- CAPITAL HOTEL: Total makeover
To look at the stack of blueprints on file with the city for the new renovation of the Capital Hotel — a tree-trunk-sized roll that easily weighs 50 pounds, barely restrained by three industrial-strength rubber bands — you’d think that the owners were building a completely new hotel, not just restoring and adding on to an old one. “Architects get paid by the pound,” said the city worker who helped me bundle them up when I was done.
However they get their Christmas money, when the legion of architects, builders, masons, landscapers and interior decorators finish with the Capital’s multimillion-dollar renovation sometime early next year, the old girl will be even more of a showplace, with additional parking, updated electrical and air-conditioning systems, and a host of revamped public areas.
Originally built in the early 1870s as a three-story row of shops, offices and “gentlemen’s living quarters,” the building became a hotel in 1876, after Little Rock’s lavish Metropolitan Hotel burned to the ground. Renamed the Capital Hotel, the building would see the addition of a fourth floor and visits by several visiting dignitaries — including Ulysses S. Grant — before 1900.
With the construction of newer, bigger and more up-to-date hotels, like the Marion across the street, after the turn of the 20th century, the Capital Hotel entered a slow downward slide. By the 1970s, downtown Little Rock was on the skids and the Capital had been reduced to something just short of a flophouse, with a billiard hall and beer joint on the first floor and extensive water damage to the building’s ornate plaster and tile work.
In 1980, downtown rejuvenation took root — and is finally bearing fruit more than 20 years later. Through the work of local business leaders and preservationists, the Capital Hotel was put onto the National Register of Historic Places. A $10 million restoration was launched. After three years of work, the newly refurbished hotel reopened to guests on Dec. 19, 1983.
While not the Herculean undertaking that was required to bring the Capital back from the brink of demolition in the 1980s, the current renovation plans — designed by the Little Rock firm Cromwell Architects Engineers Inc., and carried out by East-Harding Construction — are extensive. For visitors, the most visible changes will be on the first and second floors. The Capital Bar, in the northwest corner of the first floor, is getting a redo, with a new kitchen and prep area. Beyond the hotel’s central staircase at the end of the lobby, several rooms will be removed to build a large ballroom. On the west side of the first floor, accessible from the lobby area by a corridor, several more walls will be removed to accommodate a conference room and meeting area, with a “pre-function area” between the two.
The second-floor mezzanine will be expanded, with the lounge on the Markham Street side of the building running the full length of the exterior balcony. Throughout, the hotel will receive new tile, paint, lighting and ceiling treatments, as well as upgrades to electrical, plumbing and heating and cooling systems. At the rear of the building, a 4,200-square-foot, one-story addition will house mechanical and support-staff areas. Outside, with the demolition of the former Continental Building next door, plans call for a 120-space gated parking lot for hotel guests.
Calls to the Capital Hotel’s general manager, Joe Rantisi, found that he had “nothing to add at this time,” and no firm date for the hotel’s reopening.
The hotel is one of the properties of the Stephens financial empire headquartered in the skyscraper a block west. The late Jackson T. Stephens, one of the founders of the group, was fond of playing backgammon in the hotel’s street-front bar. Though Rantisi is mum about the project, most expect the new hotel to be reflective of its pedigree.
— David Koon