Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
West Garrison Avenue Historic District
West Garrison Avenue Historic District

WEST GARRISON AVENUE HISTORIC DISTRICT, FORT SMITH, SEBASTIAN COUNTY

SUMMARY

The West Garrison Avenue Historic District includes 174 buildings situated along the twelve block long commercial corridor and in blocks north and south of Garrison Avenue. This area comprises the oldest commercial buildings in the city of Fort Smith, Arkansas and represents some 125 years of development as the governmental and commercial center of the western regions of Central Arkansas. Of the 174 properties, 169 are commercial buildings, two are governmental, and three are religious related buildings.

Methodology

The 100 through 500 blocks of Garrison Avenue were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. This district recognized the earliest portions of Fort Smith’s main commercial thoroughfare, Garrison Avenue. In April, 1996 a devastating tornado ripped through Fort Smith’s downtown, causing the destruction of several buildings, while damaging many others. In assessment of the storm damage, the city of Fort Smith realized the composition of downtown had changed and began an overall downtown development plan to rescue the city’s historically important buildings. The city determined that a re-evaluation of the entire downtown historic commercial district was needed and that it was time to look at many of the downtown buildings, which had not been included in the 1979 West Garrison Avenue Historic District boundaries.

In conjunction with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, a complete architectural resources survey of over two hundred buildings in the core of Fort Smith’s downtown commercial district was conducted in 1997-98. As a result of this survey and its associated research, a review of the area by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program determined that there was justification to expand the boundaries of the West Garrison Avenue Historic District to include those buildings in Fort Smith’s downtown which best represent the historical growth and development of the city. As a Certified Local Government, the city of Fort Smith was awarded a grant to prepare an expansion of the West Garrison Avenue Historic District. This nomination, entitled the West Garrison Avenue Historic District, encompasses all twelve blocks of Garrison Avenue and historically significant buildings one block north and south.

ELABORATION

The West Garrison Avenue Historic District is located in the earliest settled part of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Fort Smith is situated on the western edge of the state at the point where the Poteau and Arkansas Rivers meet. Originally begun in 1817 as a military fort, the city became a gateway for westward travelers during the pre- Civil War period, and toward the end of the nineteenth century was the location of a Federal Court which had jurisdiction over Indian Territory to the west of Fort Smith where many of the most desperate criminals in the United States sought and found sanctuary.

Garrison Avenue is Fort Smith’s main commercial corridor and traffic artery as it is also U.S. Highway 64. The spectacularly broad avenue, 120 feet wide, as laid out by city father John Rogers. Garrison Avenue is twelve blocks long beginning at the Arkansas River bank on the west and running eastward, to its end where on the crest of a hill is the majestic Gothic Revival Church of the Immaculate Conception. Parallel to Garrison Avenue on the south is the city’s second primary commercial street, Rogers Avenue, which runs northeast to intersect with Garrison Avenue at the 1200 block and continues on to the easternmost edges of Fort Smith. Paralleling Garrison Avenue on the north are “A” and “B” Streets, portions of which are included in the historic district boundaries. North/south streets are numbered. The entire historic commercial district centered around Garrison Avenue is laid out at a 45 degree angle, creating an unusual pattern of intersections at some locations which spread out in five directions; at others there are odd trapezoids and triangles of blocks.

The West Garrison Avenue Historic District is surrounded by significant historic sites and districts. Immediately south of the western boundary of the West Garrison Avenue Historic District is Belle Point Site, location of the foundation of the original 1817 fort and other buildings constructed as the fort became a major military supply center for western forts. In 1961 the area was designated a National Historic Site and has also been designated as a National Historic Landmark. South of the fort site is the fifteen-acre National Cemetery, which was laid out during the founding of the first fort in 1817.

The Belle Grove Historic District is located to the north of the West Garrison Avenue Historic District and is comprised of twenty-two square blocks of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century residences. The Belle Grove Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and extensive restoration has occurred in the area.

Of the 174 properties included in the West Garrison Avenue Historic District, ninety-nine are located on the twelve blocks of Garrison Avenue, fifteen along the north side of Rogers Avenue, with the remaining fifty-eight along North “A” Street and the numbered north/south streets. Of the 174 buildings in the district, there are 169 commercial buildings, two are governmental and three are religious.

The West Garrison Avenue Historic District includes the oldest surviving buildings in Fort Smith’s historic downtown commercial area. Construction dates of contributing properties in the historic district span the years from 1870 to 1950. The earliest buildings are of stone construction, though the majority of buildings in the district are of brick construction. Vernacular adaptations of commercial Italianate and Renaissance architectural styles of the 1880s are mixed with Richardsonian Romanesque style and Classical Revival style building designs. Common to many of the buildings in the district, particularly along Garrison Avenue, are elaborate dentillated and bracketed galvanized iron cornices. Many of the building have cast iron columns, window architraves and sill and other ornamental detailing. Cut limestone trim is commonly seen on the buildings in the district that were constructed in the 1890s and early 1900s.

The West Garrison Avenue Historic District contains a wide variety of architectural styles ranging from the simple stone construction of buildings such as seen at 311 and 822 Garrison to the Gothic Revival spires of the Church of the Immaculate Conception at 22 N. 13th Street (SB0566). Exterior detailing on the 1911 New Theatre Building at 9 North 10th Street (SB0016) is characteristic of the Beaux-Arts style. The Friedman-Mincer Building at 1100-1110 Garrison Avenue (SB0188) is a three story triangular shaped building with Classical detailing and glazed brick. Constructed in 1919, this building is situated on the point of a somewhat triangular block at the intersection of five streets.

The Kress Building at 812 Garrison (SB0143) was constructed c. 1930 and features Art Deco detailing in its geometric brick patterning. The Radio Center Building at 421 Garrison Avenue (SB0056) is a c. 1880 brick two- story structure that was remodeled in 1935 with a moderne facade complete with curved corner bay with glass block and streamlined horizontal detailing. Fashionable structural carrera glass was added to several buildings in the 1940s in the 900 block of Garrison.

The majority of buildings in the district are two, three, or four stories. The First National Bank and the Ward Hotel, both constructed in the 1920s are reflective of the then modern skyscraper. The buildings along Garrison Avenue distinctly are indicative of the large amount of construction during the latter decades of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.

Time has not stood still in the West Garrison Avenue Historic District. Of the 174 buildings in the district a number have been constructed since 1950; some buildings have been demolished; and some buildings were destroyed by the 1996 tornado. Throughout the history of the city of Fort Smith, Garrison Avenue has maintained itself as the commercial center of the city. Despite occasional vacancies, the majority of buildings in the West Garrison Avenue Historic District remain viable and occupied. A strong city plan has created the opportunity to revitalize Fort Smith’s downtown as it continues to recover from the devastation of the 1996 tornado. An extensive riverfront park and streetscape project is under construction and a new civic center nears completion.

Surrounded by historic sites, the West Garrison Avenue Historic District is a an outstanding collection of architecturally significant buildings ranging in construction dates from c. 1869 to 1950 which represent the growth and development of the city of Fort Smith

Criteria A and C, local significance

Summary

The West Garrison Avenue Historic District is comprised of 174 buildings representative of the history of the development and growth of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Garrison Avenue, a twelve block grand thoroughfare, is the main commercial corridor of the city. Fort Smith was built around the first military fort on the Great Southwestern Frontier. Fort Smith was, from the beginning, a merchant town, full of storehouses and suppliers. As the gateway of the Santa Fe Trail, Fort Smith was the point of embarkation for traders, cattle drivers, settlers and other adventurers heading west to such destinations as Santa Fe in the Mexican territory and to the California Gold Rush. The development of Garrison Avenue largely reflected this activity as it abounded with general mercantile stores, livery stables, and other such retail ventures. Garrison Avenue has evolved from its roots as a stopping off point on the way west to remain the principal commercial thoroughfare through the city and the center of local government.

Elaboration

Fort Smith, Arkansas is located on the eastern bank of the Arkansas River. The first European settlement in the vicinity was the establishment of a federal military post, initially named Fort Belle Point, in 1817. The site, which is located at the junction of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers, was selected by Major Stephen H. Long, a topographical engineer. The site was chosen over other areas in the vicinity because of the unusual beauty of the oak-shaded bluff, but largely due to an underlying layer of stratified sandstone, providing a solid foundation for the construction of a fort and other buildings. French settlers called the location “Belle Point”.

Fort Belle Point or Fort Smith as it was later named for General Thomas A. Smith, the commander who had given orders for its construction, was established to protect the western border of the United States territories against attacks from the Native American residents of the newly- created Indian Territory, located in what is now known as Oklahoma. However, after the forced migrations of the Creek and Cherokee Indians from their ancestral homelands east of the Mississippi River that occurred in the first few decades of the nineteen century, Fort Belle Point’s primary directive shifted to keeping the peace between the newer Indian tribes and such older tribes as the Osage, the Choctaw and the Quapaw who had lived in this area for some time. The hostilities between neighboring tribes was of sufficient magnitude to prompt the U.S. War Department to convert what had been a temporary fort into a permanent facility as of 1825, after the signing of the Choctaw treaty.

The instability of the Native American situation discouraged any organized attempts at the establishment of an associated community adjacent to the fort. It was not until the fort was made a permanent facility in 1825 that the platting of the adjacent city of Fort Smith and the selling of lots for new construction began. One of the early white settlers was Captain John Rogers, who arrived in 1822 from New Orleans to become a sutler for the garrison. When a post office was established in 1829 Rogers became postmaster, and in 1834 he bought almost the entire town site for $450.00. Four years later when the Federal Government decided to establish a new fort, and purchased 296 acres of Rogers’ land for $15,000.00.

A new fort, begun in 1838, was much more substantial than the log stockade that had been the garrison’s first protection. Construction of the new fort caused a surge of growth in the settlement. Stonemasons, carpenters, and mechanics brought in to work on the fort mingled with soldiers and adventurers.

General Zachary Taylor, then at the beginning of a career that eventually made him President of the United States took command of the unfinished fort in 1841. Late in 1842 the Arkansas General Assembly incorporated Fort Smith, then a town of nearly 500 persons. However, work on the fort was lagging, and Taylor shared the common feeling that there was no need for a strong fortification against the Native Americans. At Taylor’s suggestion, orders to abandon work on the nearly completed structure came from Washington in 1843.

The pre-Civil war history of the city of Fort Smith was largely that of its role as a major embarkation point for traders, settlers and other adventurers heading to points west. This pre-Civil War era was highlighted by excitement as parties prepared to proceed westward to the California Gold Rush on 1849. Long lines of wagons, drawn by mules or oxen, rolled through the dusty streets of Fort Smith, the last settlement they would reach before their journey west began.

The development of Fort Smith began as a merchant town with storehouses and suppliers that furnished guns, saddles and supplies to the wagon trains of westerning Americans. By 1850 Fort Smith’s population had increased to 964,or about twice the 1840 population. The town continued to grow rapidly as in 1851 the military fort was ordered reoccupied. And in 1858 the arrival of the first Butterfield stagecoach in Fort Smith inaugurated rapid transportation to California and to St. Louis.

After the Civil War such institutions as public schools, churches and dependable postal service arrived in the city of Fort Smith. The fact that the federal government officially closed the fort as an active military garrison in 1871 attests to the city’s firm state of security by this time. Though Fort Smith had always been served by the Arkansas River, and later by several stage lines that connected it with other cities in the Midwest and southwest, the city grew dramatically with the arrival of the Little Rock- Fort Smith Railroad in 1876 and then with the arrival of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad in 1883.

To the west of Fort Smith stretched Indian Territory, 74,000 square miles of scantily populated plains over which the Federal Government exercised only a shadowy jurisdiction. The Native Americans made their own law, but their tribal courts had no authority over white offenders. Remote, with no communications except by horsemen, the Indian Territory was a haven for train robbers, murderers, and bank bandits. The Federal District Court at Fort Smith was charged with enforcing the law in Indian Territory, in addition to handling Federal cases from western Arkansas. Judge Isaac C. parker (1838- 1896), a Republican from Missouri, was appointed to the Fort Smith bench in 1875 and served until his death in 1896. In twenty-one years as judge, some 9,500 convictions were made and eighty-eight criminals were hanged. Parker’s deputy marshals brought in outlaws from wide reaches of the Indian Territory. The methods of the “Hanging Judge”, as Parker was known, were hard and direct, but at the end of Parker’s career, life and property were much safer in the Indian Territory and the great days of the border bandits were over.

The growth of the city was intensified by the discovery in 1901 of natural gas fields to the east of Fort Smith, thereby providing a source of dependable and cheap fuel that made the establishment of industrial enterprise feasible. Smelters, glass factories, furniture factories, and steel and iron works located in Fort Smith as a result. The city also became a major agricultural trade center, serving as the transportation hub for the wide variety of produce grown throughout the length of the surrounding Arkansas River valley.

Sebastian County was created by an act of the Arkansas General Assembly and signed by Governor John S. Roane on January 10, 1851. The permanent site of the county seat remained in contention both before and after the Civil War. The first courthouse was located near the geographical center of the county at Greenwood. In 1858 the county seat was moved to Fort Smith and two years later returned to Greenwood by majority vote of the county residents. In 1861 a compromise was reached by which the county would be divided into two judicial districts, with dual county seats located at both Greenwood and Fort Smith. This situation was reversed several times in subsequent years and was finally put to rest by the Constitutional Convention of 1874 which inserted into the new constitution a provision stipulating the division of the county into two judicial districts, with separate county courts, separate revenue, and separate fiscal responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the individual courts within each district.

Many business owners on Garrison Avenue lived on the second floor of their buildings, others lived in boarding hotels often located on second and third floors of Garrison Avenue buildings. For many years, Garrison Avenue was the major part of Fort Smith, more than just a “main street”. The west end of Garrison Avenue was predominately commercial while the east end of Garrison Avenue was lined with private residences until the early 1900s. At the turn of the century as the city continued growth, the business section previously confined to the first six blocks of Garrison, expanded to encompass the full twelve blocks of the avenue.

It is recorded that city founder John Rogers laid out Garrison Avenue with New Orleans’ Canal Street in mind. Garrison Avenue is a grand thoroughfare, 120 feet wide. A description of Garrison Avenue in the Garrison Avenue Herald in 1900 described “the Avenue itself is as handsome a street as could be seen anywhere even in Paris, France. The Avenue is fully paved with hand-burned brick right down to the river side, where there is a landing for river boats not much used now [1900], since the several railroads in town provide much more dependable freight and passenger service....” The article went on to say that the buildings had been perfectly executed by the city’s master masons and stoneworkers and referred to buildings in the “very latest style”, patterned after the famous design which grace the cities of Chicago and St. Louis. This 1900 article stated “No more can our fair city be maligned by Eastern newspapers as a “frontier hick town” and “Hell on the Border” as it was in the past. The mercantile blocks [along Garrison Avenue] stand as a monument to the forward-thinking and progressive citizenry of Fort Smith”.

The population of Fort Smith doubled between 1900 and 1910. Although Fort Smith is the trading center of a large agricultural area, its principal income began to come from industry manufacturing furniture, glass products, clothing, and brick, to name a few. Other industries included coal, natural gas and zinc production. Fort Smith’s economy was strong and weathered the Great Depression well. All three of the Fort Smith banks continued to operate on a sound basis during the economic crises in the United States during the 1930s. Just as it had been in the 1830s and 1840s a crossroads to the west, Fort Smith, because of its geographical location, became a crossroads for transients in the 1930s moving from one location to another seeking employment. During the troubled years of the Great Depression the Federal government built two barracks, which would accommodate several hundred transients, on an eight-acre tract owned by the city of Fort Smith.

The outbreak of World War II brought the establishment of a large army training center near Fort Smith in 1941, called Fort Chaffee. The influx of military personnel brought a surge in the population and demand for businesses and services. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s the Garrison Avenue commercial corridor flourished, even though the city continued to expand eastward.

Despite rampant suburban development in the last three decades in the city of Fort Smith, Garrison Avenue continues to serve as the city’s major commercial thoroughfare with city, county and federal offices centered in the area as well as banks, a wide variety of retail establishments and a wide selection of eateries and entertainment. The 174 buildings in the West Garrison Avenue Historic District represent the core of the development of the city and are an outstanding compendium of commercial architectural styles from the late nineteenth century through the 1940s. The West Garrison Avenue Historic District is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A with local significance as representative of the growth and development of the city of Fort Smith, Arkansas and under Criterion A with local significance as a significant collection of buildings representing distinctive historical architectural styles in American history.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fort Smith City Directories: 1920- 1974.

Garrison Avenue Herald. Fort Smith, AR, November 12, 1977. (Facsimile of a 1900 Fort Smith Newspaper Article).

Goodspeed Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northwestern Arkansas, (Chicago and Nashville: 1891).

Insurance Maps of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Vol.I. New York: Sanborn Map Co., 1876,1889,1893,1899,1923,1944.

Kelly, N.J. “New Theatre”, Sebastian County Historical Journal.

Martin, Amelia. “Fort Smith Depression Era 1930-1940.

Martin, Amelia. “Names of Fort Smith City Streets Changed in 1891.”

Robinson, John Vincent. “Fort Smith Architecture-American Victorian Architecture 1830 to 1910”. Sebastian County Historical Journal.

Robinson, John Vincent. “Fort Smith Architecture- West Garrison Avenue”, Sebastian County Historical Journal.

Robinson, John Vincent. “Fort Smith Architecture- East Garrison Avenue”, Sebastian County Historical Journal.

Workers of the Writer’s Program. The WPA Guide to 1930s Arkansas, with a new introduction by Elliot West. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1987 (original copyright 1941).