Built in the late 1920’s along the “Rock & Roll Highway 67”, the Texarkana, Arkansas, Municipal Auditorium became popular in the 1940’s and 1950’s when it served as a primary stop for artists travelling from Tennessee down through Texas on the Louisiana Hayride Circuit. Artists such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Mae West, and Louis Armstrong graced the the stage of the Municipal Auditorium, leaving a legacy now seemingly left in the dust waiting to be stirred up. Now, local officials are continuing to make plans to carry out further renovations to have the regal building up and running better than ever before.
The Texarkana, Arkansas Municipal Auditorium was built during the 1920’s when the area was witnessing immense growth due to the construction of the Cairo and Fulton railroad line and the Texas and Pacific Line. Prior to its construction, there wasn’t a place where people could congregate in large numbers. Initially, the building served 4 separate purposes, as a City Hall, Fire Station, Jail, and Auditorium.
The auditorium was designed by architectural firm Witt and Seibert, while Halsey of Texarkana was commissioned to design the structure. The building is a combination of Collegiate Gothic and Art Deco architectural styles, taking over 3 years to complete, from 1927 to 1930.
The auditorium served as a fundamental place for emerging artists during the World War II. In 1942, Louis Armstrong appeared on stage and during the 1950’s many up-and-coming rock-n-roll and country and western singers performed. Dorothea Towles, a native to Texarkana and sister to Lois (successful Pianist), was discovered by Christian Dior and became the first black model to perform in Paris.
Elvis was said to pay at least 6 separate visits to the Municipal Auditorium from 1954 to 1955. During one particular visit, Elvis’ pink Ford Crown Victoria caught fire on his way to a double-date. Another occasion, Elvis visited a local teen hangout after his performance, a drive-in by the name of Lee’s Diner that used to sit at 1010 East 9th Street. His date, Margie, a 15-year-old, recalled meeting Elvis.
“Standing there without a belt, he could hardly keep his pants up. They kept sliding down. Once I spotted the top of his Fruit of the Looms. It was funny. He had them on wrong-side-out. I could see the label (Size 32-34) as clear as day. After signing all the autographs, he asked if we had eaten yet. We said no, so he said, “Neither have I. Want to help me find a good place to eat‘?”
The then-teen said Elvis ordered 3 cheeseburgers, an order of french fries, and a few chocolate shakes from Lee’s Diner.
Aside from emerging artists, the Municipal Auditorium served as a pinnacle for local civil rights. In 1956, the adiutorium became the first place in Texarkana for a mixed-race stage performance. It was an event titled, The Evolution of Jazz, featuring a local black trumpeter, Artis L. Brewster. Lois Towles, sister of Dorothea, took stage in Texarkana, Arkansas while a resident of the community and performed in the Evolution of Jazz.
The auditorium continued to serve as a cultural hub for the Texarkana community until its closing in the 1970s. The auditorium closed, but the fire station, city hall, and jail continued to operate. During the 70s and 80s, the City made improvements to several parts of the building and converted various aspects of the building to the current City Board Room and offices for the Fire Station.
Thanks to the interest of a local group, the Arkansas Municipal Building restoration project was adopted in 2002 by the City of Texarkana, Arkansas. Efforts continued and later, on January 24, 2004, the Municipal Auditorium was added to the National List of Historic Places. This designation restricts changes to the building and requires that the building be open to the general public for a minimum of two days a year.
After establishing non-profit status, the group became knowns at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium Commission in 2005 and was able to apply for grants, and with the help of the Advertising & Promotion Commission, received funds to complete a professional feasibility study. With a positive response from the study, the restoration plans moved forward.
“The mission of the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium Commission is to restore and revive the culturally and historically significant Arkansas Municipal Auditorium as a state-of-the-art, community-accessible, medium-sized visual and performing arts center for the benefit of all Texarkana residents and visitors, thereby serving as a catalyst to and cornerstone of a resurgence in local pride, the education of the region’s children and the revitalization of downtown Texarkana.”
The most significant restoration to date is the restoration of the roof in 2004 after evaluations revealed multiple layers of damage. The roof contained soft spots caused by steam bubbles from trapped moisture between the layers , making the surface uneven. The organic material used as the insulation between materials became soaking wet over time and retained the consistency of mud.
AMAC received an Arkansas Historic Preservation Program grant for the first phase of the project. Local supporters matched many of the funds, becoming known as the Roof Rescuers in Texarkana. The rest of the finances came from a successful insurance claim filed by the City.
It wasn’t until 2006 that construction began, with the oversight of Fennel Purifoy Hammock Architects. The construction was completed in two phases, with the final phase of the roof restoration funded by another AHPP grant and a matching grant from the A&P Commission. Experts estimated a potential reduction of approximately 30% in utility costs as a result of the roof restoration.
All exterior restoration has to follow Department of the Interior guidelines for restoration of historic buildings. AMAC located local businesses, Roberts-McNutt, that had the expertise and experience to handle the task of renovating the exterior, completing it in 2008.
In 2010, the AMAC created a multi-functional park that includes the Walk of Fame, providing historical education to the community and commemorating the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium and those who performed there. Estimates by architects in Little Rock estimated the cost of the Walk-of-Fame at about $160,000. However, AMAC worked closely with the Public Works Department, using help provided by local inmates, and were able to do the work for about $85,000.
The most recent project funded by grants from AHPP and the A&P Commission was the restoration of doors and windows at the front of the building. AMAC replaced the doors and windows on the north face of the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium with designs manufactured to the specifications found in the 1926 original plans for the building. They also had 6 stained glass windows crafted to match two existing stained glass windows as closely as possible.
Total costs for completely restoring the auditorium are anywhere from $5-$10 million. When restoration is completed, the facility will be a 710-seat theater support space with a banquet, meeting, classroom, exhibit and office space with state-of-the-art video and audio equipment.