LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — In September 1957, the most important news coming out of this city's Central High School was the exploits of its football team, the top-ranking squad in the United States. That was about to change.
Because it had been considered relatively moderate for a Deep South city in the late 1950s, Little Rock was chosen by President Dwight Eisenhower to lead the way in desegregation of the South's public schools. On Sept. 23, nine black students arrived to enroll at Central High, and an angry mob, egged on by vitriolic speeches from Gov. Orval Faubus, converged on the school to stop them.
Few remember how the Central football team fared; many remember the courage of the Little Rock Nine, children barely in their teens who took their place in history that September day.
Central High School earned its own place in history: as the nation's only high school on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, visitors may relive its history on free tours led by National Park Service rangers.
For a mid-size American city, Little Rock has had more than its fair share of historic moments, beginning with its founding in 1722 by French explorer Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe. He came ashore near a small rock formation on the south bank of the Arkansas River, promptly dubbing it La Petite Roche. For years afterward, the "little rock" was a familiar landmark for travelers making their way down the Arkansas.
A good place to start your Little Rock tour is at the beginning: in the Historic Arkansas Museum. The history of Territorial Arkansas is on display in this blocklong collection of pre-Civil War buildings, the oldest of which is the Hinderliter Grog Shop. Built in 1826, the two-story structure served as the territory's first "five-star hotel." Weary travelers could get a bed for $1 a night — if they didn't mind sharing it.
Built in 1833, Arkansas's original statehouse is the oldest standing state capitol west of the Mississippi River. Now a museum, it has a colorful history: a murder in the House of Representatives' chamber (in 1837, House Speaker John Wilson used his Bowie knife to stab Rep. Joseph Anthony after a spirited debate over taxes); as the site of the state's secession from the Union on May 6, 1861; and as the setting for Bill Clinton's Election Night victory celebrations when he ran for president in 1992 and 1996.
The current State Capitol is a smaller version of the U.S. Capitol and has six solid-bronze doors bought from Tiffany Studios in New York. A statue of the Little Rock Nine on the lawn is the only civil rights monument on the grounds of a Southern capitol.
Other buildings of note include Christ Episcopal Church, where Little Rock native Gen. Douglas MacArthur was baptized; the Federal Courthouse, where the Whitewater hearings were held during the Clinton administration; and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, dedicated to the black fraternal organization founded here in 1882.
The Mosaic Templars center educates the public about black Americans' achievements, especially in business, politics and the arts. I was particularly interested to learn the story of artist Isaac Scott Hathaway, who was born in Lexington and was the first black person to design a commemorative coin for the U.S. Mint.
Little Rock's most popular visitor attraction is the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, on the banks of the Arkansas River and home to America's most extensive presidential library.
Full-scale replicas of the Oval Office and a White House Cabinet Room show us where the 42nd president spent his working hours. Another exhibit boasts a 120-foot time line within which the history of the Clinton administration unfolds.
Call me shallow, but my favorite exhibition was the one showcasing all the bling Bill and Hillary Clinton received from foreign leaders during their eight years in the White House, and the tableaus of glamorous state dinners given by the couple.
The lighter side
Little Rock definitely plays as hard as it works. (How can you not love a town that hosts an annual Cornbread Festival?)
Two of its liveliest areas are River Market District and SoMa, or South of Main. The former offers restaurants and entertainment venues from traditional (Sweet Soul Southern Cuisine) to trendy (Zin Urban Wine and Beer Bar). The latter has become Little Rock's newest hip 'hood, with establishments popping up left and right. One of the most anticipated is South of Main in the Oxford American Magazine building. Like the magazine, the restaurant/music venue will highlight Southern cuisine, atmosphere and culture.
Another outpost of Southern culture can be found across the river in North Little Rock at Starving Artist Café. Each Tuesday night, it is the setting for the live radio broadcast Tales From the South. Whether your tale is titillating or just tall, you are invited to step up to the mic and tell it.
Move over, Martha Stewart
A half-hour's drive from Little Rock is an exquisite Greek Revival estate overlooking the Arkansas River. Moss Mountain Farm is the home of P. Allen Smith, whose name might not be as easily recognizable as Martha Stewart's but whose decorating taste is equally fabulous.
Smith, who was born in Tennessee but considers Arkansas home, has a degree in garden design from the University of Manchester in England and the stamina of the Energizer bunny. He writes cookbooks and gardening books, hosts two TV shows, paints in his own on-site studio, and still finds time to landscape gardens for a few lucky clients.
Public tours of the house and gardens may be arranged. There is no guarantee that the amiable Smith will be around to act as your tour guide, but I'll tell you what he told me: At the height of the spring growing season, he will have 175,000 daffodils and hedgerows aflame with azaleas. The $90 admission price includes a gourmet lunch in the renovated barn.
IF YOU GO
Little Rock, Ark.
Where to stay:
■ The Capital Hotel, 111 West Markham. Every city should have a venerable property such as this 94-room hotel. Referred to as "the front porch of Little Rock" since its opening in 1870, you can just imagine what these walls would say if they could talk. Quirky touches include an elevator that once had the distinction of being large enough to fit a horse. Capitalhotel.com.
■ The Peabody Little Rock, 3 Statehouse Plaza. The hotel is a sister property of Peabodys in Memphis and Orlando, Fla. Yes, the adorable ducks still make their twice-daily march (at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.) from their penthouse pad to the lobby fountain, but who knows for how much longer as the hotel has been purchased by the Marriott. Peabodylittlerock.com.
Learn more: Littlerock.com
While in Arkansas, you might want to check out these three locales.
Fort Smith: A 19th-century belief held that "there was no God west of Fort Smith." Violence between the Cherokee and Osage tribes just across the Arkansas River in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) made establishing the fort a necessity. Today, a visit to the Fort Smith National Historic Site is equally a necessity.
The colorful cast of characters who had a connection to the fort included Judge Isaac Parker, "the hanging judge"; the notorious Cherokee Bill, who ended up on the wrong end of Judge Parker's rope; outlaw queen Belle Starr; and Bass Reeves, a fugitive slave who became a lawman credited with more than 3,000 arrests, including those of his own son and his pastor.
For a lighter side of Fort Smith, spend an evening at Miss Laura's Social Club. By day, it's home to the city's visitors bureau; by night, it morphs into its 19th-century role as the town's toniest bawdy house. Miss Laura herself will greet you and offer a sarsaparilla, while the Miss Laura's Players provide an entertaining peek into Fort Smith's past.
Eureka Springs: Often referred to as "the Switzerland of the South," this Ozarks town does have an alpine feel. Charming Victorian chalets house bed-and-breakfast inns, and downtown Main Street has a cornucopia of one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants.
The historic Crescent Hotel sits on a knoll with a view from its back terrace of the Christ of the Ozarks Statue. Built in 1886, the hotel is known to have several ghosts with whom guests become acquainted on nightly tours.
Just outside of town in the Ozark foothills is the beautiful Thorncrown Chapel. With 425 windows and more than 6,000 square feet of glass, it provides a perfect spot for quiet meditation.
Bentonville: The penguins are green instead of red; the restaurant is called The Hive, and the bedrooms lack the rehabbed warehouse chic of its Louisville counterpart, but Bentonville's newly opened 21c Museum Hotel has the same edgy feel and edgier art as the original.
Still, it isn't the artsiest place in town. That honor goes to the magnificent Crystal Bridges Museum, the brainchild of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton (Bentonville is Wal-Mart's headquarters). Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie designed the structure, whose large glass walls overlook 120 acres of forest, gardens and trails, making it a work of art itself.
The permanent collection (admission is free) spans five centuries of American art, from the Colonial era to the present.