Even in adversity, great minds cannot be suppressed. Charles Thompson, an architect from the early 1900s, was an example of such a man. Thompson rose from a childhood of deep tragedy to becoming one of the most celebrated architectural minds in the state, creating enduring landmarks in communities across Arkansas.
Thompson was born in eastern Illinois in 1868, one of six children. In 1883, just after he turned fourteen, both parents died suddenly. The six Thompson children were now orphans.
Even though relatives in Indiana took them in, Thompson had to quit school and go to work in a local mill to support his brothers and sisters. To keep up with the needs of his brothers and sisters, he even began working a second job while still in his mid-teens. His second job was working for an Indiana architect who taught him the basics of design and drafting building plans. This became the springboard for a brilliant career as he learned the tricks of the trade.
In 1886, at age 17, Thompson leaped at an opportunity he found in a magazine ad. An architect in Little Rock, Ben Bartlett, had bought a want ad looking for a draftsman to help with his design work. Aided by his mentor in Indiana, Thompson landed the job and headed to Arkansas.
Thompson had discovered his calling and proved to be a genius. Within two years, and still a teenager and having little education and no formal training, Thompson was made a partner in Bartlett’s firm. In 1890, Bartlett left the state, selling his half of the successful firm to Thompson.
Throughout his career, Charles Thompson designed more than a dozen courthouses across the state, including the four-story Saline County Courthouse in Benton in 1902, replete with its distinct clock tower, and its cousin, the similarly designed Woodruff County Courthouse in Augusta, completed in 1900. Both are still in use today, as is another courthouse, the Hot Spring County Courthouse in Malvern. In 1904, Thompson designed the Washington County Courthouse in Fayetteville, a stately building that cost more than $98,000 at the time (nearly $3 million in today’s money). The Fayetteville building was used for 85 years until the new courthouse was completed in 1990.
In 1903, he was commissioned to design the Clark County Public Library in Arkadelphia. The building has been continuously used as a library since that time, save for a brief period in World War I when the Red Cross used it to support the war effort. The library building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The Clark County Courthouse, completed in 1899, was designed by him as well and was also considered an elegant addition to Arkadelphia.
In 1905, he was hired to design the new building for El Dorado High School, the first high school in Union County. The three-story red brick structure quickly became an indelible feature of the community. It served as the headquarters of El Dorado Junior College from 1928 to 1942 before being re-absorbed back into the high school complex. The building was later placed on the National Register of Historic Places, like many other works of Thompson. It has been used as the main administration building for South Arkansas Community College since the college opened on the site in 1975. The building was recently repaired after a devastating 2019 fire and rededicated in honor of longtime college beneficiary, Charlie Thomas.
Numerous churches and schools throughout the state were designed by Thompson, each with his own unique touch, including the 1901 St. Edwards Catholic Church in Little Rock, the 1926 St. Luke Episcopal Church in Hot Springs, and the 1910 First Presbyterian Church in Newport. Some of the most stately and admired homes constructed in the state through the 1930s were also his design. He was also responsible for the design of a number of buildings at the University of Arkansas and the president’s mansion at Hendrix College in Conway.
He retired in 1938 at the age of 70, finishing a rewarding career that lasted more than fifty years. During his retirement, he stayed active, serving on the board of directors for several Little Rock municipal commissions, civic clubs, and charities. In 1959, he passed away at the age of 91. His buildings, however, live on, with dozens now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.