Old houses beget new hopes

One of the things that is most special about Pine Bluff is its diversity. While we have considerable racial and ethnic diversity, we also have another equally laudable cosmopolitan attribute: architectural diversity. This is best exemplified by the recent nomination of the Jewel Parnell Bain House No. 2 (located at West 36th Avenue and Cherry Street) to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Bain House is a singularly splendid example of the Art Monderne style of architecture. It is notable both for it sleek mid-century lines and for the gender of its designer. Jewel Parnell Bain was one of a small group of female architectural designers working in Arkansas at the time of the home’s 1937 construction.

While the boxy Bain House is a little foreign to many people’s sensibilities, its genius should not be so quickly dismissed. We do not progress as a society without a few rebels to perturb the boundaries. These nudges at the margins serve both to solidify past choices and suggest new directions.

Before the 1950s most houses didn’t have an attached garage or carport. Now that is ubiquitous. It was once a little radical.

This in itself gets to an important point about our community. We have a great richness in architectural styles. On a trip through the older sections of town one can readily identify Craftsman bungalows, Dutch Colonials, Queen Anne Victorians, Italianates, Georgians, Tudors, Neo-Classical and Prairie Styles… just to name a few.

Scattered throughout our community we have so many hidden architectural gems. Unfortunately all too many of the interesting and important homes have been carved up into multi-family dwellings and otherwise been permitted to deteriorate. If a few intrepid souls would just have the moral courage to reclaim and restore these properties they would serve as anchors for even more communal renaissance. What’s all the more attractive about these little prizes is the bargain basement price for which most of them could be purchased. In the current state of the local real estate market, many stately and expansive homes can be had for the proverbial “song.”

Of course, as anyone who has ever renovated a house knows, the journey from dream house to money pit can be a short and costly one. That said, name any other city where you could readily find a 3,000 square foot house for under $50,000. While that cheap purchase might be the gateway to $100,000 worth of renovations, name any other city where you could purchase a fully renovated 3,000 square foot historic home for $150,000.

Pine Bluff native Paul Perdue maintains an online treasure trove of historic photographs that often feature grand houses lost to fire, flood and indifference. Of the three perils, the last one is the most damaging. While we heartily applaud Perdue’s efforts to catalog our collective history, we sincerely hope his file of houses “now gone” doesn’t get much larger.

There’s good reason it shouldn’t. As above, these wonderful homes are often dirt cheap. More importantly, once embraced they serve as a magnet for migration. They tell the world that we are a special place that’s in touch with its roots — but that connection to the past is also a launching pad to the future. We know who we were and we know who we want to become.

All it takes is a little faith, a little paint, a few nails and unwavering hope. We have that in us; and if we make it sufficiently obvious, others will want to share in our spirit.