First in a two-part series
Few buildings on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) have received as much publicity as the President’s Home. In recent months some have suggested it needed another major overhaul while others believed it has served and is serving its role as the residence for UCA’s president quite well.
A health issue was raised in 2011 when mold and lead were detected in the home. However, both problems were quickly resolved and neither poses any health risks to its occupants. Also in 2011, a new heating and air-conditioning system was installed along with new windows.
Tom Courtway, UCA’s tenth President, is now living in the President’s Home and has said the house is very livable and the only change he and his wife made was to paint an upstairs bedroom for their granddaughters. President and Mrs. Courtway bought $116 worth of pink paint and employees from the UCA Physical Plant painted the room.
Built in 1936 through the Public Works Administration (PWA), the home was deemed necessary in order to provide for on campus supervision by the president. When the application was made for the house and the four other accompanying structures, the college architect made an argument for having the president live on campus.
According to an undated letter (circa June 1935) written to the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works by UCA’s architectural firm, Wittenberg and Delony, "At the present time there is no provision made for housing the chief executive of this Institution. He is required to live some distance from the campus, which is very undesirable. The erection of this building in the campus group will give the President of the Institution close supervision over all activities on the campus both day and night."
The UCA President’s Home was part of Public Works Administration (PWA) project 1092, which called for four new buildings and one renovated building. The new structures were the President’s Home, Ida Waldran Auditorium, the Prince Center and Meadors Hall (also known as the Doyne Annex). The renovated building was the E.E. Cordrey Science Building, the first building erected at UCA in 1908.
The total cost of PWA project 1092 was $445,000 with $200,000 being a direct grant from the Public Works Administration and $245,000 in the form of a low interest loan of 4 percent. The smallest of the five contracts was for the President’s Home which documents show cost an estimated $16,833. The bids were opened and contracts were awarded on April 29, 1936.
According to an engineering document, the cost of construction of the President’s Home was projected to be $15,000 plus $477 in contingency fees, $78 in legal costs, $378 in interest during construction and $900 in engineering, architectural and technical service, bringing the total to $16,833 or $4.34 per heated square foot for the 3,878 square foot home.
Due to the fact that the President’s Home was part of a five-building project, the costs were almost always figured collectively. The documents that do show the costs of each individual building do so only as projections and not as a finished product.
During 1936, when the President’s Home was under construction, the average daily number of workers on the job was 25 and the estimated man-hours needed to complete the task was 7,380. The President’s Home was bid as a 90-day project, but, at one point was 12% behind schedule. There was a federal rule that some workers could not work more than 130 hours per month on a PWA project. And, if this rule was violated, then the institution that received the grant could be required to pay the grant back (in UCA’s case $200,000) to the government.
Posey and Edwards of Monticello, the contracting firm that bid on and won PWA project 1092, sent an emergency communication to President Heber McAlister stating their situation in regard to the contract and being behind in their work. They requested that workers immediately be allowed to work more than 130 hours per month.
The letter from Posey and Edwards to President McAlister and the UCA Board of Trustees stated, "We request that an emergency be declared, and that we be allowed to work carpenters and common labor in excess of 130 hour limit specified on this project. We filed requisitions for these workers several days ago, and have been unable to get additional men to take the places of the workers who had completed the 130 hour period. The progress of the entire work depends on these men, and if this emergency is not granted we will have to shut down the job until the first of the month or until new workers are available. The other crafts or workmen on the job will be out of employment meanwhile."
President McAlister responded to the letter from Posey and Edwards the next day, Augu. 21, 1936, and stated in part, "All three of your requests are approved with the understanding that we have this permission and that it does not get us into trouble with the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works on our grant. If on account of either of these, we are denied any amount of grant, it will be expected that this same amount will be deducted from your contract."
The head of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works agreed with McAlister and the extension to 40 hours per week or 160 hours per month was
granted. However, there remained a rule that workers could not work longer than eight hours per day.
According to the State Director of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, "The State Director finds that in order that normal construction operations may be maintained on the above numbered project, it is neither feasible nor practicable, in his judgment, to confine the hours of work of employees in the trades or occupations listed above to 130 hours per month for the reason that there is an insufficient supply of labor in such trades or occupations, thereby delaying the work of other trades and causing a consequent delay in other operations on this project."
The crisis was averted and work continued on PWA project 1092. The minimum rate of pay for an electrician’s apprentice was 55 cents per hour. Pay for other workers was not available.
The contract for the President’s Home and all buildings constructed under PWA rules and regulations required that all the materials used in the project be made or mined in the United States. According to Article 21 of the Contractor’s Agreement, "Only such unmanufactured articles, materials and supplies as have been mined or produced in the United States and only such manufactured articles, materials and supplies as have been manufactured in the United States substantially all from articles, materials or supplies mined, produced or manufactured, as the case may be, in the United States, shall be employed in the construction of the project." Exceptions existed for purchasing foreign made goods, but, the exceptions were few and required several levels of permission from the federal government to purchase the foreign items.
We do have evidence that one foreign item was requested by UCA, black and gold marble, which was used on the fireplace in the dining room. According to UCA’s architect and contractor, black and gold marble was not available in the United States. After UCA’s request for foreign marble was approved by the Arkansas State Director of the PWA, Alexander Allaire, the request was then sent to Harold Ickes, Administrator of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works.. The letter stated, "The owner on the above project respectfully requests permission to use black and gold marble for a fireplace facing in the President’s Residence. This marble is a foreign marble and no material of like decorative quality can be obtained in this country."
"The cost of this material will only amount to about thirty dollars ($30), and its use is desired by the Owner and Architect to harmonize with the style of interior decoration and furnishings. Since the cost of this item is very small in comparison with the cost of the project, and the use of a marble of different texture or color would spoil the effect desired by the Architect, the Owner requests that permission be granted to use this material."
Permission was granted by Mr. Ickes to use the black and gold marble but the money to purchase it could not come from the grant money; it was purchased with UCA funds. All other materials that were used in the initial construction of the President’s Home were either made or mined in the United States.
All phases of the President’s Home construction required a certain level of quality or performance rating and this was also true with the heating system. The heating system for the President’s Home required that the gas-steam radiation be capable of keeping the entire home at 70 degrees Fahrenheit when the outside temperature was zero degrees Fahrenheit. There was no mention of an air-conditioning system, because the home did not have air-conditioning when it was first built. The availability of that luxury was still a few years in the future. Window air-conditioning units became popular in the late 1940s.
Readers may need to be reminded that letter writing was the primary means of communication during the 1930s and was preferable to telephone calls when executing business. The mail moved very rapidly at that time and when a letter was mailed, it reached its intended destination the next day, as a rule. If it was a great distance, delivery time could be longer. But if the recipient of the letter was in the same state as the writer it arrived quickly. Also, by writing letters documentation was created along with a paper trail that could prove important. Additionally, during the 1930s and until 1950, the mail was delivered twice a day.
The President’s Home was completed in late December 1936. President and Mrs. McAlister moved into the home soon after its completion and made some discoveries that needed to be addressed by the builder. One of the problems was with some hardware items that were needed for the President’s Home. President McAlister had written multiple letters to Krebs Brothers Supply Company asking about the hardware and wrote a rather firm letter in February 1937 that is quoted in part below.
In some of the letters asking for repairs or parts, President McAlister’s patience had obviously grown thin. In a letter dated Feb. 19, 1937, to Krebs Brothers Supply Company in Little Rock, McAlister stated, "We as yet have no reply from you with reference to the hardware ordered by Mrs. McAlister for some additional doors in the President’s Home at the Teachers College. This order was made weeks ago. We received a report from your firm that it had been ordered, but we have had nothing more from it. Will you please get us some information on it? Do you think it will be possible for us to get this hardware any time during 1937?"
According to a letter from President McAlister to one of the subcontractors, Gravier and Harper, "The heat plant is not working satisfactorily. The thermostat does not bring on the heat until the thermometer is from 6 to 10 degrees lower than that for which it is set and it does not go off until it is 5 to 7 degrees hotter than the regulator is set. The temperature in the rooms is not even. Some rooms are too hot and some are cold."
In another letter to Gravier and Harper dated April 5, 1937, McAlister stated, "You told me the other day that the reason the water did not drain out of the shower in the owners’ shower room at the residence was because the hose in the drain in the floor were so small. There is something else wrong also. Yesterday after taking a shower, the water was about three inches deep in the floor and it took it two or three minutes to drain off after the shower was over. Will you please check this?"
In a letter dated April 5, 1937 to I.K. Electric Company in Little Rock, President McAlister wanted to know why it took so long to receive light fixtures for the President’s Home. McAlister stated, "Is it possible for you to complete the installation of light fixtures and complete the job at the President’s Home right away? It is getting to be embarrassing. We have moved in and people are expecting us to entertain and Mrs. McAlister does not want to do it until all of the light fixtures are in. Within the next two weeks, the Board of Trustees will have a meeting here and will be our guests at the home…I will appreciate it if you will take care of this right away."
Construction problems with other buildings that were part of PWA project 1092 also received President McAlister’s prompt attention and he was equally aggressive at addressing those issues. Apparently most, if not all the problems associated with the buildings were resolved.
All five buildings were dedicated on the same day, May 23, 1937. President McAlister presided at the ceremony and introduced the major speakers, W.E. Phipps, the state commissioner of education and chairman of the UCA Board of Trustees, Governor Carl Bailey and Dr. Thomas Butcher, president of State Teachers College at Emporia, Kansas.
W.E. Phipps credited Mrs. Heber McAlister with the planning and design of the President’s Home and said the Board of Trustees had given Mrs. McAlister the authority to plan the home as she desired.
Phipps presented all five buildings to the state and Governor Carl Bailey accepted the buildings on behalf of the citizens of Arkansas.
When Governor Bailey spoke he commented on the Great Depression and President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.
According to the Log Cabin Democrat, "The governor said the half-million dollar acquisition of the college represented a fortunate outcome of the depression. In a program of readjustment of the nation’s wealth instituted by a Democratic president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"He said the buildings will provide better facilities for training for leadership in the desirable objectives of the present national administration, and expressed the hope that the splendid plant of the Arkansas State Teachers College would inspire dissatisfaction among its students with crude and unattractive public school buildings in their home communities."
Author’s Note: Sources for this article include The Echo, Log Cabin Democrat, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "The Centennial History of the University of Central Arkansas" by Jimmy Bryant, the UCA Depression Era Construction Records, M97-02-UCA Archives and President and Mrs. Courtway.
Former President Gerald Ford had dinner in the President’s Home with President and Mrs. Farris in March 1984. Photo Courtesy of The Echo.