A $70.5 million remodel of the Robinson Center culminated Thursday (Nov. 10), on time and on budget, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on a stage that is 31 feet lower than the previous one.
The 28-month project was funded by bonds financed through an existing 2% Little Rock Advertising & Promotion tax. The arrangement was approved by voters in a special election Dec. 10, 2013. The building was completed in 1939 at a cost of $840,000.
The project began with a concept study commissioned by the city’s A&P Commission Oct. 3, 2011, and the auditorium closed July 1, 2014. The new facility will be LEED-certified based on its energy efficiency.
During a grand reopening ceremony Thursday, Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, described the new facility as “the most important destination tourism product since the opening of the Clinton Library.”
While the building’s exterior was preserved, the interior was completely gutted and remodeled. Almost 12,000 tons were removed, 10,317 of which were recycled. The project employed 1,800 craftspeople who have worked 520,000 man-hours. The stage was lowered to the level of La Harpe Boulevard for more acoustic volume and height. The previous single balcony was replaced with two levels, including box seating along the side walls. Adjustable acoustic drapes were added to the ceiling. A conference center now faces the Arkansas River. The number of women’s bathroom fixtures was doubled.
During the ceremony, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the Robinson Center is a state institution. He said in 1983, while living in Fort Smith, he traveled to Little Rock to see ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov perform. In 2000, he came there to participate in a memorial service for civil rights pioneer Daisy Bates, and he also attended a memorial service for TV sports anchor Paul Eels. He said that, by honoring former Sen. Joe T. Robinson, a Senate majority leader who campaigned for vice president as a Democrat in 1928, the center celebrates not only art but also history.
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said the building was finished in 1939 and opened in 1940 after the idea was first broached in 1904. A lawsuit kept public money from being used to build it.
Stodola referred to the many entertainers who have performed at the center, which has been a center of Little Rock life and the site of many dance recitals. Elvis Presley made his first recording of “Hound Dog” on May 16, 1956, there, while other performers have included Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Mae West, Willie Nelson, Jerry Seinfeld and The Beach Boys.
Looking forward, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra will have its first performance in the center Nov. 19-20. Over the Christmas holidays, the musical “Elf” will be performed there, and Ballet Arkansas will perform “The Nutcracker.”
Ed Payton, president of Celebrity Attractions, said the facility can host any Broadway show performing. He said “Phantom of the Opera” can be performed there, and Disney’s “The Lion King” is coming next season.
The construction manager/general contractor was CDI/Hunt Joint Venture, while the design architect was Ennead Architects and the architect of record was Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects.