The west end is the ‘Griffin’ end of Fort Smith
This family’s commitment to preservation projects is
reviving the historic gateway to downtown Fort Smith
Fort Smith founder John Rogers and the father-and-son team of Richard and Rick Griffin have a common bond: Almost two centuries apart, these early and current urban developers transformed the west end of Garrison Avenue.
What Rogers envisioned when he arrived in 1822 was a plan for a thriving town to rise next to the first military Fort Smith, established in 1817 by the Army.
What the Griffins have accomplished in the present is the restoration of numerous historic downtown buildings, in a manner very like John Rogers' drive to recruit and cheer-lead for long-lasting residents, prosperous commerce and constant growth.
With the completion of 400-411 Garrison Avenue’s Breezeway Apartments and Garrison Pointe West, the ground floor’s commercial space, the Griffins have now revitalized the entire 400 block. Prior to this project, Griffin Properties’ development division built the Garrison Pointe convenience store. Adjacent to the store building, which was carefully designed to blend with downtown’s architectural styles, is the St. Charles Building, offices the Griffins updated.
At 318 Garrison is the historic 1885 Adelaide Hall building, a renovation completed more than 20 years ago by the Griffins and in continuous use since as a successful restaurant, now as Bricktown Brewery. On the same side of the street as the Breezeway at the Griffin-renovated 307 Garrison building is the retail business Creative Kitchen and above it, four luxury apartments. The single-story, early 20th century store building at 305 Garrison is presently home to a boutique and around the corner at 14 North 3rd Street are spacious upstairs apartments. Downstairs are the offices of the U.S. Marshals Museum. There are other Griffin buildings on Rogers Avenue.
Rick Griffin, who has an easygoing grin for a businessman who has invested so much in surely-not-a-quick-buck renovations, will say “financially, it may not have been the greatest idea”?to take on so much of the family’s hometown landmarks, “but it is a passion project.”
The main focus of Griffin Construction is the building of upscale nursing homes, mostly in Texas. The design, engineering and construction work the company has done on old Fort Smith buildings is utterly different. The firm’s deep bench of construction professionals has conquered challenges mounted by the effects of time, weather and gravity to these 19th- and early 20th-century structures – and had to invent solutions. The buildings of 400-411 had to be steel-reinforced extensively for structural integrity, but now may last another century.
With a deep interest in Fort Smith history, the Griffins have been consistent in restoring, as faithfully as possible, the original appearance of the properties they’ve tackled. As long ago as 1996, Richard Griffin preserved only the facade of the Reynolds-Davis Wholesale Grocery building at 300 Garrison, after the rest of the building was destroyed in the horrendously destructive April 21 tornado.
The Breezeway is named for a ground floor dogtrot area.
“We shelled out the center for a cool space and a wow factor,”?Rick explained. With custom iron gates at the Garrison entrance, the Breezeway has an outdoor kitchen, with a gas grill and stacked-stone fireplace at the rear. Residents use it and it may be rented for private events.
They commissioned historical researcher Joe Wasson to select a series of original photos of Garrison Avenue scenes to be hung in the space. Similar historic images can be seen at Garrison Pointe’s avenue exposure.
On the west-facing exterior wall above the oldest building of the block, a one-story, 1879 stone building at 400 Garrison, the Griffins, Wasson and Derek Maxey collaborated to install a spectacular 9x60-foot enlargement of the panoramic photograph of the 1908 reunion of U.S. Marshals deputies, an iconic Fort Smith image. It is visible from cars crossing over the Arkansas River from Oklahoma.
The Griffins chose the image for its historic relevance and to support the future U.S. Marshals Museum. Wasson was tasked with obtaining permission to use the image from the descendants of James Elbert Emmert, one of the deputies pictured. The Emmert family had donated the original photograph to several historical archives. Derek Maxey of Maxey Signs & Neon researched the innovative method used to produce the sharp, high-resolution image, essentially a huge, inkjet-printed vinyl decal applied to aluminum panels, printed by PAC Printers of Van Buren.
Wasson also had the fun assignment to call two descendants, cousins John and Paul Emmert of Talihina, Okla., to come to Fort Smith to survey the installed image. He describes both as serious fellows.
“One of the cousins never gives anything away with his expression,” Wasson said. “But if you watch John closely, the corner of his mouth turned up just a little bit. That’s when we knew they were very pleased.”
Besides the work on their massive downtown buildings, Richard and Rick Griffin have served on the Central Business Improvement District, have contributed generously to the Marshal’s Museum and numerous other efforts. A few years ago they teamed with Wasson and group of donors to create and place 12 bronze historical markers downtown that picture and deliver historical information – on the plaques and also, through a scannable QR?digital code, online, in linked multimedia videos.
One of the plaques, found on North 2nd Street in the west end, of course, is about John Rogers.
– By Lynn Wasson
This story appears in the October 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.