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Van Buren County Courthouse in County Lines Magazine

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program - Friday, December 18, 2015

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, the AHPP has awarded more than $20 million to 73 historic courthouses and courthouse annexes around the state for use in rehabilitating, preserving and protecting these important historic resources. Since 1995, Van Buren County has received six grants totaling $244,127 for the Van Buren County Courthouse.

 

(The featured article below ran in the Fall 2015 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 Van Buren County and this remarkable building.)

 

 

While it may be the smallest county courthouse in Arkansas, the 1934 Van Buren County Courthouse remains the centerpiece of a vibrant downtown in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in north Arkansas, and generations of caretakers have seen that it stayed that way, helped in part by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program’s County Courthouse Restoration Grant Program, funded through Real Estate Transfer Tax proceeds administered by the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council.

The area that would become Van Buren County was a remote wilderness when Georgia native John Lafferty moved into the “Big Bottoms” where three branches of the Little Red River converged and established a farmstead during the territorial period. Lafferty lobbied hard to have a new seat of local government created to serve settlers in the area and he was successful on November 11, 1833, when Van Buren County – named for Vice President Martin Van Buren – was carved from adjacent counties to serve its rugged area.

The first courthouse for the new county was established in Obadiah Marsh’s one-room log house in the Bloomington community – better known as Mudtown for the condition of its streets after a hard rain. Local men soon built a new log structure to house county government, which may have been a very popular location in that it was just across from a horse-racing track second only in size to the one at Batesville.

In 1842, the county seat was moved to Clinton, the home of Van Buren County’s first cotton gin in 1840, and another one-room log courthouse was constructed. As settlement increased and prosperity grew, this humble structure was soon replaced by a two-story frame courthouse with a stately, columned front façade.

Van Buren County, as was the rest of Arkansas, was deeply divided over secession as Civil War loomed. Some men joined the Confederate army while others joined the Unionist “Peace Society” – many of these were later arrested and given the choice of joining the Confederate army or going to prison. As the war progressed, violence plagued the area as pro-Union “jayhawkers,” pro-Confederate “bushwhackers,” and gangs of lawless thugs battled and preyed on the local population. Bushwhackers burned the courthouse in 1865. The local Methodist Church was pressed into service as a temporary seat of justice until a new one was built – another two-story frame building constructed in 1869 that would serve until 1934, outlasting a couple of burglaries and a pair of arson attempts.

Economic disaster hit Van Buren County hard during the Great Depression, and local leaders turned to one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies to replace the aging courthouse in Clinton. The Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works (soon known as the Public Works Administration, or PWA) was created in 1933 to help fund local public construction and infrastructure projects. The administration of County Judge John H. Johnson was successful in procuring PWA funding for a new building for county business.

Little Rock architects Frank Erhart and Howard Eichenbaum were hired to design the new courthouse, PWA Project No. 3454. The architects and builders Earl and Carl Bird used the natural stone that was so abundant in Van Buren County to create the building, getting their supply from a quarry north of Dennard. The Van Buren County Courthouse was completed in 1934 and reflects a uniquely local interpretation of the Art Deco style of architecture, a style that was frequently used in New Deal-era courthouse construction.

The Van Buren County Courthouse measures just 100 feet by 43 feet and holds a basement, county offices on the first floor, and a courtroom on the second. The interior was remodeled in the 1970s and ‘80s, and the courtroom in particular was changed, with interior walls moved and a dropped ceiling added that cut the tall, metal-framed windows that distinguish the building off from the room. Following a major exterior restoration funded by an AHPP County Courthouse Restoration Grant, the courtroom was largely restored in a 2015 project that saw its original dimensions restored, the ceiling altered to allow in natural light from the windows, the original audience benches refinished, and new furniture added to the front of the room, much of it built by County Clerk Ester Bass himself.

The Van Buren County Courthouse stands today as a striking example of the Art Deco style, ready to continue serving the needs of its citizens as it reminds them of their past.

 

 

County Courthouse Restoration Grants in Van Buren County

 

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, the AHPP has awarded more than $18.6 million to 69 historic courthouses and courthouse annexes around the state for use in rehabilitating, preserving and protecting these important historic resources. Since 1995, Van Buren County has received 11 grants totaling $244,127 for the Van Buren County Courthouse.

 

FY1995 ADA Access $8,300

FY2000 ADA Entrance and Elevator $43,350

FY 2002 Exterior Paint and Window Restoration $26,500

FY2004 Restoration Master Plan $11,000

FY2008 First Floor ADA Modifications $65,377

FY2013 Exterior Tuck-point Restoration $89,600

TOTAL $244,127

 

 

 



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