When Sharon Welch-Blair and her husband decided to buy the historic Hornibrook House to open a Quapaw Quarter bed-and-breakfast in 1993, they had trouble getting a bank loan.
"Nobody thought we could be successful downtown," she said. Back then, there was no River Market nor plans for a presidential library. Many considered the historic neighborhoods surrounding the downtown business district crime-ridden and run down. This, despite a couple of decades of preservation efforts that produced some significant improvement in many properties.
The Quapaw Quarter is bounded by the Arkansas River on the north, the old Rock Island Railroad tracks on the east, Fourche Creek on the south and Central High School on the west, but it's best known for the historic homes in the Governor's Mansion and MacArthur Park neighborhoods. It was probably the first neighborhood ravaged by Little Rock's suburban development and saw decades of decay in homes once occupied by the city's first families.
Now, neighborhood supporters believe, the area's property value growth may be outpacing that in other Little Rock neighborhoods.
"It's been a labor of love for a lot of people for a long time, and it's paying off," said Carol Ann Penick, a real estate agent who's listed houses in the Quapaw area for 14 years. When she started, a top house price was $200,000, she said. But within the last two years, Penick sold the Hotze House, on Louisiana Street near the Governor's Mansion, for $525,000. It's now not unusual to see houses priced in the $300,000 range, she said.
While home prices in Quapaw are still lower than many parts of the city, the unofficial figures of the Central Arkansas Realtors Multiple Listing Service show that for the period 2001 through 2002, total home sales for the area rose 42 percent ($1,080,750 to $1,536,000). The percentage gain is greater than some high-profile neighborhoods, partly because the neighborhood has so far to go. By comparison, sales for Chenal Valley rose 25 percent for the same period ($56 million to $70 million) and the Heights/Hillcrest area rose seven percent ($59 million to $63 million). In terms of price per square foot, downtown homes are still lower than other areas by comparison, sometimes only a third of $200-plus-per-square-foot often found in the Heights.
But there's price pressure in the Quapaw Quarter, too, in part thanks to restorations.
Dee Herring, a real estate agent who specializes in historic homes, said the Governor's Mansion and MacArthur Park areas have "pretty much been rehabbed and buyers are going to pay top dollar." She said those in search of a deal are now looking farther west, at the Central High neighborhood.
In 2000, Herbert Broadway, owner of La Changes nightclub on Main Street, bought a house at 1923 W. 16th St., a couple of blocks from Central High. Broadway made substantial renovations on the home, which was built in 1914. Now the brick house with a red tile roof and manicured lawns stands out on a block scattered with unrenovated houses, some with boarded windows. But there are signs of life - for-sale signs stand in several surrounding yards. A block away, a construction dumpster is parked on a side yard filled to the brim with scraps of wood and sheet rock.
Broadway, who bought and renovated a second house in the neighborhood and is working on a third, said he doesn't consider himself a pioneer. "I found an old house that I liked," he said. "The benefits were being downtown and helping to bring back a neighborhood."
Another sign of vitality is new construction. Last year, developer Todd Rainey built an eye-catching spec house at 1422 Arch St. Herring sold it for $350,000 within 30 days of completion to Brian Storrie and his wife, Muriel Lederman.
The Capitol District Zoning Commission required Rainey to design the home's exterior so that it would blend with the surrounding houses. Inside, the modern conveniences include a home theater.
Storrie, a professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who moved to Little Rock from Virginia, said they considered buying a home in Heights or Hillcrest, but liked downtown's diversity. "We're kind of urban people," he said. "The house is a better fit for us and it's an interesting neighborhood."
The option to buy a new house sweetened the deal. Lederman said she didn't want to be a "curator" of a historic home.
Now another new house has gone up on a vacant lot at 1873 Gaines Street.
Realtors understand that historic homes will always appeal to a smaller share of the market. "It's a unique group that doesn't miss state-of-art kitchens," Penick said. The news is the growing appeal. "It used to be just people living downtown buying downtown," she said. "Now we have people from West Little Rock, from other parts of the state, from outside the state."