Little River County Courthouse in County Lines Magazine

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program - Tuesday, January 03, 2017

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 $21.25 million to 73 historic courthouses and courthouse annexes around the state for use in rehabilitating, preserving and protecting these important historic resources. Since 1993, Little River County has received 10 grants totaling $415,113 for the Little River County Courthouse.


(The featured article below ran in the Fall 2016 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 Little River County and this remarkable building.)

Little River County Judge Mike Cranford is realistic about the realities of working in his majestic 1907 classically-inspired courthouse in Ashdown: “These old buildings need love, and sometimes love costs money.”

To that end, Cranford is working with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program’s County Courthouse Restoration Grant program to ensure that the building will comply with the 1990 federal Americans with Disabilities Act and provide reasonable accommodations for the county’s mobility impaired citizens. Little River County recently received a $71,356 AHPP grant, funded by the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, that will provide a chair lift and new doors to provide easier access to the courthouse’s restrooms in the building’s 1975 addition, while also replacing the main doors to the building with an ADA-compliant and energy efficient entrance. The county also received General Improvement Fund money from the Arkansas General Assembly, along with a $38,000 Transportation Assistance Program grant from the Arkansas Department of Highways and Transportation that will make the building’s ramp comply with the ADA.

Cranford, who is himself mobility impaired, said that the work will vastly improve both accessibility and safety in the courthouse. While the historic second-floor courtroom will not be accessible since installation of an elevator is not feasible, the first-floor courtroom will still provide needed services for all of Little River County’s citizens. “We try not to satisfy one need, we try to address multiple needs,” he said. “It won’t solve the whole problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

The Little River County Courthouse is one of the stateliest buildings in Ashdown. The county was created on March 5, 1857, and named for the waterway that marks its northern border. The county seat bounced between Richmond and Rocky Comfort in the nineteenth century, the development of railroads through the area led to the founding of the new town of Ashdown, which voters made the seat of government in 1906. Little River County hired architect Sidney Stewart to design a new courthouse, and the architect used such classical elements as towering Ionic-capital columns at the east and south entrances, pediments over the first-floor entrances and a dentil course around the cornice. The building’s crowning glory is the octagonal dome that towers over downtown Ashdown.

The interior features elaborate woodwork, massive wooden newel posts, a skylight in the second-floor courtroom and the Little River County seal in the middle of the first floor. Photographs of every Little River County judge up to the present line the walls as you enter the courthouse, including that of W.D. Waldrop, who served from1923-26 and posed with a fiddle. The current county judge boasts that the chair facing the desk in his office is the most comfortable in the county: Judge Cranford makes the claim because there is someone sitting in it every minute of every day. And the work to preserve and improve the Little River County Courthouse ensures that it will remain there for years to come.


County Courthouse Restoration Grants in Little River County

Since 1993, Little River County has received ten grants totaling $415,113 for the Little River County Courthouse in Ashdown.

FY1993 Restore roof and guttering $15,000

FY1994 Repair interior water damage $15,000

FY1997 Restore sidewalk $8,000

FY1999 Clean and restore exterior wood and brick $23,460

FY2008 Foundation, masonry, drainage restoration $34,350

FY2009 Replace gutters $65,959

FY2010 Restoration Master Plan $10,000

FY2012 Exterior restoration $70,000

FY2014 Roof restoration $101,988

FY2016 ADA accommodations $71,356

Grand Total: $415,113


Designs, funding are challenges when modifying courthouses

Since 1989, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program has awarded 451 grants distributing $21,250,000 in Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council funds for projects in 66 historic county courthouses and five courthouse annexes. A significant number of those projects – 65 using $2,995,551 – were for projects addressing compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. AHPP Technical Assistance Coordinators Paul Porter and Brian Driscoll were asked for their thoughts on the major ADA issues in historic Arkansas courthouses.

Porter replied: “The toughest design challenges in making courthouses ADA accessible is locating the elevators and coming up with enough funds to do them using AHPP and other financial resources. Most of our courthouses have ADA modified entrances and ramps. We added a new courthouse annex to the program this year and are doing an ADA entrance and restrooms for it, the Cleburne County Bank in Heber Springs. Integrating an elevator, ramps, chair lifts and restrooms into each of these courthouses requires a lot of planning and forethought. During the planning process, the architects and engineers look at the traffic and use patterns of the building to determine the most-used places and the least-used places as county residents conduct their business. Based on that data and the historic configuration of the respective building, they can determine the best place is to locate these features and follow the federal guidelines for the location of ADA ramps and entrance doors, chair lifts and elevators.”

Driscoll observed: “For some of the courthouses the most critical issue is still the lack of ADA accessibility to the main floor of the building. While most historic courthouses have addressed this most basic requirement in some way such as an exterior chairlift, a ramp constructed on an entrance or an elevator added to accommodate entry from sidewalk level, some active courthouses still lack this basic access. Challenges to providing first floor access are often due to the design of the building. Some of the more grand styles of public buildings looked to grand stairways, elevated porticos and large window openings to convey the sense of significance and prominence. All of these features make providing accessibility more difficult. The installation of commercial-grade elevators that access three floors is the most expensive ADA issue we deal with. I personally believe that the Americans with Disabilities Act has had the greatest impact on how public buildings are constructed today. Most of these buildings, including commercial buildings, libraries, college facilities and municipal buildings, are now constructed with the main entrances at ground level.

“Once access to the main floor of a courthouse has been provided there are a number of other issues that remain. I believe access to courtrooms has been one of the big problems and has resulted in some counties moving their court functions to other locations and leaving their historic courtrooms unused. This is especially true for those counties that don’t have elevators. There also have been problems with accessibility of witness and jury boxes and judge’s benches in the courtrooms. These accommodations often get overlooked.

“Another issue is accessible restrooms. Historic courthouses often had small restrooms tucked into inconvenient locations in the building. I have seen some that resemble closets placed under stairways and many are located in out-of-the-way locations on the lower floors. Providing enough space to meet ADA requirements often results in the need to use space originally allocated for other courthouse functions. The need for 32 inches of clear space in door openings has resulted in the wholesale replacement or reconfiguration of office doorways in some courthouses.

“Meeting ADA requirements has probably been the single most pervasive and expensive issue we have dealt with in the county courthouse grant program.”

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