Arkansas's resident genius: Architect Fay Jones 

Arkansan's work reconciles man and nature.

click to enlarge Thorncrown Chapel image
  • Thorncrown Chapel

FAYETTEVILLE — E. Fay Jones just turned 80. He walks slowly, goes out rarely. "If I'd known I was going to get old, I would have done it better," he says as he moves to the car that will take him and his wife, Gus, to one of their favorite Fayetteville restaurants for lunch.

"It" is left unidentified. Jones can't mean his work, because he's considered among the top architects of the 20th century. Last year, members of the American Institute of Architects were asked to vote for their favorite buildings of the century. Jones's Thorncrown Chapel near Eureka Springs came in at No. 4.

Although the AIA noted that the survey was unscientific, Jones's achievement is monumental, though — in the kind of paradox Jones appreciates — his work itself has been on an intimate scale. The 20th century saw the building of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, the Chrysler Building by William Van Alen, the Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, the Guggenheim Museum (also by Wright) and Maya Lin's great marble slash in the earth that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Jones is known for his chapels and houses.

The "it" that he'd have done better can't mean his life. He and his wife have been a loving team for 58 years, one of his two daughters once admitted to him she'd been sorely disappointed to find that not all men were like her father, and his friends are a loyal and protective legion. Not only is Jones one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, he may stand as one of the best loved and most respected. Love is not something that architects, a notoriously egotistic bunch, always inspire.

"It" must mean simply growing old, the natural scheme devised by the natural world that has infused Jones's work. And "it" waits for all of us fated to stay a while.

Physical frailty caused by heart problems hasn't extinguished his enthusiasm for architecture, which he calls the "mother of the arts." It hasn't extinguished his sense of humor or brilliance or integrity. When he speaks his blue eyes lock onto those of an interviewer and rarely look away.

Time and its consequences haven't extinguished his gentility. As friend Roy Reed mentions and a reporter notices, when Jones disagrees with a statement, he doesn't bother to utter disapproval; he simply grows silent. In conversation as in construction, Jones is a master of restraint.

John Womack, a former student and colleague of Jones, says Jones's gentility is sometimes misconstrued as humility.

"He's a very kind and generous person, but he was also a fighter and could be a damn tough cookie whenever it was necessary," says Womack, now an associate professor at Oklahoma State University. "You don't get beautiful things built by being careless or indifferent."

As an architect, Jones, who retired three years ago, has paid nature tribute, using stone and wood, orienting his buildings to conform to their sites, opening them up to the outdoors. He and his wife still live in the first house he ever designed, its interior entry dominated by a moss-covered boulder jutting from the earth.

He mostly has stayed where he was put — in Arkansas. Here he has worked not just as an architect, but as professor at and later dean of the University of Arkansas's School of Architecture.

He may be the state's greatest artist. He is of Arkansas in a few way Arkansas artists have been, yet his work has reached beyond the state to become world-renowned.

And the way Jones did that may be his biggest achievement, one of character as much as art. His work will endure because it embodies a paradox. He has made architecture for the confident, for those open to the natural world and unafraid of its terrors — the greatest of which is death. At the same time his work embodies a spirituality that appeals to the troubled and frightened. Its beauty evokes a serenity that holds out the hope of transcendence.

E. Fay Jones did all this by staying true to himself.

Being born

Many stories have been written about Jones and his work during his long life. The stories proliferated after the success of Thorncrown Chapel, which won the American Institute of Arts Honor Award in 1981 and which, in 1991 the AIA membership voted the finest American building built since 1980.

In 1990, Jones won the AIA's highest honor, the Gold Medal. At a formal ceremony at the White House, President Bush (the elder) presented Jones the medal. Prince Charles of England, a student and connoisseur of architecture, was present and praised Jones's work.

An excellent book on Jones and his work is "Fay Jones" by Robert Adams Ivy Jr., an architect from Mississippi who is now the executive editor of Architectural Record, the magazine of the AIA. The book is to be republished by McGraw-Hill in the spring.

Yet in some ways, even after all the acclaim, Jones remains somewhat undiscovered. Ask the person on the street to name some important architects of the 20th century, and, if any names at all come up, you'll likely hear that of Wright (a caped exhibitionist with an improbably scandalous and tragic life) or perhaps that of Le Corbusier or Gropius or Mies van der Rohe or Frank Gehry.

Unlike fellow Arkansan and architect Edward Durrell Stone who traveled to the great cities of the East to execute great buildings like New York's Museum of Modern Art, Jones has lived a quiet life away from the limelight. Ivy described Jones, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright who believed strongly in the master's principles, as Wright's greatest disciple who was at the same time an "individualist" and a "regionalist in the highest sense."

Jones was born in Pine Bluff on Jan. 31, 1921, the child of Euine (pronounced "U-wun," an old Welsh form of John) Fay Jones and Candy Louise Alston Jones. His family moved to Little Rock when he was 8 and, when he was 9, to El Dorado, where his father opened a restaurant. Jones full name is Euine Fay Jones, but he goes by E. Fay or just Fay Jones, because pronouncing Euine stumps people.

Like the allegory of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, Fay Jones's boyhood contains a tree story. Unlike Washington's story, Jones's is true.

He liked to draw. He liked to build, constructing a series of tree houses. When he was in high school he built a tree house complete with balcony, blinds and a fireplace. He spent several summers in his leafy residence until a spark from the fireplace burned it down.

He lived in Depression-era El Dorado and the idea of architecture as a profession was alien to him until 1938. A short subject shown at an El Dorado movie theater on Frank Lloyd Wright's then-new Johnson Wax Company building in Racine, Wis., took Jones's breath away. Jones loved the futuristic, fantastic look of the place. It was like nothing he'd ever seen.

Jones's parents were loving. The early deaths of two sisters — one older and one younger — caused them to devote their attention to their only remaining child. Jones calls the death of his 4-year-old sister of spinal meningitis one of the worst experiences of his life.

Jones, a well-rounded, well-behaved boy (he says, and you believe him, that he has never smoked a cigarette or drunk alcohol), also enjoyed the Boy Scouts. He became an Eagle Scout in record time and then took an interest in Sea Scouting. He hoped to attend the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Jones enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to take engineering courses that might help him at Annapolis. But the election defeat of his sponsoring congressman dashed his dreams of attending the academy.

Jones found himself in the middle of the Depression, no Naval Academy appointment to work toward and at a university that had no architectural program. He decided to pursue the next best thing: a civil engineering degree. Engineering entailed construction, but the element of art was absent.

In the summer of 1941, Jones had completed three years at the university, was working as a draftsman for the firm building the Little Rock Air Base and, like many young men at the time, suspected war was coming.

He decided to join the Navy. At the same time he met Mary Elizabeth Knox of Hot Springs. She was a dainty beauty whose friends called her Gus. Jones pursued flight training and Gus. After Pearl Harbor, Jones was stationed in California. The coupled married in San Francisco on Jan. 6, 1943.

Jones was sent to the South Pacific where he flew dive bombers and torpedo bombers. While he was in San Diego for further training, the war ended. Jones was looking for a fresh start. He planned to attend architecture school at Washington University in St. Louis when he learned that the U of A was starting its own program under John Williams, an Oklahoma A&M graduate. Jones was in the first class of five students.

The International Style of architecture — geometric, severe, abstract — remained popular after the war. But Jones's fascination with the now-out-of-fashion Wright had never wavered. He believed in Wright's organic principles of architecture, that buildings should exist in harmony with nature.

Jones's first personal encounter with Wright occurred in 1949. Jones and fellow UA architectural students drove to Houston where Wright was to be presented with the AIA Gold Medal. They hoped to meet the master. The night before the AIA ceremony, a new, much talked-about skyscraper hotel, the Shamrock, was holding its grand opening in Houston. Jones decided to check it out.

As Jones was walking through the hotel, full of movie stars like Robert Mitchum and Dorothy Lamour, Wright himself burst from the door of a room where the AIA was holding a party for him. Jones, stunned, tried to make himself invisible, but Wright noticed the young man. He introduced himself and then took Jones on a tour of the hotel, pointing out its various design flaws, while celebrities trailed the pair.

It was an indelible encounter for Jones. Three years later, they met again. Jones had graduated from Fayetteville, received a master's degree from Rice University and started teaching at the University of Oklahoma under Bruce Goff. Wright came to the university for a lecture. This meeting was the start of an apprenticeship as well as a friendship. Wright invited Jones to his winter workshop Taliesin West near Scottsdale, Ariz.

Later, Wright invited Jones's entire family — which by then included two daughters — to Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., Wright's home and design institute, where Jones was a Taliesin Fellow. Jones returned to both Taliesins numerous times.

Goff also influenced Jones. Jones recalls Goff visiting Goff's house every Wednesday night for two years, where Goff would play Ravel, Stravinsky and Debussy. Listening to the music, Jones learned about creating themes and then creating variations on themes.

If the idea is strong enough, Jones says, one project can't fully present it. "I said after Thorncrown, I'm going to have to do this chapel at least 10 times." Varying Thorncrown's theme led to the exquisite, gothically inspired Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista.

Missing the hills of Arkansas and called home by John Williams, Jones began teaching at the U of A in 1953, the same year he designed his home and opened his small architectural practice.

He began designing other residences, sometimes for fellow faculty who'd seen and liked his house. Jones preferred to keep his projects within 50 miles or so of Fayetteville so he could properly oversee them. He also preferred to keep them small, again, so he could attend to details personally.

Jones says he had no master plan to concentrate on homes and ecclesiastical buildings. Although he admired Wright, he had no great ambition to be famous.

"I was just taking anything that would come through the door, whether it was a bank or jewelry shop," he says. "I just wanted the opportunity to do some work and it would be good work."

Jones's academic career helped subsidize his practice. Jones says he also liked the balance of teaching architecture and practicing architecture. Teaching benefited his design work.

"You felt the pressure of living up to your students' expectations," he says. "You get to practice what you preach, so to speak. I don't know how a guy could be luckier than that."

By the 1960s Jones's residences had caught the attention of national magazines and clients outside the state. He has designed more than 200 houses in his career. But it was Thorncrown Chapel that made him world-famous.

Following principles

"Mr. Wright called his architecture organic architecture, and he often used the word 'integral,' " Jones says, "that something should be  the thing rather  the thing. You never put a house on a hill. ... You preserve the top."

"What he [Wright] said was if you understand the principles, and you proceed accordingly, then something out of your own sensitivity, your own thinking will make the work uniquely your own," Jones says.

"So I've mainly followed in a generalized way — there's the term organic-that there should be a strong bond or building relationship so it looks like man and nature planned everything together and then each benefited immeasurably from the other," Jones says.

He has stated these principles often in interviews, more often in class, but he remains passionate about them.

Light, scale, proportion, balance, contrast — these are an architect's tools, and Jones's has wielded them better than almost anyone. He believes in the integrity of materials and the integrity of construction. Plastic should not be made to look like brick. Wood should look like wood. Buildings must be sound and, perhaps most important, suited to the site.

Jones does not believe in ornamentation for its own sake. Jones's work seeks harmony between the whole and its parts.

"The details tend to reinforce, strengthen and lend completion to the overall generating idea," Jones says. "You feel this kinship, whether you're doing a skyscraper downtown or whether you're doing a barn."

Jones believes in the process of architecture. "It has to be a result of things," he says. "I don't think you can say, 'I'm going to do a spiritual building here.' ... It's like someone says, 'I want a beautiful house.' Well, I don't know how to start. It's got to be true to the reality of the situation."

Principles also applied to the way Jones treated people — students, colleagues, clients.

Maurice Jennings says, "We worked together 25 years and we don't remember exchanging a harsh word."

Jennings was Jones's first associate in his architectural firm and his only partner. They worked together on some of Jones's most important buildings. When Jones retired, the firm Fay Jones + Maurice Jennings Architects became Maurice Jennings + David McKee Architects. It remains at its site on Dickson Street.

Womack, the architecture professor, describes Jones as patient, calm and profound. "I've never heard anyone make a disparaging remark about Fay Jones. He had tremendous respect among the workers." Womack says Jones listened to the workers on a building site, remaining open to their suggestions.

"He always said, 'We're not trying to do things differently. We're trying to do things better, and when you try to do things better they will be different."

Some hallmarks of a Fay Jones house include large stone hearths, extensive use of wood and native or field stone, vast expanses of glass and built-in furniture such as wardrobes, bookshelves and sofas. Rooms are placed on different levels. Bathroom showers are made to look like grottoes. Lighting fixtures are dramatic. Jones has designed furnishings ranging from cocktail napkins to china.

Those who live in the houses often feel a reverence for their residences. Clay and Sandy Edwards of Fayetteville work at the University of Arkansas. They say they see themselves as caretakers of their house.

"Every day that we're conscious of being in the house and have time in the house, we discover new things about it," Clay Edwards says. It's livable, low maintenance and light filled.

Margaret Ensminger and her husband, Chuck, live in one of Jones's best-known residential designs, Pine Knoll in Little Rock. "Almost every day I go through the house and something beautiful makes me gasp," Margaret Ensminger says.

"I like the openness of the house," she says, "because sometimes I'm a homebody and would never get outdoors and here I'm outdoors all the time."

Sitting in Roy Reed's deceptively simple, barn-like house in Hogeye, a visitor sees the sleet hitting the deck on a particularly cold January day and, despite its danger, feels only tranquility.

The respected architecture critic Vincent Scully observes a dichotomy in the principles that underlie architecture. On one hand are the great structures of pre-Columbian America and Egypt, hymns to agriculture and the life-giving power of nature. On the other are the Greek temples, monuments to the specialness of humanity apart from nature. Romanticism versus classicism.

Jones, like his mentor Wright, is a romantic. Like the Greeks, he has built temples — Thorncrown, Pinecote Pavilion at the Crosby Arboretum in Picayune, Miss., and the Cooper Chapel in Bella Vista. But Jones's temples are testaments to nature, not to the victory of man over nature.

His residences, like his ecclesiastical buildings, show a trust in the natural world. Jones's architecture displays a belief that humanity can live in peace with nature.

Asked about the spiritual nature of his buildings, Jones says, "It's like the Spinoza thing, Is God nature or nature God?"

Nature is "where I've felt my most spiritual feelings. Then in the process and product of something like Thorncrown Chapel — and I try to do this in houses too — there's something there that is intangible and makes one at least ponder some larger or higher order. It pleases me the letters I've gotten over the years from people who've had a certain experience at Thorncrown. It's affected them in some way they haven't felt before."

"I'm very, very biased," Jennings says of Jones, "but I think he's the greatest living architect there is."

Robert Ivy says that several of Jones's buildings "are among this century's most important examples of ecclesiastical art." And Jones's houses "are extremely well suited to the human psyche because he engages all the senses." Jones, Ivy says, stands in the pantheon of architects.

Womack says that Jones's work will remain "as outstanding examples of a person's caring attention to detail and total dedication to a principle. It exemplifies a love of materials and nature and an intense caring for a client's wishes.

"I think the other thing that will endure is the memory of the man himself. He epitomizes what all architects would like to be."


Speaking of Thorncrown Chapel, Fay Jones


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