The Story

The Empress finds its origins in 1 man and his dream of owning the the most prominent home of his day. Today it stands the test of time as an iconic and opulent residence, reflecting the architectural ambition of its era.

The Early Years

James H. Hornibrook, born in 1840 in Toronto, Canada, relocated to Little Rock with his wife, Margaret R. McCulley Hornibrook, and their children after the Civil War. The family faced tragedy early on with the loss of their son, Matt, at a young age. In 1868, Hornibrook entered into a business partnership with Miles Q. Townsend, a local saloonkeeper. For the next 22 years, they co-owned a saloon and liquor distributorship at 109-111 N. Main St., the future site of the Statehouse Convention Center. Their entrepreneurial efforts expanded in 1887 when they launched the Little Rock franchise of the Edison Electric Light Company.

By the late 1880s, Hornibrook's prosperous business endeavors had significantly increased his wealth, enabling him in 1888 to hire architects Max A. Orlopp, Jr., and Kasper Kusener to design an opulent residence on Little Rock's southern outskirts. The Arkansas Gazette highlighted the project on February 25, 1888, in an article titled “A Handsome Residence,” which detailed the plans for the Hornibrook House.

Promised to be completed within five months, the estate was boasted to be among the state's most splendid homes, featuring modern conveniences like steam heat and plumbing. A follow-up piece in the January 9, 1889, Gazette reaffirmed the house's construction timeline and cost, noting the Hornibrook House as a significant architectural addition to Little Rock in 1888, with its expense far surpassing that of most other buildings listed, further evidencing Hornibrook's substantial wealth.

In September 1889, James H. Hornibrook's eldest daughter, "Lessie," married Nicholas Peay at the grand Hornibrook House. The Arkansas Gazette reported the event, describing the venue as spacious and elegantly furnished, reflecting the family's wealth and sophisticated taste.

James Hornibrook's enjoyment of his newly built home was devastatingly brief. In the early hours of May 24, 1890, he was found lifeless just inside his front gate. The events leading to this sorrowful discovery were recounted in the May 25, 1890, issue of the Gazette, which detailed Hornibrook's final hours. After spending a pleasant day with his family, Hornibrook ventured downtown with his daughter, later visiting his saloon to socialize with friends. Around 3:00 a.m., he and three local residents, two being his employees, caught a streetcar from Main & Markham streets back towards his home. They alighted at 22nd & Main, each heading in different directions thereafter. Notably, one individual, on his way home, walked Hornibrook to his gate. Here, Hornibrook took out his keys, bid the man goodnight, and entered his property. Shortly after, he suffered a fatal event, presumed to be an apoplectic stroke, and collapsed. His body was found nearly three hours later, discovered by a young delivery boy who then alerted the household staff. Hornibrook's youngest daughter, Maggie, moved his body to the porch, but it was too late—he had died at the age of 49. 

After James Hornibrook's untimely death in 1890, his wife Margaret continued to live in their magnificent home until her own death in 1893, also at the age of 49. The Hornibrook legacy was carried on by their children, including their daughter Lessie and her husband Nick Peay, along with sons James and John. Both James H. Hornibrook and Margaret are laid to rest at Mt. Holly Cemetery.

In a notable transformation, the Hornibrook House became the Arkansas Women’s College in 1897, under the leadership of Rev. E. M. Pipkin. An 1899 Gazette article celebrated the institution for its esteemed patronage, high academic standards, and experienced faculty, declaring it a cornerstone of the state's educational and social community.

By 1900, Colonel Asbury S. Fowler and his wife, Rosa, acquired the property, marking the beginning of a long residency. Colonel Fowler, who worked for the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, also served as U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1902 to 1906. The Fowlers lived in the home until Colonel Fowler's death in 1922, with Mrs. Fowler moving out around 1930.

After a period of vacancy, the house served various purposes, including a rooming house during World War II. In 1947, Clare Freeman transformed it into a nursing home, a role it fulfilled until the late 1960s. The Browns purchased it in 1970, eventually turning it into a home for disabled adults and the elderly by 1973, where they lived and provided care.

Becoming the B&B and Today

The next chapter began in December 1993 when Bob Blair and Sharon Welch-Blair undertook a comprehensive restoration, reopening the Hornibrook House in 1995 as the Empress of Little Rock Bed & Breakfast. This historical gem now offers luxury accommodations, maintaining its legacy as a landmark of Little Rock's architectural and social history.

The current owners have masterfully continued and enhanced the tradition of hospitality that defines this historic property. With a deep appreciation for the house's storied past and architectural grandeur, they have undertaken significant efforts to ensure that every aspect of the bed and breakfast offers a high-level experience for guests. This commitment to excellence is evident in the complete refurbishment of the entire home, a project that was not only about restoration but also about creating a space that feels both expansive and authentic to the Hornibrook House's rich history and architectural integrity.

In their quest to honor the essence of the house, the owners have meticulously selected furnishings that reflect the period's style and elegance, effectively transporting guests back in time while providing modern comfort. This attention to detail ensures that every room tells a part of the home's vibrant story, allowing guests to experience a tangible connection to the past.

The success of the Empress of Little Rock  under their stewardship is a testament to their dedication to creating an unforgettable experience for those who stay there. Guests consistently praise the unique blend of historical authenticity and luxurious hospitality, making it a sought-after destination for travelers seeking a stay that is both memorable and meaningful. The owners' efforts have not only preserved a significant piece of Little Rock's heritage but have also ensured that the Hornibrook House remains a living, thriving testament to the city's rich history.