and culture of African-Americans in Arkansas.
The Old Mill in North Little Rock is a charming re-creation of a 19th-century gristmill that shows behind some of the opening credits of “Gone With the Wind.” What makes it unusual, however, is the twisted concrete sculpture on site crafted by Mexican artist Dionico Rodriguez, whose creations seem to have been inspired by Antonio Gaudi, the Spanish artist and architect. Set in a small park in a lovely neighborhood, it’s worth a quick trip.
The Empress of Little Rock, a bed-and-breakfast, provides an impressive example of Gothic Queen Anne architecture. The Historic Arkansas Museum combines history and art in a pleasing setting.
With Little Rock and Clinton so entwined, there should be time for a visit to Doe's Eat Place, still a political hangout even if Clinton visits less often these days. It's a café for great tamales, catfish sandwiches and steaks. There’s good barbecue at several places; we preferred the Whole Hog Café, but the White Pig Inn has many fans. Slightly more elaborate is Brave New Restaurant, offering splendid contemporary American cuisine. The name is not a pun on Aldous Huxley’s book “Brave New World,” but actually a second, and therefore new, restaurant owned by chef Peter Brave (pronounced Brav-ay).
For a nostalgic trip, hop aboard the new River Rail Electric Streetcar system. Three replica vintage trolleys operate on 2.5 miles of track linking Little Rock and North Little Rock. It passes the River Market, Historic Arkansas Museum and other sites. Round-trip rides are just 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for seniors. Children ride for free.
The party may be over, but the Clinton Presidential Center provides a new reason to visit Arkansas’s capital.
Joe Pollack is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
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