REX NELSON: Forest for trees


When Peter MacKeith arrived in Arkansas in 2014 as Dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, he began reading extensively about the state and its history.

MacKeith remembers the first book he bought here. Written by Kenneth Smith for the University of Arkansas Press, it was titled “Sawmill: The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies”. Published in 1986 and reprinted in 2006, it has long been in my library.

“Sawmill” is a story of logging in the Ouachita Mountains from 1900 to 1950. Smith interviewed over 300 people for the book, which explains the heyday of large sawmills and company towns in the Southwest of Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma. Industrial towns such as Rosboro, Glenwood and Forester flourished as lumber barons such as T. W. Rosborough bought and sold large tracts of land.

It didn’t take long for MacKeith to realize the influence the forests have had on Arkansas culture over the decades. About 56% of the state remains forested, and the lumber industry is an important part of Arkansas’ economy. Last Sunday’s column and Perspective section cover story detailed MacKeith’s efforts to find new uses for Arkansas lumber.

MacKeith also came to understand this small state’s history of producing great architects, many of whom used native wood and stone. No one exemplified this style better than the school’s namesake, Fay Jones, who practiced from 1954 to 1998 at a studio in Fayetteville. Of the 218 projects designed by Jones, 129 were built. Of those 129, 84 were built in Arkansas.

Jones was born in Pine Bluff in January 1921. He grew up in El Dorado after his family moved there so his father could operate the People’s Cafe.

According to the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “As a boy, Jones learned that he had distinct talents for drawing and construction. He built treehouses and underground forts and In El Dorado, after seeing a film about Frank Lloyd Wright and his Johnson Wax Building, Jones left determined to combine, as he put it, “design and construction.”

“When he enrolled at the University of Arkansas in 1938, the only architectural courses offered were in the engineering department. For two and a half years he studied civil engineering.”

After serving in the United States Navy during World War II, Jones moved to Little Rock in 1945 to work as a draftsman. Friends and associates encouraged him to return to university and enroll in the new architecture program started by John Williams. Jones did, graduating in 1950.

He was accepted into the graduate program at Rice University in Houston, where he earned his master’s degree in architecture, then held his first teaching position from 1951 to 1953 at the University of Oklahoma.

Jones returned to Fayetteville in 1953 to teach and begin his practice. He became the department’s first chair in 1966. Eight years later he was named the inaugural dean of the new School of Architecture. In 1985, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture awarded him the title of Professor Emeritus of the ACSA.

“Fay Jones met her mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1949 at the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects in Houston, where Wright was to receive the gold medal,” notes the encyclopedia. “They met again at the University of Oklahoma, and Wright invited Jones to visit his Arizona studio Taliesin West on Easter 1953. The following summer Jones was invited to apprentice at Taliesin East in Wisconsin Jones and his wife became members of the Taliesin Fellowship, returning every year for the next 10 years.

“Wright’s most enduring influence on Jones would be in his application of the principle of organic architecture: simplicity of construction, use of native materials, attention to handcrafted detail, and seamless integration of building to site. In his own work, Jones has reached original architectural conclusions with the innovative vertical use of glass and a strict awareness of the role of interior and exterior light spaces.”

Jones began training young architects while assembling teams of builders, carpenters, and stonemasons from Arkansas to practice organic architecture throughout the state.

Jones won the AIA Gold Medal in 1990. His Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs was voted by the AIA as one of the top five buildings designed by an American architect in the 20th century. The Roy Reed House in Washington County also received honors from the AIA, and in 2000 Jones was recognized by the AIA as one of the 10 most influential architects of the 20th century.

Other notable Jones structures in Arkansas include Shaheen-Goodfellow Weekend House in Cleburne County, Hantz House in Washington County, Walton Family House in Benton County, Pallone House in of Pulaski, the Faubus House in Madison County and the Alexander House in Washington County.

Jones died at his Fayetteville home in August 2004. The School of Architecture was named in his honor in April 2009.

Among those who learned from Jones and continued his work was Maurice Jennings, a native of Heber Springs who graduated from UA in 1973. He developed a keen interest in building design as a child and was the partner Jones’ commercial from 1986 to 1998. Jennings’ son, Walter, also developed a passion for organic architecture and joined his father in 2011 at Maurice Jennings + Walter Jennings Architects. Maurice Jennings died in October 2016 at the age of 68.

Jennings worked with Jones on the Thorncrown Chapel and later on the Mildred Cooper Chapel in Bella Vista, the Anthony Chapel in Hot Springs, and the Hunt Chapel in Rogers.

David McKee is another architect from Northwest Arkansas in the Jones tree. While graduating from UA in the early 1970s, he worked as a bricklayer and carpenter. He was invited to join the firm of Jones in 1982 and from 1998 to 2006 he was with the Maurice Jennings + David McKee firm. In 2006, McKee launched his own company.

When my family travels to Eureka Springs, we like to stay at Crescent Cottages, designed by McKee in 2007. They are behind the parking lot of the Crescent Hotel and are a wonderful example of organic Arkansas architecture with lots of wood native. Sunlight streams into the cottages.

Internationally acclaimed architect Marlon Blackwell, born in 1956 into a military family stationed in Germany, continues to draw attention to the Arkansas scene. Blackwell came to UA in 1992. He was selected by a national jury as one of the top 40 designers under 40 in 1995. In 1998, the Architectural League of New York recognized Blackwell as a voice emerging in architecture.

“Blackwell is known for his style of work outside the mainstream of architecture,” writes Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks. “His architecture is based on design strategies that celebrate and draw inspiration from vernaculars, seeking to transgress conventional boundaries in architecture. … In 2012 he was named an Arts & Letters Award recipient in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the first Arkansan ever so honored.”

In a 2020 essay for Oxford American, MacKeith wrote: “‘Places and buildings…buildings and places,’ mused Marlon Blackwell, 2020 AIA Gold Medalist in Architecture and my faculty colleague at the Fay Jones School , in response to my question to him about the goals of design education that we try to provide for our students.

“For Blackwell, a Southern Air Force kid, trained in architecture initially in Alabama with his first commissions in North Carolina, this simple phrase definitely distills his experiences and understanding of where he is and of what he values ​​in life and work – and the place of construction, design and construction of wells, in the southern United States.

“Fay Jones affirmed the same goals and commitment to placement throughout her career, despite differences in time and architectural character, initially determining to seek commissions within a day’s drive of Fayetteville.”


Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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