“We shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us,” were the thoughts of Winston Churchill on the importance of architecture in a community. One architect’s imagination can shape a community. Architect Eugene Stern enjoyed a career that created many familiar sites across the state. In the process, one immigrant’s vision transformed the architectural landscape of Arkansas, creating some of the most iconic buildings standing in many communities across the state.
Eugene John Stern was born in October 1884 in Budapest in what was then Austria-Hungary. In late August 1888, the family undertook the long trek to America. His family was one of millions of Europeans leaving behind everything they knew for the promise of a better life in the United States.
Though coming from a modest Jewish background, the Sterns soon found success in their new country. Their father, Jacob, became an insurance agent and was able to provide private tutors for his six children.
Eugene Stern attended the Mechanics Institute in New York from 1900 to 1904 studying architecture. He formed a brief partnership with another architect in New York, which lasted from 1907 to 1908. Stern married in 1908, and his son, Howard, later became a noted physician and photographer in Little Rock.
His younger brother, Sydney Stern, became a noted commercial artist and advertising executive for Nabisco in New York City. In fact, he was responsible for the packaging design for Nabisco’s Barnum’s Animal Crackers in 1923 and the name and logo for Ritz Crackers in 1934.
In 1908, Stern moved to North Carolina where he became a partner in a noted firm with Oliver Wheeler. Wheeler, himself an immigrant, had developed a respected name for his work designing classical-style courthouses throughout the Carolinas. The two reportedly had a very amiable partnership, and Wheeler’s experience helped Stern grow as an architect. The firm of Wheeler and Stern operated through 1913 until Stern left for Arkansas.
Stern formed a partnership with George Mann, the architect for the Arkansas State Capitol. The partnership produced many impressive structures across Arkansas as well as hotels in Texas and Louisiana. Two early structures the firm designed included the Arkansas Bank and Trust Building in Newport in 1913 and the Riceland Hotel in Stuttgart in 1919. The firm also designed the spacious Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs in 1924, which was rebuilt and expanded after a fire. The hotel became a favorite for celebrities who vacationed in the city for many years.
The South Arkansas Oil Boom generated a great deal of wealth for El Dorado, and civic leaders looked to Mann and Stern to design new buildings for the new image of the growing city. In 1926, the firm designed what became known as the Exchange Bank building. The nine-story limestone building is the tallest in the city with colorful, decorative designs lining the top and an exterior limestone staircase that acts as a fire escape. For years, the building was the headquarters of Lion Oil and now houses First Financial Bank. The firm also designed a new county courthouse, which was completed in 1927 in El Dorado’s downtown square. A new city hall was completed at a cost of $125,000 (or about $1.8 million in 2018 dollars). All three limestone structures are within just a couple blocks of one another.
In 1927, Mann and Stern was awarded the ambitious project of designing the new Little Rock High School. It was to become the largest high school in the state. At $1.5 million (or $21.7 million in 2018 dollars), it was the most expensive school building ever built in Arkansas. The sprawling, Gothic Revival-style building was four stories high and immediately became a landmark. Community leaders envisioned the ornate high school as a symbol of the progress Arkansas had made and its vision for industrialization and technological development for the state in post-World War I America. When it was dedicated, some 20,000 people attended. It became known as Little Rock Central High School in 1953 and most notoriously gained national attention as the epicenter of the desegregation crisis in 1957 as nine African-American students attempted to attend. Today, the building still functions as a high school and guided tours are offered by the National Parks Service during school hours.
In spite of their many successes, by 1928, Stern’s partnership with Mann had unraveled. Stern, however, continued to develop projects across the state, including the YMCA building in downtown Little Rock in 1928. In 1929, Stern designed the Albert Pike Hotel in Little Rock. His practice expanded to include an office in Kansas City, Missouri, by the 1930s.
By 1951, Stern had largely retired from his work as an architect. He remarried following the divorce from his first wife and spent several years living in Mexico, doing the occasional architectural work.
Stern died in Little Rock in August 1961 at age 76. In the decades that followed, more than a dozen buildings he and his partners designed across Arkansas were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, forever enshrining their statuses as landmarks.