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The Complete History of The Empress

The Hornibrook Mansion was completed in 1888 after approximately six years of construction. The architects, Kasper Kusner, & Max Orlopp, were reportedly family friends and also designed the spires and towers of the Pulaski County Court-house. It encompasses approximately 7200 sq. feet on the two main floors and had a wine cellar, laundry, food storage, and boiler room in the basement (according to the Arkansas Gazette). It originally cost $20,000 at a time when a normal dwelling would have run $2500-3500. The attic contained the infamous secret “tower room, “Mr. Hornibrook’s revenge on local society. Using all Arkansas materials, each main room of the downstairs had its own granite foundation. Five or six native woods were used in the ornate wainscot and parquet floors, including: oak, cherry, walnut, mahogany, cypress, and yellow pine. The house exhibits gothic and Queen Anne influences and an irregular floor plan of different shapes, i.e., octagonal, circle, & squares, and multiple building materials: rock, brick, stucco, wood, granite, limestone, quartz, crystal, etc. The vertical dimensions and round tower denote gothic influence. The two hundred feet of surrounding verandah, and variety of color in the window glass also denote Queen Anne influence. The house had steam heat, included six working fireplaces, and was piped with gas, as well as electric (the latest innovation, however unreliable.) Mr. Hornibrook, as Vice President of Edison Electric, reportedly added the very finest convenience, including an intercom system and three “indoor” water closets complete with tubs and running, hot water. An 8 ft. Sq. stained glass skylight added elegance and interest to the upstairs. The glass tower above stretches to the roof and is beautiful in it’s own right, even though it is obscured from view in the interior. Hornibrook and his family were not to enjoy his creation for long. At age 49, in 1890, Mr. Hornibrook succumbed to an “apoplectic” stroke at the front gate. Three years later Margaret died, leaving the estate to the children. Lessie Peay, their daughter, moved in with her husband to care for the younger Hornibrook children. In 1897, they leased it to the Arkansas Women’s College, the first in the state. Around the turn of the century, it was sold to Asbury S. Fowler an insurance agent and former federal marshal. It remained a private residence until after his death in 1922. Mrs. Fowler remained in the house until the depression forced her to move to smaller quarters. It was unoccupied until the 1940’s when it was used as a rooming house for women during W.W.II. Former residents tell of working in the munitions factory in Jacksonville and being courted by their “beaus” on the large verandah at night. In 1947, Claire Freeman who turned it into a nursing home purchased it. In the 1970’s, it was again sold as a private residence and eventually turned into a number of apartments and halfway house. In December of 1993, Sharon Welch-Blair and Robert Blair purchased it… and the Dream began.

In 1867, James H. Hornibrook & Margaret McCulley left family and friends in Canada and moved south to Little Rock, where, along with many other Northerners, they may have been perceived as “carpetbaggers”. During the occupation of the civil war, locals were not allowed to own weapons or enter certain business areas, saloons being one of them. With experience and backing from his merchant family in Toronto, Hornibrook soon became one of the wealthiest men in Arkansas. However, like Rhett Butler, he and his family were resented and not accepted by “polite Southern society” in post civil war Little Rock. His competitor, Angelo Marré, however, was awarded access to the fashionable “Scott Street” and there, completed a fine home, the Villa Marré’. Undaunted, Hornibrook, spurred by love for his wife, preceded to build the most expensive and ostentatious dwelling in the entire state. And to further flaunt society, legend has it he carried on a continuous poker game in the tower, where he paid young boys to be lookouts for the authorities. His poker game can be viewed in the tower as if he never left, and on occasional visits, his ghost reminds us he still has a “hand in the game.”

Bob and Sharon met and married in 1966, in the town they both called home, Jonesboro, Arkansas. Bob, finished college and landed the perfect “apprentice” position with Southwestern Bell and began climbing the corporate ladder. Sharon, after finding clerical work tedious, retired to raise a family and be the conventional Southern homemaker. Bob quickly ascended the rungs to become upper level management, moving every couple of years. With all this free time (after cleaning house, cooking meals, and taking care of two pre-school children, Stephen & Wendy), Sharon began to explore a lot of varied interests; cooking, gardening, decorating, tennis, decorative painting, sewing, selling Avon, and in the course of all this, discovered she absolutely loved history and old houses. Genealogy became a pass time. And then, in 1978, Bob got transferred to Basking Ridge, N.J. It cost a lot more to live in a new home in New Jersey. In the course of house hunting, Bob found the perfect house he knew Sharon would love (and they could afford), an 1890’s Victorian parsonage. And she did. The next eight years saw the children grow up; The Little Blue Toll House (decorative painting studio) became not only a hobby, but also a career for Sharon. But the heart of it revolved around a love for everything Victorian. This was a tough pill to swallow for a Math major that loved clean lines and Danish Modern. After eight years, Southwestern Bell beckoned Bob back to Arkansas to a position in depreciation and taxes. He pursued his dream to receive an MBA. And the move brought an end to Sharon’s painting business, but not her love of old homes. After much fuming and consternation, Sharon agreed to live in West Little Rock, but Bob agreed to build the most wonderful “old” Victorian house he could afford. It may still be seen at 13804 St. Charles- a Victorian in the heart of traditional West Little Rock. And a new career, in financial services for New York Life, kept Sharon very busy for the next eight years—-but the passion had only been buried, not died.

In August 1991, a friend from the Quapaw Quarter Historic District, drove Bob & Sharon by the Hornibrook Mansion. Sharon knew immediately it was the perfect house for a Bed & Breakfast. But the restoration looked like it would be completely out of reach. The whole idea was filed under “impossible, impractical, and unrealistic”. In June of 1993, a friend again called excitedly and said, “We’ve got to tour this house- it’s on the market!” Six months later, in December 1993, after months of negotiation, the Hornibrook Mansion belonged to Bob and Sharon. The first of several miracles was complete. Bob was totally engrossed in the prospect of renovating this “jewel” hidden under years of wall rearrangements, elevator additions, decorating modernization’s and substandard wiring and plumbing. Phase one consisted of demolishing all the extra walls, removing bathrooms, eliminating at least a two ton, two story elevator added in the 1940’s, a kitchen added on the 2nd floor and several apartments downstairs. It was amazing what they found as they pulled out sheet rock and got down to the original lath in some instances; doors and windows, long since forgotten; all the original hardware, still intact; virgin wood with no knots, and beautiful parquet floors under all the carpets. All but one mantel were original to the house, including the delicate hand painted tiles in the Master bedroom with the verse from Milton’s L’Allegro, lovingly created by Mary Leicaster Hornibrook Wagner, for her brother. At this point, in January 1994, the ghost first made its appearance, to Bob. As he stood in the midst of a dark dreary kitchen, ready to be demolished, an apparition of a handsomely dressed man in a dapper Hamburq hat descended the stairwell. His glance seemed to plead “Save this mansion”. A few months later, a cold rush of wind in the still closed up house brushed Bob as he stood in the foyer, again, as if to say, “Care about this house.”

In May 1994, with demolition complete, estimates were ready and restoration began. Working closely with the Arkansas Department of Historic Preservation and the Quapaw Quarter Historic District, the drawings were approved to bring the house back to the original floor plan, creating five bedrooms and a master suite, where originally there had been 3 large bedroom parlor suites, 3 bathrooms and 2 small bedrooms. The kitchen was restored to its original location, as well as the butler’s pantry. The back stairs, and cloak hall were reestablished and a 1/2 bath was added. Sidewalks were re-laid, granite anchored, fence leveled, trees removed, foundation tuck pointed, obsolete concrete structures from the 40’s removed from the back, and the rotted 200 ft. porch replaced with tongue and groove cypress, along with new balusters and railings. The triple corbelled chimneys were restored to original height and the 108 yr. old slate roof returned to a good state of repair.

In July it became evident that the original estimates for restoration were naive. As the financial commitment dawned on them, the bank added their own piece of financial realization by lowering their original commitment to 60% of the amount needed to complete the project. By October, despair turned to depression as all avenues were exhausted in the search for a bank willing to take the gamble they had already made. Christmas loomed bare and bleak. Then a Spunky lady with a major bank appeared, believed in what they were doing and proceeded, against all odds, to make it happen. This 2nd miracle occurred on December 28th, 1994. The passion was again rekindled and kept alive. This loan wouldn’t get the project finished, but it would get in them a permanent mortgage and moved into the house. Christmas Eve after eight months on the market, they started negotiating for the sale of their residence in West Little Rock.

They closed on their house in West Little Rock and moved into Hornibrook on March 13th, 1995. After five days of moving, life began to settle down, with amenities limited to one sink, two commodes, one shower, and awaking @ 7:00 a.m. each morning to painters and carpenters continuing to plod along. Living in dust and construction became a way of life, as did living by faith, one day at a time. The wolf had been kept from the door, but The Empress could still not be finished. They needed another major loan, and the appraisal wouldn’t support it. It looked as if there was no hope, when, again, a spunky young lady from another major bank entered the picture. Her enthusiasm and belief in the dream allowed miracle # 3, the completion of an SBA loan that would open the doors of The Empress, one day at a time, in His time, to which The Empress is dedicated. Miracle # 4 is you, our customers. We were told people wouldn’t spend much money to stay in a bed and breakfast in downtown Little Rock. Certainly, no one else was getting it. The calls from January to July, before we opened, brightened our Spirits and renewed our confidence. And we are dedicated to providing you with a special experience that we hope will not only leave you refreshed and focused but will bring you back again and again, to “the forgotten experience”.