Monday, July 25, 2016

The Delta

A few weeks ago, I made another drive out into the Delta. It was starting to rain a little, with dark storm clouds lurking overhead. As I headed east, I drove through the small community of Johnson Chapel. The town lives up to its name, there is an old church sitting next to a large cemetery.

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The church was built in 1871, and was used for services for nearly 100 years. Although it's not used regularly, it is still used for wedding and other events. The inside is well-maintained, and looks like it could be used at anytime. In fact the only thing I noticed that suggested the church doesn't see any use were some cobwebs growing between some of the pews.

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Driving further east, the sky continued to grow darker. Thunder and an occasional flash of lightning sparked across the sky.

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The clouds hung heavily over the fields, where the rice was a deep shade of green.

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I continued on, driving to the town of Des Arc. Des Arc has a population of about 2,000, and is one of the two county seats of Prairie County. Sitting right in the middle of town along Main Street is the Frith-Plunkett House. The home was built in 1858 and is the oldest building in Des Arc.

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The old home is described as a "a well-proportioned two story wood frame structure, with a gable roof, weatherboard siding, and a foundation of brick piers. A Neoclassical two-story porch projects from the center of what is otherwise a typical I-house, giving it a distinctive Greek Revival character."

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The old home survived the Civil War because it was used as a hospital. The home is is empty now, and was added to the list of Arkansas' Most Endangered Places in 2013.

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I drove on, heading east to the town of Cotton Plant. People have been living in the area around Cotton Plant since the 1830s, and it grew around the cotton that gave the city its name. But like so many Delta towns, it has hit hard times. Many of the historic buildings in the downtown are empty and abandoned, and many have been torn down.

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I peeked in the windows of one building, which looks like it recently housed an antique shop. The store is closed and abandoned, but there is still all of the merchandise inside. Clothes and books still sit on the shelves, covered in a thick layer of dust. It almost seems like the store could open up, except for the fact that some of the ceiling and the entire back wall of the store has collapsed.

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This old liqour store has also been closed, with vines slowly taking over the side of the building.

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And a few more shots of another old building, which is empty except for more creeping vines.

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As I headed out of town, the dark clouds continued to gather overhead and threaten to pour rain.

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When I saw these clouds I immediately tried to find a place to pull over.

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A few minutes after taking this, the front from the storm passed by with a big gust of wind. Although it didn't rain, it did cool off about 15 degrees.

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I had pulled over by this old barn, so I walked over to take a look. The wind that cooled the temperature down also seemed to have blown the mosqitoes away for a few minutes.

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While driving north I drove by this old house. It does look like it's been abandoned for ahwile, but it is for sale.

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The old silos were in the small community of Fair Oaks. I'm not sure if these are used still, they were fairly quiet the afternoon that I drove by.

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I drove by an old home, which was abandoned and nearly falling apart. The walls were tilted at dramatic angles, and it probably won't be too long before gravity drags the building down.

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There were a few flowers growing along the weathered wood on the walls of the building, providing a few nice splashes of color.

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And the view looking inside one of the windows. The interior walls are mostly gone, and the ceiling is dotted with dozens of wasps nests.

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I thought I had plenty of time before sunset, so I drove over to the town of Wynne. About 9,000 people live in Wynne, and it is the county seat of Cross County. I drove by the downtown, looking for any interesting old buildings. I saw this old building that unfortunately had a roof that just collapsed. This is the view of the side of the building, where the debris from the collapsed roof almost seems to be spilling out of an open door.

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I then headed to the town of Augusta, and got there right around sunset. Augusta sits along the White River, and is the county seat of Woodruff County. Back in the 1800s it was an important steamboat stop, and regularly saw boats coming in from Memphis and New Orleans. About 2,800 currently live in Augusta, which still has a large number of old buildings in the historic downtown area.

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I drove over to the old courthouse to get a few pictures, but was distracted by an old house that sits across the street. This is the Ferguson House, which was built in 1861 and is one of the oldest structures in the city. The Ferguson House "is a two-story wood frame structure, with a side gable roof and clapboard siding. Its main facade is five bays wide, with a central projecting portico with square supporting columns, and a gabled pediment. The interior has a well-preserved central-hall plan." The home is vacant but looks like it is getting some repairs, or at least being stabilized.

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I headed across the street to the Woodruff County Courthouse, which was built in 1900. I tried to get a few pictures until a swarm of mosquitoes chased me to the car, and I headed on back home as it got dark.

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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Port Aransas

Every year around the 4th of July, my wife's family has a reunion. This year, they all decided to meet at Port Aransas, which is on the Gulf of Mexico right by Corpus Christi, Texas. Although it would be a long drive with the baby, we were looking forward to some time at the beach. They rented a nice beach house, which actually overlooked the Gulf.

Of course, just before heading down there we learned that there was some bacterial contamination in the waters along the Gulf, and that some people even got flesh-eating bacteria. Yay! But by the time we got there things had gotten back to normal, and it was safe to go into the water. When we first arrived there, it was right before sunset. We headed out and walked along the beach, dipping our feet into the water. Later that night I felt my skin start crawling. The bacteria was setting in already! But on closer inspection it turned out to be some ants crawling on my back.

I took the camera out one night around sunset to try to get a few shots.

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And a view from a small tower with this observation deck. The wind coming in from the Gulf was strong, tossing around the plants growing along the sand dunes.

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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Hotel Pines

For over a century, the Hotel Pines has been a landmark in downtown Pine Bluff. When it opened in 1913, it was widely considered to be one of the finest and most luxurious hotels in Arkansas. But when Pine Bluff stopped getting passenger rail service, the main clientele for the hotel dried up. In 1970, the hotel closed and it has been empty ever since. There have been a few attempts at renovations in the years since, but the decades of neglect and decay have taken their toll on the building.

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For a comparison, this is what the hotel lobby looked like in 1922:
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I managed to get permission to go inside the hotel and take a few pictures. Despite the advanced decay, the architecture of the lobby is still striking. The hotel was designed by George R. Mann, the architect who also designed the Arkansas State Capitol building. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the “The interior of the Hotel Pines is notable for its first-floor ceilings, which are coffered and supported by a full entablature, mounted on pink marbleized columns. Its lobby is a barrel vault supported by gray marble columns and pilasters. The lobby’s ceiling is a curved, multicolored lead stained-glass skylight. Over the main entrance to the lobby is a bowed balcony supported by a large decorative bracket. Walls are furnished in gray marble, and the floors are mosaic ceramic tile.”

The lobby is four thousand square feet, and when it opened the lobby also featured phone booths, newspaper and cigar stands and a haberdashery.

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The hotel cost $350,000 to build, which was a considerable sum of money in the early 1900s. The hotel’s main clientele were rail travelers, and the hotel even offered porter service that carried guest’s luggage to the nearby train station.

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The hotel was also an important gathering place for people in Pine Bluff. The hotel hosted civic and business meetings, banquets, dances and fancy society balls.

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The six story hotel had 168 rooms when it opened. In 1922, it cost anywhere between $4.00 and $7.50 a night to stay there (the cost depended on how many guests were in the room, and the number of meals they would take). The rooms differed in size throughout the hotel, some were large suites while other were dorm-style rooms with a shared bathroom. This is a bathtub in one of the rooms on the second floor.

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And a few more shots from the second floor:

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I headed back down to the first floor and went to the dining room, which is just off to the side of the lobby.

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For a comparison, this is how the dining room looked in 1922:
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In 1922, a typical dinner at the hotel included your choice of mustard chow, cream of shrimp, fried catfish, pineapple fritters, Spanish beef stew or braised spareribs. For sides there was mashed potatoes, garden peas, steamed rice or shredded lettuce with egg. Dessert included fruit jello, hot mince meat pie or hot corn dodgers. To drink, you could wash it down with coffee, tea, milk, buttermilk or a stein of Budweiser for 20 cents.

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In 1968, passenger rail service stopped in Pine Bluff. The hotel closed two years later in 1970 and has been vacant ever since.

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This is the bar in the coffee room, located just off of the hotel lobby.

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In 1990, the city of Pine Bluff considered tearing down the hotel. But it was saved and a nonprofit group called Citizens United to Save the Pines bought the building in 1991. They spent twelve years renovating the hotel. The stained glass in the lobby was cleaned and repaired, and the roof and all the windows were replaced.

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In 2003 the hotel was then sold to a developer who planned on spending $3 million to finish the renovations. But those plans fell through, and the hotel slid further into neglect. The glass skylight is broken, so water pours into the lobby every time it rains. Chunks of plaster have fallen from the walls and ceilings. The fine marble in the lobby is cracked and broken.

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The building is currently for sale, and reportedly there have been a few perspective buyers. One idea being floated is for the building to become part of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, who would convert the hotel into dorms and for space for the art department.

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If the building isn’t going to be renovated, then maybe enough work can be done to prevent any further damage. In recent years, several buildings in downtown Pine Bluff have collapsed, including some right across the street from the Pines Hotel. If nothing is done, the hotel will join their fate, either through continued decay or from demolition. It would be a shame for Pine Bluff to lose another landmark, especially a building that has served as an anchor on Main Street for over a century.