VINTAGE POSTCARD: The Sam Peck’s modern wing, opened in 1941 and shown at top left, was designed by famed architect Edward D. Stone.

City Director Capi Peck, who also owns and operates Trio’s Restaurant with partner Brent Peterson, spoke at a “History is Served” meal at the Historic Arkansas Museum in the summer. The museum’s special meals combine cultural history with culinary history, and Peck embodies both. She’s the granddaughter of Sam Peck, who with his wife, Henryetta, moved to Little Rock in 1935 to run the Hotel Freiderica, which they soon purchased and renamed the Sam Peck Hotel, and its restaurant. (Before moving to Little Rock, the Pecks lived in Fayetteville, where they ran the Hotel Washington, owned by the Fulbright family and located on the southwest corner of the square.) The Hotel Sam Peck restaurant’s famous Bing Cherry Jell-O Mold lives on at Trio’s.

Peck shared a little history of the hotel, at 625 W. Capitol Ave., and her family at the dinner, reading excerpts of writings by her grandmother, Henryetta Peck, and her father, Robert Peck. The Arkansas Times’ own excerpts of those writings, along with a transcript from Harry Reasoner’s 1967 broadcast on the CBS program “Dimension,” were selected to provide a hint to what life in Little Rock and Fayetteville in the first half of the 20th century was like.

From Henryetta Peck, written around 1980:

The Washington Hotel was an old building, but when we came [in 1929], the Fulbrights made a lot of improvements and the rooms were good values at $1.50 and $2 a person. The $2 rooms were corner ones looking out to the beautiful Ozarks, and when someone would rent one of those, it was cause for excitement. If I happened to be on the desk, as I usually was in the morning, I would locate Sam at once and announce, “He took a $2 room!” A little later, when we decided to raise these rooms to $2.50, it gave us a lot of worry as we just didn’t know whether people would pay that much or not.

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During this period, we served a delicious dinner for 50 cents. Besides the regular fare, we always passed something extra, such as hot spoonbread or relishes. Occasionally someone would ask us to substitute a T-bone steak for the meat on the dinner and we usually did this, another proof of our ignorance but also our eagerness for good will.

Those depression days made permanent guests very desirable, and we were able to get a number of attractive people to live at the Washington. We would all have great fun and joke together. One of the women who could not afford a room with a bath always said that after a few weeks, she learned to turn over in the lavatory.

Helen Hurd was a single woman who lived with us and she was the most popular member of our little clique. At the time, the Veteran’s Hospital was being built in Fayetteville, and the workmen saved the day financially for us. …

Our beloved permanents, several of whom had a living room and a bedroom adjoining, always joked and said that whenever Sam had a new prospect he would move some of the furniture out of their rooms into the new tenant’s. This was done when we were preparing for the arrival of Henry Rudd, and thereby hangs another tale.

Arkansas, at this period, had a quick divorce law and attracted a number of people for this reason. One who caused the greatest excitement [called herself the] Princess Ami de Cherami, estranged wife of Prince Umberto, an Italian nobleman. The story went that the prince had kicked Ami down 106 steps, no more, no less, when she was pregnant. She was really a most glamorous young woman, although in those days glamorous was not a word in common usage. Without the title, she would have caused a hubbub, but with the title she was totally irresistible.

Saturday night we threw “shindigs” in our banquet room and called the room for this night only The Orchid Donkey. The princess was the star of the parties, and I am sure that we had to thank her for the big attendance we usually had.

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Shortly before her time was up, she asked me to take her to the post office for a package, which I gladly did. In the meantime, she’d confided in me that Mr. Henry Rudd, who had introduced dry ice on the market, would be arriving and that she would marry him the day her divorce became final. Well, the package turned out to be underwear she had ordered for her trousseau, but when I found that it was insured for $4,200, I could hardly deliver the princess and her package back to the apartment. …

Well, Mr. Rudd arrived, the wedding took place, the happy couple left and all of the permanents got their furniture back so they didn’t have to sit on their beds anymore.

From Robert Peck’s “Remembering Sam Peck,” unpublished, 1995, about the family, the hotel and the restaurant:

Trips around the country provided the inspiration for many of the innovative dishes Arkansans sampled at the hotel. For instance: Caesar salad, not an uncommon salad on today’s menus, but unknown to Arkansas in the early 1940s. Several years before the war, Mother and Dad traveled to California via train. … My parents stayed in the Bel-Air Hotel in Hollywood, where they first watched the waiter prepare Caesar salad at the table. Sam brought the idea back to Little Rock, and Arkansans tasted their first Caesar salad at the Freiderica. Contrary to the tastes of the day, the Caesar met with moderate success. Arkansans at the time preferred a salad of head lettuce with Thousand Island dressing or French dressing. Unlike the Peck’s Special Salad, a variation from another trip, which was met with immediate and immense popularity. Today, Capi carries on the Peck Salad tradition at her restaurant, Trio’s. … Incidentally, the Bel-Air inspired the fern-covered stone wall with its dripping water and fireplace in the hotel’s Terrace Room. …

Oh, about the name Freiderica. My parents had a lease-purchase agreement with Fred Allsopp, owner of the Arkansas Gazette [Allsopp was briefly a minority shareholder; he was its business manager for decades]. … His wife’s name was Freiderica. When the contract was paid in the mid 1940s, my father changed the name to the Sam Peck Hotel. …

The Garden Room lived three lives: one at the Freiderica, the Washington in Fayetteville, and my favorite, on Fourth and Main Street, the Peacock Room.

Emily Garwood sold the Peacock’s lease to Mother and Dad when she opened the famous Ole King Cole at Fifth and Broadway. The pre-Civil War building, red brick with long, narrow arched windows, also housed Dorothy Donelson Dance Studio up on the third floor. The structure often vibrated with those juvenile hoofers, registering low on the Richter Scale. … The Peacock was up a steep flight of stairs from the street: bright, airy, a space with high ceilings. Floors [were] painted brown splatter-dash and [there were] white enameled tables with legs of fluted columns and Chinese fretwork.

The Peacock enjoyed mid-day popularity. It was Mother’s responsibility; Dad kept the Freiderica going. Only open for lunch, the restaurant was unprofitable. …

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The Peacock’s significant landmark was a large octagonal sign some twelve to fifteen feet tall made of Tiffany glass that hung from stout iron chains in front of the old building. In vibrant colors strutted a peacock. My father gave the unusual sign away. It ended up in Washington, D.C., transformed into a garden gazebo. …

The hotel went through many remodelings, one of the most extensive being the forty-room addition, or annex, which Edward D. Stone designed. Luckily, the building was finished December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day and my dad’s birthday. What a splash the annex made! It was the only new and innovative construction in Little Rock for years.

For open house, my father coached me until I memorized my speech about the Finnish Alvar Aalto furniture: slick, bentwood birch, Scandinavian stuff never seen in Arkansas. Ed Stone and my father designed much of the other furniture of bleached birch with copper wire wound legs and topped in a dark blue Formica, a new product at that time. The annex was a sawtooth shape, each room on a south corner, from where our prevailing breezes blew. Important before the days of air conditioning! Now the Freiderica had 100 rooms! …

Ed stayed at the hotel with his mistress, Gwen Lux, the sculptor. She made a small terra cotta head of me and I fell in love with her. She did those terrific Shakespearean plaques in the Fine Arts Theater up in Fayetteville.

I’ll take you back now to Little Rock in the mid-thirties, then a community of less than 80,000. The South was stagnant with limited opportunity. Life was hard for many people and prospects poor until the war broke out in 1941.

One of the special landmarks was the Five Fifty Five building, also called 555. The monstrosity was a silver stucco building covering the entire block between Second and Third on Broadway. This Texaco station claimed to be the biggest filling station in the world. Two Model T Fords sat on the roof along with the Rainbow Garden, a dance place where I heard the famous trombonist Jack Teagarden. Of other curious note were two Sinclair Gas stations, shaped like mushrooms, that flanked the north and south ends of the State Capitol. Down on Markham, as the street reached Main, were a number of old brick buildings dating to the middle of the nineteenth century. Much of that part of town was a slum. …

Picture of the Hotel Freiderica in Little Rock

THE HOTEL FREIDERICA: The predecessor to the Sam Peck Hotel opened in 1914.

The hotel neighborhood was largely residential except for my school, Peabody Elementary [at Fifth and Gaines streets], directly across the street. The square bloc of playground surrounded another nineteenth century structure of granite, brick and stucco. …

Down the street a block was the Coca-Cola Bottling Company with its large plate glass windows. My friends and I were fascinated, almost mesmerized, watching the conveyor belt scour and fill the bottles. On special days we were invited to tour the plant and receive a free Coke. …

Many Peabody friends were undernourished. Each day I took a different boy to the hotel for lunch, for many the only square meal of the day.

Saturday afternoons, I’d ride the streetcar down to Main Street. They were breezy, swinging affairs that cost three cents to ride. … In the opposite direction and much further was Fair Park swimming pool. … In the same direction was the scary insane asylum, a collection of Gothic buildings on a knoll. …

The Central High crisis indirectly brought fame to the Sam Peck. During that time, news men from all over the country came to Little Rock, including Harry Reasoner. Reasoner stayed at the hotel. Several years later in a televised special about hotels, Reasoner stated at the end of his program that of all the places he had stayed through his travels his favorite was the Sam Peck. We got a lot of mileage from that.

Another way the hotel achieved local fame was the year, around 1956 or so, that Winthrop Rockefeller lived in the penthouse. …

Rockefeller had just gone through a messy divorce with Bobo. All the tabloids made a lot of it, and he was ready to get out of Dodge for the nondescript hinterlands. …

My father … reported “Win” loved the apartment. It was nicer than anything on Park Avenue and so on. The only thing that bothered him were the level changes, a tricky thing when you’re full of booze. Rockefeller had several crates of whiskey and fine wine delivered. The ABC nabbed him right away for not having the Arkansas Tax Revenue stamps and he ended up paying a large fine. …

From Harry Reasoner’s April 11, 1967, televised comments:

There are a lot of efficient and comfortable hotels and motels in the country now — it may be one area of most dramatic change and improvement in the United States since World War Two. But, there are only a few great ones — hotels with all the efficiency you need plus an indefinable personality. The Sam Peck is one of them, and I assume the credit was Sam’s. I remember one of my first stops there: I went down to the dining room for dinner and the special on the menu was Roast of Veal Financiere; I’m not knocking Arkansas when I say that’s not the item you expect to find in a dining room there. Furthermore, it was delicious. The waitress explained to me that every year when Mr. and Mrs. Peck come back from Europe, they worked out new daily French specials for the menu, and worked with the hotel chefs to make sure they would be right. That’s the way the hotel is run. …

Sam Peck died last week at 62. Hotel-keeping, in the old and splendid sense, obviously satisfied him, and he had a fine life. One nice thing about being a great hotel-keeper is that you build your monument before you die, whether or not it carries your name. I have no idea what the plans are now in the Peck family, but I know there must be hundreds of their former guests who hope the hotel stays the way it was. It’s the kind of place we all need.

***

The Pecks sold the hotel in 1972. There have been several owners since. The hotel, operating under the name Hotel Frederica, was closed in September after the recent owners, SHG Management LLC, failed to pay their state taxes.