Story and photos by Deborah Horn
Most of the architecture of the 1960s was concrete, stark, uninspiring and often ugly, but the Civic Center in Pine Bluff proved the exception. It’s tall and imposing, and its concrete walls and breezeways are softened by surrounding gardens filled with mature maples and crepe myrtle trees. A welcome change from the government business as usual; instead, it’s like an oasis in Pine Bluff’s downtown concrete jungle.
Not surprising, it was designed by internationally famed architect and Arkansas born Edward Durell Stone, who also designed the United States Embassy in New Delhi, the Gallery of Modern Art in New York City, N.Y., and the Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif.—just to name a few.
While working on the Civic Center (from 1963 until 1968), he won the International Design Award of Honor from the American Institute of Architects in 1967 for the building he designed for the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico.
The Civic Center is more than a single structure but a colonnaded complex of three structures located at 200 E. Eighth Ave., according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
Currently, it’s home to City Hall, Public Safety, and the Pine Bluff Public.
But that’s about to change with the construction of a new library.
Connecting to the past
Josh Whitehead is a big fan of the Civic Center.
The Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development Planning Director/Administrator, who is also a lawyer, operates “Tours by Josh Whitehead” website and one of the tours includes Stone’s structure.
He says there were a great many “badly designed buildings constructed in the 1960s…” But, he goes on to say, “The Pine Bluff Civic Center reflects the positive aspirations of the early 60s; the hopes, the promise of a prosperous tomorrow. The simple, vertical columns that hold up the breezeways throughout the complex surround graceful, horizontal planes that house various city departments.”
He continues, “In my opinion, one of the most architecturally striking buildings in all of the Arkansas Delta is the Pine Bluff Civic Center.”
Jarrod Gibson, a 10th grader at Pine Bluff High School, is manning the main checkout desk at the Pine Bluff Library. The main branch is part of the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Library System.
While growing up, he often visited the Ann Lightsey Children’s Library, located on the first floor of the library, a couple times a week. This summer he’s snagged an internship.
“I was always intrigued by the library,” and, he adds, his job is “pretty good.”
Like other employees, the thought of the library moving a few blocks away to the corner of Sixth Avenue and Main Street is “bittersweet,” he says.
Wanda Brule started working for the library 22 years ago after retiring from AT&T but isn’t sure she’ll transfer to the new place.
Instead, she may retire again but that doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm about the new digs the Pine Bluff and Jefferson County voters approved in 2016 in the form of a bond to finance it.
It could net as much as $13 million, and the planned library will be approximately 32,000 square feet and include an outdoor venue, coffee shops, and a computer room.
Construction of the new library is expected to begin in the fall of 2018, with a completion date in early 2020.
Brule says, “It’s going to be great.”
Planning for the future
Library Director Bobbie Morgan is also thrilled with the possibilities and says the new facility will take the library, established in 1913, into the future. In 1979, an Interlocal Agreement was established between the City of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County, creating the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Library System.
Its current location was suitable in the past but these days, it floods and their ability to integrate with new technology is limited.
The role of the library is changing and is no longer just a repository of books, it’s a place where people can connect with each other and to the world online, and, Morgan says. “This change will be reflected in the new library space…It’s a fascinating process.”
One day in June, Morgan spent the morning asking employees what they were going to miss about the old building. Some of the responses included: I’m going to miss going out into the courtyard; the view from my window; the Bradford pears; the Japanese Garden; it’s close to City Hall; and the murals, including Jack and the BeanStalk.
The employees “are excited but sad,” Morgan says.
Although Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington didn’t return any calls to SEA Life about the building’s future use, Ward 1 City Council Member Thelma Walker says she is not certain of the space’s fate but says, “It’s certainly going to be utilized.”