Among the many programs and services of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program is the County Courthouse Restoration Grant Program. Created in 1989, this grant program has helped to extend the lives of courthouses that hold vital links to community pride and local history. These grants are funded through the Real Estate Transfer Tax, administered by the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council. Since the beginning of the program, AHPP has awarded almost $16 million to 61 historic courthouses around the state for use in rehabilitating, preserving and protecting these important historic resources.
Since 1997, the Dallas County Courthouse has received 10 grants totaling $350,475 for various necessary rehabilitation projects. Without the Real Estate Transfer Tax and the County Courthouse Grant Program, this grand old building is now in good condition and will continue to be the centerpiece of the downtown corridor for generations to come.
(The featured article below ran in the Fall 2012 issue of the quarterly publication of the Association of Arkansas Counties – County Lines. Companion articles about historic courthouses will be a regular feature in future issues. Read more about the history of Dallas County and this remarkable building.)
FOOTBALL, ROCK AND ROLL, AND ARCHITECTURE
Fordyce, the Dallas County seat, is a mecca for fans of football, rock and roll, and historic architecture. Football fans make the pilgrimage to Fordyce to see the boyhood home of Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and Redbug Field, where Bryant learned the skills that would eventually make him the winningest coach in college football history. Rockers go there to see where Rolling Stones guitarists Ron Wood and Keith Richards were famously arrested in 1975. And architecture aficionados visit Fordyce to see the Dallas County Courthouse.
Monumental in scale and proportion, the 1911 Dallas County Courthouse, the largest and finest Classical Revival structure in the county, symbolizes Fordyce’s rapid growth as a railroad and trade center that culminated in its replacing Princeton as county seat in 1908. The Classical Revival style is uncommon in Dallas County, but its democratic style was often used for government and bank buildings in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
The Dallas County Courthouse is also an outstanding example of architect Frank W. Gibb’s early designs. Experienced as an engineer and surveyor, Gibb apparently had no formal training in architecture, which did not stop him from moving from Chicago to Arkansas and establishing a healthy practice. Gibb frequently designed classically-inspired structures, including the Yell County Courthouse in Dardanelle, which shares several characteristics with its cousin in Fordyce. The price of this magnificent structure? A mere $65,000.
As the traveler enters downtown Fordyce, one of the first things seen is the octagonal clock tower that looms above the Dallas County Courthouse, still keeping perfect time. The craftsmanship of the architect, as well as builder Edgar Koonce, is apparent in the classical pediments atop the building’s entrances. The primary façade, facing Third Street, features soaring Doric columns supporting the triangular pediment, the name DALLAS boldly emblazoned on a panel between the trim and cornice.
The interior of the Dallas County Courthouse is also striking, with rich, dark woodwork, marble wainscoting, and octagonal tile floors. According to Leslie Nutt, currently entering her third term as Dallas County treasurer, the sterling condition of the interior can be largely attributed to her predecessor, Lowana Brumley, who served as treasurer from 1983 to 2008 and absolutely loved the building.
“In the mid ‘90s, Lowana pushed to renovate the courthouse and that’s what we did: from the top floor, to the courtrooms, to the second floor and the landscaping outdoors,” Nutt said. “In years past people would chew tobacco and for whatever reason spit on the marble walls and it would run down to the floor. The walls were stained yellow from this and age. The marble and floors were stripped and restored.”
At the same time, artist JoAnne Diffie of Bismarck repainted the stenciling on the doors of the county offices, paying particular attention to the entrances to the vault between the offices of the county clerk and treasurer. The vault contains a trove of records dating to Dallas County’s founding in 1845 – a rarity among counties, many of which suffered courthouse fires over the years.
As with most historic buildings, the Dallas County Courthouse has had to adapt to modern needs, including the installation of elevators to make the building accessible to all of the county’s citizens. The entrances to the elevators are framed by wooden openings hand-made by local craftsman Clayton Cochran, and most visitors would not realize that they did not date from the courthouse’s 1911 construction.
The second floor courtrooms have been modernized, but even there careful attention has been paid to details, as with the dropped ceilings that feature panels engraved with geometric designs. Historic wood railings do survive in the courtrooms, though, as reminders of the rooms’ historic design.
The records in the vault are not the only artifacts from Dallas County’s history to greet courthouse visitors. A photograph of Sheriff F.M. Pearson gazes sternly from the wall of the lobby, across from the cornerstone of the 1898 Princeton jail that was stripped during World War II so that its bars and cells could be melted down for the war effort. In the treasurer’s office, photos of treasurers dating back to George W. Mallett, who served from 1854 to 1856, line the wall. One man, E.H. Green, who served from 1872-1874, was married several times and had many children – Treasurer Nutt says that his photo is the most-copied in the courthouse.
Other, more modern items share space with the historic artifacts. A large canvas mural, painted by the same artist who did the courthouse stenciling, shows historic buildings from throughout the county, with the Dallas County Courthouse as its centerpiece. Across from it, carved from wood, is a large version of the Dallas County seal, which was designed by Rachna Patel, a Fordyce High School tenth-grader in a contest sponsored by Judge Jimmy Jones in 2001. The members of the Quorum Court selected the winner, Ms. Patel received a $175 prize from Riverside Bank in Sparkman, and Dallas County had its first official seal.
Past and present merge seamlessly at the Dallas County Courthouse as it moves into its second century of serving the county’s citizens, preserving the memories of generations of county officials and their stories. “She’s our little jewel,” Treasurer Nutt says affectionately.