Old South Restaurant

The Old South Restaurant, located at 1330 East Main Street in Russellville (Pope County), was built in 1947 from a modular diner system and reflects the Art Moderne style of architecture. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 3, 1999. The building was destroyed by fire early in the morning of June 6, 2023.

William Stell—a native of Hugo, Oklahoma—moved to Fort Smith (Sebastian County) in 1929 and founded the National Glass and Manufacturing Company, a firm that produced metalwork, fixtures, and furniture for department stores and restaurants. In the 1940s, Stell and company architect Glenn Pendergrass developed a modular diner system that the firm could mass produce. The prototype was constructed in Fort Smith around 1945 and was managed by R. C. Strub, who had worked at Schwab’s in New York City.

The developers chose the sleek, stylish Art Moderne style for their modular restaurants. The buildings were covered in porcelain-clad aluminum panels and had the horizontal emphasis that defines the Art Moderne, and were augmented by bands of fixed windows and strips of neon lights that accent the structures.

In 1947, Russellville restaurateur Woody Mays, who owned Woody’s Classic Inn and Coffee Shop, ordered an Old South Diner package. It took only six days to construct the modular restaurant, and it opened for business on April 4, 1947. The National Register nomination observes that “when it was constructed, the Old South Restaurant was located on an undeveloped stretch of Arkansas Highway #64, at that time the main travel route from Tennessee to Oklahoma. The diner quickly became an oasis for hungry and weary travelers, providing good food and a place to relax twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” Elvis Presley was known to visit the diner when passing through the area.

The Old South Restaurant remained popular, having survived tax troubles in 2013 that saw the state close it for several days because of non-payment until a citywide yard sale was held to pay the taxes on the iconic eatery. Dale Summitt and his son, Zach, purchased the Old South a year later and kept it running, though they ended the seven-day-a-week schedule so employees could attend church on Sunday.

“Today, the Old South Restaurant looks virtually the same on the exterior and interior as it did when constructed in 1947,” according to the National Register nomination. “Its streamlined design, rounded windows, metal skin, neon lights, aluminum fixtures, and padded booths typify its Art Moderne design. Even the menu offers many of the same items that were originally served, including the famous cream soups and salad dressing developed by R. C. Strub for the prototype Old South in Fort Smith.”

Early in the morning of June 6, 2023, the restaurant suffered a fire that destroyed much of the structure, leaving only the exterior walls standing. On July 29, 2023, it was announced that the business had bought the old Dixie Cafe location to be the new site of the Old South Restaurant. The restaurant reopened in its new location on October 18, 2023.

For additional information:
Bowden, Bill. “Historic Eatery Destroyed by Blaze.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 7, 2023, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/jun/07/russellvilles-old-south-restaurant-destroyed-by/ (accessed June 7, 2023).

Cottingham, Jan. “The Same, But Better, at Old South Restaurant.” Arkansas Business, December 6, 2021. Online at https://www.arkansasbusiness.com/article/138196/the-same-but-better-at-old-south-restaurant (accessed April 12, 2022).

Jeffrey, Randy. “Old South Restaurant.” National Register of Historic Places registration form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at https://www.arkansasheritage.com/docs/default-source/national-registry/pp0371-pdf.pdf?sfvrsn=f6497e2d_0 (accessed April 12, 2022).

Old South Restaurant. https://oldsouthrestaurant.net/ (accessed April 12, 2022).

Robinson, Kat. Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley. Charleston, SC: American Palate, 2013.

———. “We Have Lost the Old South.” Arkansas Times, June 6, 2023. https://arktimes.com/eat-arkansas/2023/06/06/we-have-lost-the-old-south (accessed June 6, 2023).

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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