Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Arkansas Power and Light Building
Arkansas Power and Light Building

ARKANSAS POWER AND LIGHT BUILDING, LITTLE ROCK, PULASKI COUNTY

SUMMARY

The Arkansas Power and Light Building, initially designed in 1953, was the first large office building in downtown Little Rock to be designed in any variant or sub-type of the International style that achieved its greatest popularity in the United States after World War II, when the post-war prosperity provided the means for a spurt of such `modern' corporate construction nationwide. Furthermore, of the total of three International style office buildings constructed in Little Rock during the decade of the 1950's, the Arkansas Power and Light Building remains by far the most intact and unaltered.

ELABORATION

The "new" office building for the Arkansas Power and Light Company, designed in 1953 by the architect Fred Arnold of the Little Rock architectural firm of Wittenberg, Deloney and Davidson (though it was not completed until 1959 due to uncertainty over requested rate increases and the expiration of laborers' union contracts) was the first building within the city of Little Rock to be designed in the International style. It was heralded at the time not only for its "modern" appearance, but also because it was one of the first buildings erected in Little Rock after the city had formally adopted the "Little Rock 1969" master plan for influencing new commercial design and encouraging private and public partnership toward the end of downtown beautification over the next ten years.

The boxy, unornamented second and third story rectangular section, with its glass and marble curtain wall, placed atop the single-story, curvilinear brick masonry section at the western end -- against which it contrasts in both form and materials -- employs many of the characteristic elements of a now-prevalent aesthetic with which many Americans are all too familiar: the stripped-down, geometric grid, the insistence upon basic, geometric forms unsullied by any ornament that could be construed as a reference to a traditional architectural style, and its total reliance upon materials that, if not totally of the modern, industrial age, are employed in such a way as to undercut severely any resemblance to the architectural traditions of the past. And yet, granted that it does indeed partake of the International aesthetic, closer examination reveals it to be a peculiarly American application and interpretation of the tenets that guided such well-known European practitioners of the International style as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. To understand its status as not only the best example of this style in Little Rock but also a relatively extraordinary example of this style in general, the Arkansas Power and Light Building must be evaluated against a thorough history of the International style itself.

The term "International Style" was coined by the architect Philip Johnson in conjunction with the writer and architectural-historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock in 1932, and popularized through their book of the same year that accompanied a retrospective exhibition they organized at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibition primarily featured the designs of the popular European architects, though a sample of American architects were also represented, Wright included (though he was explicitly excluded from any mention within the book). Though Johnson and Hitchcock turned what many envisioned as a descriptive catalog of the exhibition into a didactic and critical primer for architects wishing to practice in the style -- in the process crediting the European architects exclusively for their role in the conception of the "International Style" -- what they failed to mention was the seminal role played by, of all things, late nineteenth and early twentieth century American design in the earliest phases of this "modern" idiom.

The late nineteenth century in the United States -- the period between the end of the Civil War and the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago of 1893 -- witnessed an extraordinary confluence of exceptional architectural talent, generous patronage of the arts by a small but influential group of remarkably successful businessmen, and a pervasive vision shared by many Americans (but especially by the members of the nation's multifarious and growing artistic community) that America should cease to depend on Europe for its artistic models and influences and should instead develop its own aesthetic throughout all the arts so to express its own peculiarly American traditions, its own national conscience and soul. Such gifted architects as Henry Hobson Richardson, William Ralph Emerson, and even Charles Follen McKim and Stanford White in their early work experimented with the forms and details of the European architectural traditions they inherited, seeking an indigenous American style, whether consciously or not; and though ultimately derivative, this work clearly reflected these exploratory tendencies.

The powerful influence upon the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan of Richardson's later work (the Marshall Field Warehouse Store in Chicago in particular) proved ultimately to fire his imagination rather than to shape it; and the wealth of his creativity combined with the strength of his personality to produce an extraordinarily rich period that gave birth to, among other things, the tall office building that we now know as the skyscraper. Sullivan displayed a unique ability both to distill the essence from Richardson's overtly Romanesque vocabulary and to recognize the growing originality that manifested itself in the work of Richardson's later career, between 1881 and 1886, the year of his death. His tendency to compose his tall office buildings into an overall base- shaft-capital form and to adorn them with bands and splashes of his remarkably original ornament (this in spite of his now-famous creed, "form follows function") belies the shift away from recognizably traditional stylistic influences revealed by the strong visual impression created by his emphasis upon external architectonic forms and his ever- increasing reliance upon such non- traditional materials as structural steel and terra cotta sheathing. Sullivan fervently held to his belief in a national creativity even in the face of a drastic shift back to European -- and especially Classical -- architectural styles heralded by the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Though Richard Morris Hunt -- the supervising designer of the Exposition -- realized his dream of a return to the white, pristine, symmetrical forms of the Classical past, Sullivan would have nothing of it; unfortunately, the bulk of the architectural patrons subsequently agreed with Hunt, and Sullivan soon became irrelevant as a contributor to the mainstream of American architectural thought and practice.

Sullivan's belief in the mission of all American artists to pursue this new, indigenous national aesthetic may have found its most eloquent and lasting manifestation not in his own work, but through his influence on one of his apostles. Frank Lloyd Wright began his architectural career as a draftsman in Sullivan's office in Chicago; and though Sullivan fired Wright for accepting other commissions outside the office (they later resolved their quarrel, and Wright remained an avowed admirer of Sullivan until the end of his life), Wright clearly borrowed Sullivan's ability to distill the essential genius from even the most traditional styles and to employ those fundamental characteristics as inspiration for his own creative ends. The effect of this belief upon Wright is clearly evident in the evolution of his earliest residential designs, which span the continuum from his most derivative works of the early 1890's to the organic, almost cubist compositions of the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, of which the Robie House in Chicago is certainly the most well-known. Therein, Wright moved away from any overt reference to popular stylistic traditions, though his design manifested the principles (borrowed from both Japanese architecture and the theories of mid- nineteenth American architectural theorist Andrew Jackson Downing, the influence of both of which he was to deny until his death) of an organic relationship between the structure and the site and an integration of the indoors with the outdoors through an asymmetrical, three-dimensional disintegration of the continuous exterior wall plane that had been common to virtually all earlier American architecture. It was his marriage to the design principle coupled with the divorce from the historic form that resulted in a significant body of work that comprised his first, and possibly his greatest, truly original contribution to the history of American architecture: the Prairie Style.

The importance of Wright's work during the first decade of the twentieth century was not lost on his European contemporaries, who received their first formal exposure to his designs via his first publication, a folio of one hundred plates of drawings printed by the Wasmuth Press of Germany in 1910; the same press published a second volume of Wright's work the following year. These two books influenced an entire generation of European architects, and especially the architects who would be the progenitors of the International style and Modernism. Ten years thereafter, German architect Walter Gropius designed the Bauhaus complex in Dessau, Germany, complete with modern, industrial materials, a rambling, asymmetrical plan and smooth, geometric forms throughout (though he could not yet bring himself to break up the wall surfaces in the same way); and almost twenty years later, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the German Pavilion at the Barcelona Exhibition, a low, horizontal composition so organic in appearance that it seems to be part of the site rather than built upon it. Certainly, these European architects contributed their own ideas and values to their designs; and yet, the fundamental influence of Wright is unmistakable.

Curiously enough, though Wright remains fairly active during the next twenty years -- roughly 1910-1930 -- his design production during that time can be fairly characterized as relatively less innovative, with most of his new work being little more than mildly interesting elaborations of his fully-developed Prairie style. This plateau in his creativity is largely attributable to the overwhelming national popularity of such historical European styles as the Collegiate Gothic, the Classical Revival and the various other revivals that found their most frequent expression in domestic architecture: the English and Tudor Revivals, the Spanish Revival/Mission Style, and the Renaissance Revival. Furthermore, America's own Colonial Revival style, and Gustav Stickley's new Craftsman/Bungalow aesthetic also retained strong appeal for a large cross-section of new American homeowners. However, it was during this period -- frequently termed Wright's "Baroque Period" -- that he discovered the design utility of other geometric forms beyond the simple rectangle; specifically, the square, the triangle and the circle. His employment of and experimentation with these elements would have great import for two of the most well-known and influential designs of his "second career" of the 1930's: the Johnson Wax Company Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin of 1936-39 and "Fallingwater," the residence he designed in 1936 for the Kaufmann family, located in Bear Run, Pennsylvania.

"Fallingwater" -- though widely considered to be a masterpiece of American architecture by virtue of its remarkably successful arrangement of rational, geometric forms that both grow from and enhance the natural beauty of its site -- largely relies upon the same abstract, rectangular forms first used in the mature Prairie style. However, it is important to note that though it was by no means Wright's first use of cantilevered elements, it was by far the most dramatic and visually impressive; it is also important to remember that this design almost single-handedly revived Wright's popularity within American architectural circles and earned him virtually instant acclaim. Yet it was the Johnson Wax Administration Building, with its layers of brick diagonal and curved elements building upon one another in a ziggurat form, intersecting at odd angles, that truly indicated the vitality of Wright's creativity, even this late in his career. The overall design of this structure was truly Wright's own, without direct visible influence from any of the past or current styles, including those of his European contemporaries. Inside and out, the design for the Johnson Wax Administration Building showed Wright once again at the height of his powers; and once again, the American public responded, as this design was also among the most published of its time.

The influence of the design for the Johnson Wax Administration Building upon the single-story, brick section of the Arkansas Power and Light Building is obvious. They share the vertical layering of the sheer, uninterrupted curvilinear and diagonal brick walls, the use of brick in the surrounding landscaping and site work to provide a gradual visual transition from the verticality of the structure to the ground, and the asymmetrical plan. Admittedly, the grid pattern of the glass and marble curtain wall that sheaths the rectangular box of the second and third story of the Arkansas Power and Light Building is directly borrowed from similar earlier curtain wall treatments as practiced by the renown International style architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (though it should be noted that it was the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen who first brought to America the emphasis upon, among other things, simple geometric modules as being the quintessential building blocks for all new design, an idea he adopted from the Dutch De Stijl movement). But it was borrowed from designs developed by Mies van der Rohe after he had arrived in the United States and taken over as the dean of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he first developed his modular glass curtain wall aesthetic to its fullest expression, after which it would be adapted by virtually every other practicing architect during the 1950's and 1960's. Furthermore, the perpendicular juxtaposition of the two principal components of this design is further enhanced by the open plaza beneath the eastern end of the second and third storys. Though two rows of four brick-faced steel piers actually support the structure above, the overall composition is distinctly reminiscent of the cantilevered forms employed by Wright at "Fallingwater" as well as in several of his other designs from various periods of his career. In the final analysis, the design for the Arkansas Power and Light Building draws far more from the designs of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright than from the International style of his European contemporaries; and yet, more important to the significance of this building than Wright's nationality is the originality of his designs and the power they had over the imagination of the generation of American architects practicing after World War II, Fred Arnold included. It is this influence and its predominant effect on this design that renders the Arkansas Power and Light Building such a peculiarly American interpretation of what was at the time very popular style for new office buildings. The common term may have been "International Style," but the true sources of this design were actually found here at home.

For these reasons, the Arkansas Power and Light Building is a building of extraordinary architectural significance, in spite of its being less than fifty years old, and thus eligible for the National Register under Criterion C with local significance.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arkansas Power and Light Company Construction Photographs; undated; corporate building files of AP&L.

Arkansas Power and Light Company Customer Service Brochure; 1959; corporate building files of AP&L.

Arkansas Power and Light Company Floor Plan Drawings; June, 1962; corporate building files of AP&L. Arkansas Power and Light Company Press Releases; June, 1959; corporate building files of AP&L.

The Exciter; Vol. 20, No. 12, March, 1953, p. 1; Vol. 23, No. 6, September, 1955, p. 1; Vol. 23, No. 7, October, 1955, p. 1; Vol. 23, No. 10, January, 1956, p. 1; Vol. 25, No. 2, May, 1957, p. 1; Vol. 25, No. 10, January, 1958, p. 1; Vol. 27, No. 3, June, 1959, p. 1.

Interview with Fred Arnold; December 11, 1991.

Martin, Leo, "Work to Begin On $1,500,000 AP&L Office," Arkansas Democrat, September 15, 1955, p. 1, col. 1.

Saarinen, Eliel, The Search for Form in Art and Architecture, (New York, 1948).

Whiffen, Marcus and Frederick Koeper, American Architecture 1607-1976, (Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1981), pp. 300-367.