A living history in downtown Little Rock
In 1908, an article about the Capital Hotel from The Arkansaw Traveler stated, “More of the state’s history has probably been made in the seclusion of the Capital Hotel rooms than in the legislative halls of the state house.”
That assessment stands true more than 100 years later. The Capital Hotel has acted as “the front porch” of Little Rock since its start in 1877, welcoming CEOs, politicians and travelers alike. It should come as no surprise, then, that the walls of the Capital Hotel have witnessed the presence of presidents and governors, shootouts and fires, and of course, a host of renovations. The political history of the Capital Hotel is unmatched, as is the impact it has had on the Natural State even today.
The story of the Capital Hotel, currently owned by Little Rock financier Warren Stephens, begins during Reconstruction when a carpetbagger named William P. Denckla and Arkansas Supreme Court Justice George C. Watkins had an idea to boost the post-Civil War economic development of downtown Little Rock. A railroad tycoon, Denckla had moved from New York to Little Rock and brought with him a well-known reputation along with considerable wealth. He wasn’t interested in building a hotel — Little Rock already had a state-of-the-art hotel at that time called the Metropolitan. What he did want, though, was a place to do business.
The land on which the Capital Hotel currently sits was then owned by Watkins, who sold the property to Denckla. (As construction of the building was completed, Watkins died, and Denckla sold the property to the Watkins heirs.) In 1872, Denckla erected a three-story building, an architectural marvel of its time with an American-made, cast-iron facade (a structural design usually found only in the most politically important buildings of that time).
The Denckla block, as the construction site would be known, would serve three purposes: shops would fill the spaces on the ground floor, offices would be housed on the second floor, and the third floor would serve as a gentlemen’s living quarters.
Before it even housed the Capital Hotel, the Denckla building found itself at the center of a unique war. Following the contested political victory and inauguration of Gov. Elisha Baxter on Jan. 6, 1873, Arkansas became the scene of political bloodshed. Baxter had won a contentious gubernatorial race against Joseph Brooks in which his supporters were accused of rigging the election. Following a year of legal challenges to the election, a dozen armed Brooks supporters rushed to the governor’s office in the Old State House (across the street from the Denckla building), and forced Baxter out of his office. In the month that followed, there were four violent clashes between groups of Baxter and Brooks supporters, one of which took place in front of the old Denckla building. Two hundred men were killed or injured, and the state was deeply divided over the issue. President Ulysses S. Grant eventually intervened to settle the political controversy. Though Brooks did temporarily occupy the governor’s office, Grant ultimately sided with Baxter. This incident became known as the Brooks-Baxter War.
The destiny of the future Capital Hotel, though, was solidified when the fate of the Metropolitan was sealed in flames. On the evening of Thursday, Dec. 14, 1876, a terrible fire swept across the capital city. The Arkansas Gazette reported the next morning:
“Fearful Fire! Little Rock Receives Another Visit from the Devouring and Consuming Element. The Magnificent Metropolitan Hotel with All the Buildings on the West to City Hall Burned to the Ground. Loss Estimated at Fully $150,000, with Insurance at Less than One-Sixth the Amount. Only by the Heroic Efforts of the Fire Department that the Flames were Prevented from Sweeping Main Street.”
The fire was reported to have started at the city’s ice house and in the back portion of the Metropolitan Hotel. The fire was further amplified by the lack of city cisterns, as well as poor water-pumping machines and rotten fire hoses. The fire was stopped just across the street from the Denckla block. But Little Rock was left without a hotel, and its citizens feared that the city would become obsolete.
The manager of the Metropolitan, Colonel A. G. DeShon, was able to secure a new location for a new hotel just a week after the fire: that location was none other than the Denckla block. DeShon found a business partner in Major John D. Adams, and the two turned to Mrs. Morehead Wright, who was given the honor of naming the new hotel.
On Dec. 26, 1876, Wright wrote back to Adams:
“Appreciating the compliments of being asked to name your hotel, I can think of no name more appropriate than ‘Capital Hotel,’ as it is a capital enterprise located in a capital building, which will do honor to the capital of the state, and I trust prove a capital success to yourself and the Major DeShon.”
Construction was a massive event, involving some of the finest renovators, decorators, designers and chefs from across the country to assist in the transformation of the Denckla building into the Capital Hotel. By the end of 1878, the Capital Hotel was a magnificent sight to behold, and just in time for Grant’s visit in 1880. The president stopped into the Capital Hotel while smoothing over some of the tensions caused during the Brooks-Baxter War. Unsurprisingly, his visit received mixed reviews, with many of the female spectators turning their backs to the president as he processed through town. The hotel traded hands, and in 1890, a fourth floor was added to the top of the building.
The Capital Hotel would again serve as a political landmark when it was bought by successful attorney Henry Franklin Auten, who moved to Little Rock from Michigan in 1890 and opened a law practice. Auten became so involved in the state’s politics that he ran for governor on the Republican Party ticket. Auten’s platform encouraged the cash-poor postbellum state to embrace the industrialism and free enterprise of the north. Auten suffered overwhelming defeat in the 1898 election and turned his focus to business, where he would practice what he preached.
First, he helped build the streetcar service extending to Pulaski Heights, its own incorporated town from 1905 to 1916 when it was annexed by Little Rock, and now better known as the Heights and Hillcrest neighborhoods.
The Arkansaw Traveler’s article regarding the July 25, 1908, sale of the Capital Hotel to Auten provides some insight on the important political history of the location:
“Passing of a Famous Hotel: With the Closing of the Capital in This City, History Hostelry Will Pass Out of Existence. Scene of Political Battles: For Nearly Half a Century, The Capital Was the Political Headquarters of the State.”
One of those great political battles the article references was the U.S. senatorial race of 1879. J. D. Walker and R.W. Johnson had established their headquarters at the opposite ends of the hotel as the two sought to succeed Republican incumbent Stephen W. Dorsey.
Shortly after his purchase of the hotel, Auten debated converting it back into the office building that it had been previously, but decided to reopen the Capital Hotel.
Things were relatively peaceful in the hotel’s history with the exception of the first world war. During this time, many dances and balls were held at the Capital Hotel by the companies stationed at Camp Pike (present day Camp Robinson in North Little Rock). The history of the hotel remains politically quiet until a few decades later.
Pauline Hoetzel, a Little Rock resident interviewed by Steven Weintz, was the head of the Women’s Division for the gubernatorial campaign of Sid McMath in the 1949 election year. The campaign was headquartered in the Capital Hotel, where Hoetzel noted that the rooms were alive with political activity.
Weintz, the author of A Capital Idea: An Illustrated History of the Capital Hotel, has a background in publishing and attended Vanderbilt University. He was contacted by Steve Patterson about meeting with the Stephens family to publish a book about the history of the Capital Hotel. Jackson T. “Steve” Stephens Jr. wanted to give his father a unique gift for Christmas, and had originally selected Ned Shank, husband of Eureka Springs author Crescent Dragonwagon, a talented preservationist and writer, for the task. Sadly, Shank was killed in a bicycle accident a year before Weintz would take up the project in his place. Weintz worked closely with Edwin Boykin Cromwell, the architect, pouring over notes, design sketches and engineering project manuals before finalizing the illustrated history of the Capital Hotel.
Weintz spoke with Arkansas Money & Politics about the impact of the Capital Hotel and of the Stephens Family.
“The most prestigious events at the Capital Hotel are all private, in private dining rooms in the back rooms of the hotel. There’s no telling what kinds of billion dollar deals have been done in the private rooms of that hotel,” Weintz said. “More of the state’s history has probably been made in the seclusion of the Capital Hotel rooms than in the legislative halls of the State House. And the same can be said about business.”
In 1947, the Cassinelli sisters, Amelia and Elizabeth, purchased the Capital Hotel, and would keep it from 1947 to 1977. The hotel would soon experience further political and business recognition under the sisters. The two were personal friends with Sen. William Fulbright, who ran his first campaign out of an office located in the Capital Hotel, where he also had an office for his later reelection bid. Unfortunately, though, as the sisters declined in health, the hotel declined with them, becoming a billiard hall with unsavory activities. Many of the state’s legislators began to lament the state of the lodging at the once magnificent hotel. Amelia Cassinelli died in 1974, allowing Elizabeth to finalize the sale to Ed Cromwell, the founder of the Cromwell architecture firm.
Cromwell had been leading a campaign to reestablish the Capital Hotel alongside prominent Arkansans such as Sen. David Pryor and reporter Harryette Hodges. The sale to Cromwell was the turn of a new leaf for the Capital. After years of hard work, research and collaboration, restorations were completed in 1983. Elizabeth was led into a lobby utterly restored to magnificence. The Capital was ready to host well-known politicians and leaders once more, such as then-Sen. and Mrs. Dan Quayle, Sen. Robert Dole, Gov. Michael Dukakis, President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Even Vice President George Bush left a note stating that the Capital Hotel was “a great place to stay.”
But it soon became apparent that repairing and restoring the hotel had been easier than making a profit. The Capital Hotel suffered from low occupancy and cheap room rates. The Lincoln Hotel Group struggled to make payments from 1983 to 1986. However, Jack Stephens took an interest in the hotel, and appointed Scott Ford, the former president and CEO of ALLTEL, to buy the hotel. After loans and partnerships and financial haggling with the Lincoln Hotel Group, the Stephens family finally bought the faltering group out and took possession of the hotel. During this time, the Capital Hotel was awarded the National Historic Preservation Award under President Ronald Reagan.
The Stephens family spent the next decade getting the hotel’s finances straight, as well as settling who would take which staff positions. From 1996 to 2001, the Stephens family renovated the interior of the hotel, with another restoration project five years later.
Though it was closed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Capital Hotel reopened in May, much to the delight of politicians, CEOs and citizens alike.
Further, the hotel has received numerous awards for various organizations and publications such as Southern Living for its influence in Southern history and hospitality. However, this wouldn’t have been possible without the direction of the Stephens family.
“The continual care of the building and the hotel by the Stephens family, from 1996 to 2001, as well as continued care and renovations were instrumental,” Weintz said. “The Capital Hotel really is a jewel, thanks to the preservation and upgrading of the building.”
Joe Rantisi, the former general manager at the Capital Hotel, once told Weintz, “If it wasn’t for the Stephens family, this hotel would be a dilapidated old building. But because of their faith in the people of this state, they have turned it into a living piece of history for everyone to enjoy.”
The Capital Hotel has served as the “front porch” of Little Rock for more than a century, hosting political and economic showdowns and deals. And with its history and the backing of Arkansans and the Stephens family, the Capital Hotel is likely to continue to serve the city for another century or more.
Corrections, courtesy of Steven Weintz: It was Ed Cromwell who wanted a book on the Capital Hotel written. In 1979, Cromwell had hired Ned Shank to do some historical research to help with the restoration. Cromwell had hoped that Shank’s research would later be the basis of a book, but Shank was killed in 2000. Cromwell and Jack “Steve” Stephens Jr. were having lunch in 2001 when Cromwell was telling Stephens about what had happened. Having worked for Stephens, and knowing that Weintz was a writer, Cromwell volunteered Weintz to write A Capital Idea and helped fund that effort. Steve Patterson was the former CEO of Leisure Arts whom Weintz worked for after moving to Little Rock in 1989, but Patterson had nothing to do with the book project. Scott Ford was working directly for Jack Stephens Sr. in 1988 at the time Jack decided to buy the Capital (well before Ford became President of Alltel).
READ MORE: Arkansas Backstories – Capital Hotel