By KENNETH BRIDGES | For The Arkadelphian
People will often drive past or walk by an old building in their city without giving it a second thought. For some, an old building is such a constant fixture that they forget about the events that took place inside it or stop noticing the beauty and originality of the design. And for still others, an old building is an impediment to progress.
For Parker Westbrook, the past was worth treasuring and preserving.
Because of the work of Westbrook, many communities across Arkansas have rescued many historic buildings from the ravages of time and neglect and restored them to their original glory.
Westbrook was born in Nashville in Howard County in 1926. As a young man in the late 1940s, he went to work in Washington, DC, as an aide to U. S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. Caught up in the rich history of the nation’s capital and northern Virginia, he developed a deep love for the past. He developed an interest in preserving and restoring historical buildings.
In 1975, after Fulbright’s defeat, he returned to the state as an aide to Gov. David Pryor. He was named to the new State Review Board for Historic Preservation that year, where he would serve for the next 40 years. He would go on to serve on such state boards as the Main Street Arkansas Advisory Board, the Arkansas Museum Commission, the Arkansas State Capitol Association, and the Department of Arkansas Heritage.
For Westbrook, an achievement in architecture was not an impediment to progress. Historic buildings across the state were in disrepair or unique designs torn down to make way for faceless and bland modern designs. In the process, many communities and neighborhoods steadily lost their identity and connections to history. He worked with state officials and preservationists in communities across Arkansas to educate others about how old buildings could be repurposed for entirely modern needs.
Westbrook also volunteered for the Pioneer Washington Foundation, helping to restore the buildings in the historic Hempstead County community that had once served as a way station for pioneers heading west and briefly as the capital of Confederate Arkansas.
In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton tapped his expertise and named him as chairman of the National Parks Service Committee on National Historic Landmarks and as an advisor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Through these positions, Westbrook was able to spread his message of the importance of preservation across the country and help communities find new resources to preserve old landmarks and historic buildings.
One of his more curious legacies was in 2007 when he approached State Rep. Steve Harrelson of Texarkana about the proper, official spelling of the possessive form of Arkansas. Since the word “Arkansas” is singular, Westbrook reasoned, the proper possessive form must end with an apostrophe and the letter “s,” thus appearing as “Arkansas’s.” Harrelson sponsored the resolution, which was eventually passed and signed into law by Gov. Mike Beebe.
Still not content with Arkansas’s official position on spelling, Westbrook continued to encourage communities and organizations to preserve Arkansas’s historic buildings. With his help, Arkansas also established a tax credit system to help pay the cost of rehabilitation and repair of historic buildings.
Today, preservation tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry nationwide. Thousands of Americans trek across the country to connect with America’s past. Many communities in Arkansas emphasize their own historic sites and architecture to attract tourists, El Dorado, Camden, Washington, and Little Rock, to name but a few.
Westbrook died in 2015 at the age of 89, praised for his achievements in helping Arkansans remember their heritage.
Categories: News & History