March 29, 2017

The Nine Lives of the Little Rock Arsenal Tower Building

When I was a little girl, my mother took a painting class at the Arkansas Art Center. My Dad would drive her there, drop her off, and wait. I remember the ever-present ducks at the Art Center, and the water fountain, and the park walks he and I would take to pass the time before going to pick up my mom. But what I remember most was the nearby Tower Building of the former Little Rock Arsenal.

To say that I had, or have, an active imagination is an understatement. And by understatement, I mean the inside of my head is like a movie reel. Somedays the inspiration turning said wheel is light, airy and inspiring, like inspiration from the movie Pride and Prejudice. But other days the inspiration turning the wheel is along the lines of “let’s make plans to survive the zombie apocalypse.” And when I was a little girl, watching the sun go down, walking with my dad, gazing up at the old red brick Tower Building, my imagination tended to go a little Stephen King.

I’m not sure what it was about the building, or whether my paranoia was piqued due to my dad accidentally allowing me to watch part of Pet Cemetery (at least that’s the story we told my Mom), but I was positive the place was haunted.

The Tower Building is the last remaining structure still standing from the original U.S. military installation dating back to 1840, not to mention one of the oldest buildings in central Arkansas. Originally built to store munitions, it has long white wooden porches, and a three story, octagonal brick tower connecting the inside floors. The military installation was originally established to do battle with nearby Native Americans, and would go on to contain officer barracks and more than 30 buildings to make up Little Rock’s first military post. It would become an important Confederate stronghold during the Civil War, and later the birthplace of General Douglas MacArthur (a five-star general and prominent leader in WWII).

When the federal government gave the property to the City of Little Rock in 1892 (a land swap agreement that would also lead to the establishment of 1000 acres for Fort Roots), all other Arsenal buildings were removed. The Tower Building alone was left standing, and the surrounding area became what we know today as The MacArthur Park Historic District. The area extends west from the park and is a breathtaking example of a beautiful park and surviving antebellum homes. The area, along with the Tower Building, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Tower Building would become a meeting place for the Aesthetic Club in 1894, one of the oldest women’s clubs west of the Mississippi, and would also serve as the Museum of Natural History and Antiquities from 1942 to 1997. The building reopened in 2001 as the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History. The museum commemorates Arkansas’s military and territorial history, along with contributions of Arkansas servicemen. Their exhibits include the Camden Campaign and David O. Dodd, the role of the Jeep during war time, and World War II exhibits.

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The Tower Building has been, in its long history, many things to many people. It is like an architectural cat, with nine-lives, wearing multiple metaphorical hats, one of them also being, in a word, haunted. When I began to hear the spooky stories about the Tower Building, I had a mental high-five “I told you so” moment with my childhood self. There are tales of disembodied voices and music. Apparitions reportedly appear, only to vanish when confronted. Playful spirits throw objects, and the spooky “shadow people” apparitions have been whispered about for years.

I’d like to say that my keen paranormal-detecting brain picked up on these things when I was a child, but in truth, it’s probably just a happy coincidence owed to my paranoia of all things remotely spooky. And while you may think “the lady doth protest too much,” you would be right. I actually love all things spooky. Except the concept of the zombie apocalypse.

That one has actually kept me up at night.

But spooks and hauntings aside, The Tower Building is a cornerstone of history for central Arkansas. I cannot think of a better way to pass an afternoon than inside the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History. The museum’s hours are Monday – Saturday from 9:00 – 4:00, and Sunday from 1:00 – 4:00. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.

And as always, ghostly sightings cannot be guaranteed.

Photos courtesy of Arkansas Parks and Tourism

Liz Harrell

Arkansas Women Bloggers member Elizabeth Harrell is a native Arkansan, author, and freelance writer. Her book, My (not so) Storybook Life, was published in 2011. Her blog projects have been featured in At Home Arkansas, Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge, and Better Homes and Gardens. Visit her at https://elizabeth-harrell.com .