Turn of the Century Architect - One man designed city's most notable buildings Northwest Arkansas Morning News (now the NWA Democrat Gazette) May 25, 1986
Albert Oscar Clarke designed most of the early Rogers public buildings and many residences which, quoting a 1916 newspaper article, "will stand for years as monuments in honor to a man with a mastermind, a discerning eye and a love for the beautiful."
From 1904 until his death in 1935, he was the leading - and for most of the period, the only - architect in Northwest Arkansas. From his office in Rogers, he also designed important structures in Bentonville, Eureka Springs, Clarksville, Missouri and Kansas, as well as other parts of the country and in Cuba.
Clarke was born in Medina, N.Y., May 23, 1858, the son of Martha and Edgar Clarke, a prominent Presbyterian minister. Although almost all of his education was handled by his parents, he was considered a highly educated man. In 1882, at age 23, he had already established himself as a partner in the firm of Matthews and Clarke in St. Louis.
At this time, it was not unusual for an architectural education to be developed through experience, personal study and correspondence courses. Architects relied upon publications that provided designs, details and specifications for structures in an interminable listing of styles. It was left to the architec to make, in consultation with the client, his own interpretation, predicated upon available materials, budget and local trade skills.
After 23 years in the St. Louis office as a designer of public buildings, Clarke moved to Rogers in 1904 to open a second office. In an April 1904 meeting, an organization known as the Monte Ne Club and Cottage Company (made up of stockholders from Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville, Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago) announced plans to build a new hotel and clubhouse that would stand on the hill west of the former Hotel Monte Ne, just above Grotto Spring.
A newspaper article at the time stated: "The hotel is to be three stories high and built of cement, with stone trimming. The hotel will have something like 100 rooms. In addition to the hotel, the company contemplated the erection of a clubhouse and a number of cottages." The company's capitol stock was held to be $250,00. The architectural firm of Matthews and Clarke was commissioned to prepare designs and drawing for the new buildings.
It was this commission that first brought Clarke to the area and he stayed to more closely supervise the construction. By fall of 1905, construction of Missouri Row (the clubhouse) was nearly complete. Construction on the three-story hotel was delayed and never completed, due to a labor strike that developed over wage rates.
Clarke married Grace Emma Brownlee on Sept. 22, 1888. At 30, she was the oldest of eight children. The Clarkes had no children, but had frequent summer parties for the children of their neighborhood in southeast Rogers. Mrs. Clarke was the great-aunt of Mrs. Eugene Eason of South Carolina who recalls gifts to her and her brother of an oboe and a piccolo, which reflected the Clarkes' love of music and culture.
A 1924 news item mentions plans for the first National Music Week recognized in Rogers. Mrs. Clarke was a member of the planning committee that gave special attention to music in the schools and churches and at Sunday "community sings" at Campus Park. The Women's Progressive Club was an important early organization in Rogers. In a 1924 article noting the club's accomplishments: "Two things stand out more conspicuously than all the rest. The interest and active work in the public schools in which Mrs. A. O. Clarke has been chairman for many years. Not only has she made Campus Park the thing of beauty it is today, but she has been the chief means of transforming the city of Rogers into the splendid, clean, sanitary abiding place of more than 4,000 people. By her example, she has dozens of yards grassed down and flower beds planted. She has made garden week popular; in every section of the city may be found shrubs and waste places planted to flowers where a few years ago only weeds and tin cans found a safe harbor. Today, the beautiful amphitheatre (of the Apple Blossom pageant) has been given a setting inferior to none and has been made possible by her almost superhuman efforts."
A surviving 1920s brochure of the Community Club, provided by Betty Lynn and Mary Sue Reagan, shows Campus Park (now Elmwood, [and later Frank Tillery Elementary]) as a lovely garden of flowers, hedges and benches. A caption states: "Probably at no place in the temperature zone do flowers and shrubs reach a higher state of perfection or permit of more variety than in this locality."
Among A. O. Clarke's first commissions in Rogers were the J. E. Applegate Drugstore and the adjacent Bank of Rogers - both now on the National Register of Historic Places - and a building for the Rogers Wholesale Grocery Company. These buildings - and most of the landmark structures in Rogers - utilized the craftsmanship of the Matthew brothers as brickmasons and John B. Myler and his step-father, C. R. Crowe, as stonemasons and contractors.
John, Zeke, and Frank Matthew were union brickmasons who served a learning apprenticeship that lasted three years. John's son, Leonard Sr. - who also raised sons who were Rogers brickmasons - still lives in Rogers recalls the early building days when brick would sometimes be made on the building site, but was usually pressed and baked in brickyards in the area. These brickyards included the Old Barnett kiln which was located on North Second Street and another plant which was located near the current Tyson plant.
There was a 6-foot-square mud mill two feet above the ground that had wooden paddles to stir the mixture. A mule would walk around to turn the paddles. When a young boy, Leonard would ride the mule. There was an opening in the bottom of the box where the mixture would be put in six molds for bricks. They would then be set out in the sun and later stacked in round kilns fired with wood and then coded for two weeks. Bricks used for later Rogers construction included Coffeyville and St. Louis dry-pressed buttered joining bricks and Acme bricks from Fort Smith.
Most of the stone for foundations was quarried from limestone in the lower bluffs on the west side of what is now Lake Atalanta. Cement was too expensive in the early days of construction because it was shipped from England. Bricks and stones were laid with sand and lime mortar. Sand came from the White River; timber from the nearby forests. Marble came by railroad from St. Louis and granite from Indiana.
Other notable buildings designed by Clarke in Rogers are the Poplar Plaza, the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, the early Baptist and First Christian churches - both no longer standing - Victory Theater, and the Juhre, Applegate, Felker, Callison, Duty and Butcher residences.
In Bentonville, two of his buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places: The Massey Hotel (restored as the Bentonville Public Library and an office building [and again restored for other purposes in the early 2000s]) and the Benton County National Bank Building (now Bentonville City Hall [as of the original writing of this article]). He was also the architect for the Benton County Courthouse, the old Benton County Jail and Sunset Hotel in Bella Vista.
Clarke's professional reputation grew while he was in Rogers and he was commissioned to design buildings in other parts of the state and beyond its boundaries.
In Clarksville at the College of the Ozarks, Clarke designed Science Hall (Now Hurie Hall) in 1922. It was built at a cost of $120,000, including equipment. The gymnasium there was, at the time, considered one of the best in the state. In 1926, he designed the Men's Dormitory (now called MacLean Hall) built at a cost of more than $150,000 with most of the labor furnished by the male students. In 1910, he designed Grove Hall, the women's dormitory (now called Mabee Apartments). In 1932, he designed Munger Memorial Chapel of which was written: "The cleaness and originality of arrangement has attracted the attention of architects everywhere."
In Eureka Springs, Clarke was the architect for the Commodore Theatre (1923), Penn Memorial Baptist Church (1916) on Spring Street and the Municipal Auditorium (1928). The First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburg, KS., (1909) and the New Bethany Presbyterian Church in Joplin, MO., (1925) are among many other notable Clarke buildings.
The fees paid an architect during this period varied, depending on the services rendered. An architect might have provided only plans and drafting services or full services, including construction supervision. On one $44,000 church, Clarke received $700, or less than 2 percent. (A standard fee for full services today is 8 percent for churches and 10 percent for residences.)
Leonard Matthew Sr. recalls Clarke traveling by train to Clarksville to approve brick for one of his projects. This sample was approved, but another brickmason's account survives of a sample he didn't approve - he pushed over the partially constructed wall.
A newspaper article by Erwin Funk noted weekly visits, in the company of Oliver Mulvey, to oversee construction of the Benton County Courthouse. And a 1924 article mentions Clarke "superintendending" the remodeling of the Methodist Church of Eureka Springs.
Grace Smith Gray, who is 90 and now living in Missouri, worked as Clarke's secretary during winters in the 1920s. She took dictation of his specifications for builders and typed them. She remembers his as modest, smart, witty, well-liked and generous.
A. O. Clarke was a charter member of the Rogers Rotary Club, where, according to a newspaper article, he served "in a most retiring manner. On different occasions, he had been offered the presidency of the club, which claimed his greatest outside interest, but always refused, claiming with characteristic modesty that there were others who could serve the club better. He attended 610 consecutive meetings - a record equaled by fewer than six men in the world and interrupted only by his fatal illness. His quiet dignity and modesty that characterized his work in Rotary was merely the expression of the man, for in every activity of life the same traits were apparent. In every civic movement, Mr. Clarke took a deep and unselfish interest, giving freely of his time and talent to anything designed for the progress, beautification or cultural advancement of the community of which he was such a vital part."
In their later years, the Clarkes traveled frequently. A 1933 Christmas greeting address to friends recalls in eloquent and poetic words descriptions of scenery and nature on the Clarkes' western tour. On Aug. 28, 1935, A. O. Clarke died at his home in Rogers and was was buried in the Rogers Cemetery. Grace Emma retired in 1940 to a PEO home in Beatrice, Neb., where she died and was buried in 1949.
(This article was written with information and assistance from Cyrus A. Sutherland of the University of Arkansas and his student, Mark Cahoon; also Betty Lynn and Mary Sue Reagan, Mrs. Eugene G. Eason, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Matthew Sr., Gordon Bradford, Oma Scott, Dorothy Bryant Smith, Marianne Woods and Arva Goodwin of the Rogers Historical Museum, Edith Erickson, Grace Smith Gray, Helen Applegate, Opal Duty, Vera Key and John Mack.)