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The Ashley Mansion (3PU256)

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Numerous projects in urban archeology have been carried out in downtown Little Rock, including several small projects at the Arkansas Territorial Restoration (ATR) (3PU30), a variety of monitoring efforts at the Federal Arsenal grounds at MacArthur Park (3PU255), and major fieldwork by Randall Guendling at the Old State House (3PU313).

The excavated basement...click to enlarge
The excavated basement...click to enlarge

Redevelopment of Block 33 on East Markham Street into the Heritage Center complex of offices and shops, resulted in the emergency excavation of the Chester and Mary Ashley House, 3PU256. The Ashley family was prominent in legal, commercial and political circles from the 1820s to the 1860s. Their first house from the 1820s was enlarged into a famous columned brick mansion in the 1840s. Indeed, said one memoirist "...the mansion was the scene of many of the most brilliant social functions of the times. Guests were always welcome...". Another reported that "it was in that home that was long exercised a refined and generous hospitality that until some years ago was still remembered with pleasure and gratitude...".

After decades of reuse and decay, sometimes well documented in Sanborn Insurance maps, the house was torn down in the 1920s as part of an early episode of urban renewal. The west side of the house was destroyed in the construction of a two story basement under a six story building. However, the east half of the house was perfectly preserved as intact brick foundations under the concrete floor of a small warehouse, complete with the massive remains of three of the brick supports for the porch columns (visible at the corners of the porch foundation to the left), a basement fireplace with two window wells (at the top), and the basement entry hallway (to the right of the fireplace).

Society members at work
Arkansas Archeological Society members at work

Excavations at the Ashley site were conducted in two stages. The first and most extensive was in May, 1984. The major part of the crew were amateur archeologists with the Arkansas Archeological Society. The project was co-sponsored by the Arkansas Archeological Survey, the Arkansas Historic Preerservation Program, and the Arkansas Territorial Restoration. Great assistance was provided by Allison Moses and Redden, developers of the Heritage Center, and Robert East Construction Company, contractors for the redevelopment. Elements discovered and explored included brick foundation walls, basement rooms, the debris of four massive brick columns that had been pushed over and crashed through the house into the basement, and the largely-forgotten basement slave quarters for house slaves, not mentioned in any documents and remembered apparently only by one person whose account was not published until 1910. The elaborate rooms used by the Ashley family on the first and second floor of the house were gone except for fragments of plaster painted walls and moldings.

By 1910 the spectacular Ashley mansion had decayed into a disreputable boarding house in a grimy district of warehouses and smelly factories. Garbage from neighboring factories and restaurants was dumped into the basement creating a rich and deep trash midden. The garbage included some treasures revealing ordinary life, as well as providing interesting perspectives on the transformations of an urban neighborhood (Ernest 1994, 1997). The neighborhood has been further transformed in recent years into the Little Rock Riverfront convention and entertainment district, and the footprint of the Ashley basement fireplace and window wells have been preserved in the entrance foyer to the Heritage West building.

Excavated units
Excavated units in front of the Heritage West building

The second stage of archeological excavations took place in 1985 as part of construction of the ATR parking lot to the south of the Heritage West building. The area had once been a slough or even part of Town Creek, but was filled in through the first half of the 1800s to become a more formal part of the Ashley backyard. In the early 1900s a warehouse was built on top. The 1985 work was also a salvage, directed by Barbara Atkins with the ATR and assisted by Stewart-Abernathy. The crew was once again largely volunteers including Arkansas Archeological Society with help from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, ATR, and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program (McAlexander 1999).

Bibliography

Ernest, David M.
1994 "The Oakleaf Hotel: A Study of Urban Dynamics in Late 19th and Early 20th Century Little Rock, Arkansas". Master's thesis in Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR.

1997 "The Chester Ashley Mansion and Residence: Pattern Change in Downtown Little Rock, 1886-1939". Pulaski County Historical Review.

McAlexander, William E. Jr.
1999 "'A Man of Wealth and Elegance': A Look at the Life and Style of Chester Ashley and His Family in Early 19th Century Little Rock, Arkansas". Master's thesis in Public History, Department of History, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, AR.

Roy Sr., F. Hampton, Charles Witsell Jr., and Cheryl Griffith Nichols
1984 How We Lived: Little Rock as an American City. August House, Little Rock, AR.

Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C.
1984 "Ashley Mansion Site, Little Rock". in Newsletter of the Society for Historical Archaeology 17(3, October):31-32.

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Copyright 2001, Arkansas Archeological Survey, Revised - Summer 2007
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