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Historic District Commission continues preservation plan

by Tia Lyons | November 27, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.

The El Dorado Historic District Commission is continuing efforts to implement the next phase of the citywide historic preservation plan.

The EHDC previously agreed to develop an African American context -- one of several the priority projects that was recommended in the plan.

The plan was drafted in 2020.

The first leg of the African American context project will focus on the St. Louis and Fairview Addition neighborhoods and the EHDC is looking for stakeholders to help outline and steer the project.

During a regular commission meeting earlier this month, Elizabeth Eggleston, executive director of the EHDC, said she had received a Notice of Funds Availability for the next grant cycle of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.

Funding for Certified Local Governments is a part of several grant programs that are offered via the AHPP.

El Dorado is one of 21 CLG cities in Arkansas who partners with the National Park Service, the AHPP and other cities and counties around the state to preserve historic resources at the local level.

Over the past two years, CLG grants have covered the costs of drafting the city's historic preservation plan and surveys and inventories of hundreds of properties in the Mellor, Bodenhamer, Forest Lawn and Eastridge subdivisions and the Retta Brown and Country Club Colony neighborhoods -- all projects that were spearheaded by the EHDC.

The surveys and inventories will help determine if the areas, which are largely residential, are eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places as local historic districts and/or with individually listed properties.

Eggleston said the next CLG grant, if awarded by the AHPP, will be used for the African American context.

On Nov. 10, she told the EHDC that she had already submitted a letter of intent to the AHPP about plans for the project.

"This is where we take our marching orders for the work that we do next," Eggleston said.

She noted that the scope of work may be extended to similarly historic communities, such as Germantown, Chinatown and Little Italy sections that can be found in larger cities.

For the St. Louis neighborhood, Eggleston said she has compiled property records from the Union County Tax Assessor's Office.

The borders of the St. Louis neighborhood are defined in the preservation plan as West Fifth Street on the north; Mount Holly Road, West Faulkner and West Oak to the south; and North West and North College avenues on the east and west, respectively.

The neighborhood serves as the gateway to Medical Center of South Arkansas and several medical offices and encompasses Barton Junior High School, Rester's Part III Barber College, Sims Mortuary, First Baptist Church - Cordell and the Nile and Marzell Smith Museum of African American History.

The museum is housed in a building that once served as Carver Elementary School and the El Dorado School District's administration building.

The Fairview Addition is bound by East Main Street on the north; Short Norsworthy and East Cook streets on the south; South Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the east; and on the west by Rock Island Right-of-Way and South Madison and South Jackson avenues.

Fairview is a mix of residential and small commercial properties and includes several churches, including Lee Chapel AME Church, New Bethel Baptist Church, First St. James Missionary Baptist Church and St. James Baptist Church.

The houses in the neighborhood are mostly small-frame and brick, with some dating back to the 19th century.

Washington Middle School (formerly Washington High School and Rogers Jr. High School) and Fairview Head Start/Early Head Start Center.

Like the former Carver Elementary School, Washington and Fairview schools served as a high school and elementary school, respectively, for Black students during the days of racial segregation in El Dorado.

The citywide preservation plan recognizes the St. Louis and Fairview neighborhoods as the oldest African American settlements in El Dorado, dating back to the post-Civil War era.

Eggleston pointed to another goal that is outlined in the city's historic preservation plan: develop a historical marker program.

She noted that Janice Bush, president of the El Dorado-Union County chapter of the NAACP, previously worked with the Murphy Arts District to install historical markers detailing the history of Hill Avenue.

Several businesses and professional offices, several of which were Black-owned, once dotted the area and employed and served the African American community during the Jim Crow era.

Several ideas, including a mural and a park, were tossed around for the markers.

The project stalled due to a lack of funding and other issues but there were more gains than losses, Bush has said.

"When we did the Hill Street awareness project, it sparked a lot of research and there's so much information out there about El Dorado and the contributions of African Americans," she said.

As a result, the NAACP broadened the scope of the project to cover other AA communities in El Dorado, including Fordville, which is also listed in the citywide preservation plan.

Steve Biernacki, a member of the EHDC and executive director of the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, noted that the SAHPC has begun collecting oral histories for the cities.

Last year, the SAHPC entered into a partnership with SouthArk to record oral histories, create documentaries about local historical interest and initiate other such projects to help preserve the city's history and heritage.

"Even as the historical preservation society has been delving into these oral histories and Black history, we need to go back a little bit and get with the shareholders of the St. Louis neighborhood," Biernacki said. "The (residents) need to be involved."

Commissioner Sara Coffman agreed, adding, "We need to sit down and have a meeting to get their opinions."

Eggleston said she will send out letters to qualified consultants to coordinate and develop the project.

"We can all sit down once (the consultants) get the contract. I've got to get the bids in to write the grant," she said.

Union County Courthouse

Commissioners also learned that improvements are planned for the Union County Courthouse to address an ongoing problem with leaks in the building.

Blake Dunn, of CADM Architecture, Inc., told commissioners that earlier this year, Union County received a grant in the amount of $147,200 from the AHPP's County Courthouse Restoration Grant program.

The grant will be used for "column in antis bearing shelf-cleaning/tuckpointing and atrium roof replacement."

Dunn explained that crews will water-proof the courthouse columns and the shelves on which they sit on all facades of the building

"There's been a problem for years with water infiltration. We will be cutting out the existing mortar joints, pointing them up and putting them back," he said, adding that the project will not change the architectural integrity of the courthouse.

Eggleston asked if the work required a Certificate of Appropriateness from the EHDC.

COAs are required for most exterior projects within the city's commercial historic district and must be approved by the EHDC before work begins.

Dunn and Commissioner Linda Rathbun said a COA is not necessary for the courthouse project because the work constitutes routine maintenance, which does not call for a COA, per the EHDC's design guidelines.

The project is expected to begin in the spring, Dunn said.

He also told commissioners that the next phase of courthouse improvements entails the stabilization of the building envelope and addressing cracks and openings in the concrete.

The 95-year-old building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Eggleston reminded commissioners that they need to forward a recommendation to Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer and the El Dorado City Council to re-appoint Coffman, Rathbun and Commissioner Diane Murfee to another term on the EHDC.

Each is serving a three-year term that expires at the end of the year.

The commission is also looking to fill two vacancies that were left open with the resignations of former commissioners Beth Langley and Eric Wallace.

Wallace has since re-applied for his former seat, said Eggleston.

Commissioners will also elect officers during their next regular meeting on Dec. 8.

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