April 1, 2014

CityLove: Little Rock According to Local Preservationist Jennifer Carman

  • By: Grant Stevens

Jennifer Carman, president of J. Carman, Inc., founded the Facebook page Stop the Demolitions, Little Rock in 2013, which seeks to explore constructive and viable alternatives to the destruction of neglected and abandoned structures.

As part of the CityLove Blog series, we wanted to highlight a local leader -- someone who is in the city, living the preservation-minded life. For this month’s city of Little Rock, we spoke with Jennifer Carman, the president of J. Carman, Inc., a fine art advisory and appraisal firm.

For historic preservation/placemaking/urban planning fans, what are the must-see places in Little Rock for a first-time visitor?

My top picks would include a visit to Little Rock Central High School, a tour of the Historic Quapaw Quarter, and a stroll through areas of commercial regeneration such as the famous River Market or SoMa District. The common trait of all these places is that they are all deeply rooted in the history and conscience of our city, but have each taken on new life and possibilities as subsequent generations of Arkansans have reinvented them.

The Historic Arkansas Museum is Jennifer’s favorite place in Little Rock. She describes it as “…ground zero for the intersection of my two loves: the connoisseurship of fine and decorative arts and historic preservation."

We are big fans of Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoir Project. What are your six words about Little Rock?

Can I have two "six words" about Little Rock?
#1: A community of warmth and hospitality.
#2 A city nestled in a forest.

Tell us about your house. What made you decide to move there?

I purchased my 1912 American Foursquare home in 2004. On a whim, I decided to drive over to see if any of those historic houses over by the fairgrounds were for sale. I was heartbroken to see that so many of the homes had fallen into disrepair, and I simply felt compelled to do something about it.

The house had been vacant for over 20 years, and was in need of significant TLC. For the first several years I lived without any modern conveniences. No central heat or air, no kitchen, and no shower. Just the original clawfoot bathtub. After a multi-year rehabilitation, I was able to bring my dream home into the 21st century in time for its 100th birthday.

2312 S. Summit Street sat burnt out and vacant for eight years, with caved-in floors and substantial fire damage. Demolition was imminent, but fortunately, Carman and her business partner Donna Thomas were able to purchase the property in time to save it.

You’ve bought and rehabbed how many homes now? What keeps you going back?

After completing the transformation of my own house in 2009, I remained devoted to the notion that vacant and neglected properties in our downtown deserve a second chance. A shot at meeting a family rather than a bulldozer. In 2010, I encouraged my dear friend Donna Thomas to take a chance and work with me to rehabilitate other vacant homes in the area. In the past few years we have collaborated on multiple projects, with me acting as a designer/administrator and Donna acting as an project manager/contractor. This year we expect to finish our 10th project.

If you had asked me 10 years ago why I thought these sorts of preservation projects were important, I might have waxed poetic about architectural styles and beautification and cultural heritage. Today, however, I will tell you that my dedication stems from seeing firsthand the positive changes that rehabilitation can spark within a city or a neighborhood, or even a single residential block. Ultimately, I’ve learned that preservation isn’t really about improving buildings. It’s about improving lives and nurturing communities.

What has been the biggest challenge you have had when working with historic buildings?

Ironically, our biggest challenge doesn’t seem to be the problems inherent with the needs of long-neglected buildings, but rather the frustrations and heartache elicited by the many buildings that run out of time before we can get to them. Unfortunately, many structures face city-ordered demolition, despite community efforts to encourage alternatives.

I think we choose these difficult properties because it’s an earnest way to send the message that this can be done, that it is important, and that it is worth doing. I cherish the thought that in some small way our work might inspire others to undertake similar projects.

Located within the MacArthur Park Historic District, the 1874 Mandelbaum-Pfeifer House at 908 Scott St. will soon be the offices of J. Carman, Inc.

What upcoming project are you most excited about?

I am beside myself with joy over my recent acquisition of the Mandelbaum-Pfeifer House, an 1874 Italianate gem in the heart of Little Rock’s downtown. This once-magnificent single-family home has faced a number of major alterations in the past 140 years. Of most regrets are the loss of its front porch and its haphazard division into six apartments units.

Over the course of the coming year, I will rehabilitate the structure as a tax credit project, hopefully returning the exterior to its former glory. I intend to convert the main structure into my art advisory offices and library, while rehabilitating a two-story add-on at the rear into two apartment units. I look forward to beginning work this spring.

Grant is proud to be from a Main Street Community and the Black Dirt Capitol of the World—Conrad, Iowa! You can most often find him reading, running, or out on the road saving places.


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