Eating an Elephant (Originally published Feb/March 1992.)

Eating an Elephant
McCoy taker Taborian Hall one bite at a time

By Linda Caillouet
The Chronicle – Historic Preservation News
Vol. 19, No. 1 – February-March 1992

eatinganelephant1992
The original article.

For the past two years Kerry Thompson-McCoy has watched the weather more closely than ever before.

The reason? A dilapidated old red brick building, sans roof, known as Taborian Hall, that she purchased two years ago for $20,000.

“I drove by there every day thinking, I’ve got to get this started, I’ve got to get going,” the 37-year-old North Little Rock native said. “I’d watch more glass come out of the windows and I’d watch more roof cave in…nobody knew the weather as well as I did.”

The elements took their toll on the historic Ninth Street building. The three-story, circa 1917 building suffered the most damage when the roof caved in during an ice storm two years ago. “It’s in terrible shape. “There’s no structural problems but a lot of interior damage,” McCoy said.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. “I saw it on TV and thought, “I’d love to own a building like that,” McCoy recalled.

Taborian Hall, also known as Taborian Temple, was originally building lIttle Rock’s black business district to serve as the home of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a black fraternal organization.

McCoy, the owner of Arkansas’ Flag and Banner, is renovating the building and will relocate her business there.

But when the estimated cost of the project rose from $100,000 to $150,000 McCoy started to lose hope.

“About that time I decided to just throw in the towel and forget about it. I had been working on it for years and got sick of it,” she recalled. “Then I’d go home and think, “Where else am I going to get a building like that for that price with that location?”

So after securing financing from Twin City Bank, she decided to stick with her original plan to consolidate her business’s warehouse and manufacturing departments on the first floor of the old building, situation next to Interstate 630. Her deadline for completion is March 1992.

The second and third floors will be boarded up. “We hope to grow up to it. As money becomes available, we’ll move all the way up to the top,” McCoy said.

And McCoy’s company, currently house in an 1890s Victorian cottage is on the upswing, doing business both nationally and internationally.

“I always saw Arkansas’ Flag and Banner in a red brick, artsy building where we could throw the windows open on a spring day. I just could not see us, as casual as we are and as creative as we are, working in an aluminum building, in cubicles and not being able to see out, and trying to be creative,” she said.

According to McCoy, the back of the building, to the north, was the original struction, built in the late 1800s. The side facing the interstate was added in 1971.

The most well known feature of Taborian Hall is the third-floor Dreamland Ballroom with its hot pink walls. In the ‘30s, some greats who graced the stage included Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Today the building’s interior paint is faded and peeling and some of the wall plaster is gone. It will all remain that way.

McCoy is planning a preservation rather than a restoration. “I’m leaving it all…all the exposed brick and chipping plaster. It will be a like a warehouse. It’ll be great. People will say ‘this must have been a great place when … “‘

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and McCoy says she had two choices: To leave it as she found it or return it to its original condition. “You can go back and actually replaster all the walls perfectly and take it back to the way it used to be, which is outrageous. You can’t afford to do that unless you’ve got $2 million.”

She may not have that kind of money to devote to Taborian Hall, but McCoy has lost her heart to it. “It’s got an energy to it. We went down there to celebrate the new year. You really get caught up in it.”

Even her conservative-minded financial manager, Charles Fisher, loves the building.

“You have to be over there to fall in love with it. I was not for this at first. I’m real conservative and look at everything in the company from the dollar’s point of view. But I knew that we had to move because our company was growing so fast. We needed a larger area. Once I got over there and got to looking at it, I kept thinking … Now I go over there every weekend and in the evenings,” Fisher aid.

And Fisher wasn’t the only one who second-guessed McCoy. “Everyone told me, when I bought the land, to just take my licks and run. I’m so glad I didn’t,” McCoy said, smiling. “They all said, ‘Go to an aluminum building … there’s no surprises. You can get one for $200,00.’”

“But I was thinking, ‘For 50,000 more, I could be in this building and the city is going to give me a $30,000) grant for the facade program.’ So for the same price, we can be in downtown Little Rock in a great old building.”

And she will be soon. Plans include adding a new roof and new third-floor joists and flooring, removing the mildew from the walls, doing plumbing and electrical work on the first floor, replacing broken windows, and repairing the tile hall floor.

“Every wall that wasn’t a load-bearing wall is rotted and falling down so we’re just taking them down. We’ll have all exposed conduit pipes, leave the ceiling rafters exposed, and stain all the wood dark,” McCoy said of the reconstruction.

A for the fixtures: Ceiling fans and hanging fluorescent lights, all easily removable, will be added. “In case we ever want to put in some nicer stuff. But any­thing’s an improvement over what was there.” McCoy said.

Despite the amount of work Taborian Hall needed, McCoy said she was never overwhelmed by the project.

“I think real methodically … step by step. It’s like eating an elephant; you just take it a bite at a time.”

McCoy seems to be a shrewd business­woman too.

“I kept thinking, ‘630, how many cars are driving by a day and can see our big sign out there? What free advertising. “‘

And it’s working. The business’s phone has been ringing off the wall.

“People call us and say. ‘I just wanted to thank you for doing that.’ Isn’t that nice?”

McCoy, who lives in Hillcrest in a 1930s home, is no stranger to downtown. As a single, she rented an apartment in an old house there. Today she ·hares her home with husband Grady and children, Meghan, 12, Gray, 4, and Matthew, I.

“My husband says he’ll kill me if l take him down the tubes with me. I told him we may have to live in it (Taborian Hall) if it doesn’t work out,” he said, smiling.

While today McCoy is cheered, not LOO long ago she was jeered by friends and family. “Everyday that’s all I heard. ‘When are you going to get that roof fixed?’ But now they’re starting to have a little more respect for us.”

Even co-workers teased her. Fisher recounted this tale: “I and someone else from the office were in Mississippi on business. We passed a building down there that was falling down and the roof was half burnt off. We said, ‘let’s stop and take a picture and see if Kerry wants to buy it.”‘

Now McCoy’· friends arc behind her  100 percent, something that is important to her. “If I was restoring a home, it would just be me, my husband and my kids going. ‘Isn’t this fun?’ But the way it is now, there’s a lot of people to share it with.”

Linda Caillouet is a writer for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette