I first met Fay Jones in the spring of 1983, in Piazza Santa Maria, in the Trastevere section of Rome, Italy. As I sat sipping espresso with my friend, the architect Spero Daltas, Fay sauntered across the piazza contemplating a place to sketch. He was in Rome for a mid-career fellowship at the American Academy there. Spero invited him over to our table, and for me, a friendship emerged that would last the next two decades.
Upon hearing that I was in Italy with my students from the University of Minnesota, Fay offered to review their studio work. In the isolation of the Academy, he was longing to reconnect with young people. Soon he was immersed in their projects, and I took note of his constant encouragement. His gracious critiques befitted a Southern gentleman.
A few years later, Fay's emerging national stature brought him to Minneapolis for a talk at our state AIA convention. I took the opportunity to invite him to lunch with our whole office, because I wanted them to meet an architect who was that brilliant but also so amazingly humble. As he reviewed the local restaurant options, Fay exclaimed, “Dale, you can't afford something fancy for all of us. Let's just go off and have pizza!” He was ever sensitive to a starting firm's budget.
Fay Jones' enduring respect for land and nature came through in his gently placed buildings. The Reed Residence (1980), above and left, one of his best-known houses, rests peacefully among the wildflowers of its Hog Eye, Ark., site.
Born in Pine Bluffs, Ark., in 1921, Fay held steadfast to his roots, attending the University of Arkansas' engineering program for two and a half years. His education was interrupted by World War II, during which he served as a dive-bomber pilot in the Pacific. He came back to Fayetteville to enter the university's first architectural class, graduating in 1950. A graduate degree in architecture at Rice University, in Houston, followed.
Fay became aware of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright while in high school and, after a chance meeting with Wright early in his career, joined the Taliesin Fellowship. The two architects and their families remained close friends throughout Wright's later years, with the Joneses traveling to Arizona each year for Wright's birthday parties. Fay began teaching at the University of Oklahoma in the mid-1950s with another well-known but eccentric architect, Bruce Goff, and he soon returned to the University of Arkansas to teach. He spent 35 years there and eventually headed its department of architecture.
In his private architectural firm in Fayetteville, he designed 135 homes, 15 chapels, and a few commercial buildings. These projects are predominantly located in Arkansas, although a few of them are scattered elsewhere across the United States. His 1980 design for Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark., put him firmly on the national and international stage. It won an AIA Honor Award in 1981, and in 2000, architects voted it one of the top five 20th-century buildings by an American architect.
The Thorncrown design exhibited Fay's unique skill in engineering and architecture, producing a lattice-like construction of frame and glass. It appears both Modern and Gothic simultaneously, creating a cathedral space open to nature and as graceful as a canopy of trees. His use of a metal discontinuous crossing connector accommodates tensile wood connection in a common plane. The void in the center of the connector exhibits the openness of the frame, and its central purpose is the creation of space.
He soon followed with the design of the Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista, Ark., which more fully integrates metal and wood in a Gothic shape with pointed arches. This design demonstrates Fay's continued quest for a light and airy structure that could engage the user with the spiritual qualities of nature. He reinterprets Frank Lloyd Wright's mantra of organic architecture through a search for lightness never experienced in a Wright building.
Fay's many homes are explorations in light and space through the use of native stone, glass, and wood. Broad stone terraces integrate interior and exterior space in the wild climate of the Arkansas countryside. Most of Fay's houses are one story, although they often involve several level changes as the home engages the undulating terrain of the Ozark hillsides.
In both his own modest home in Fayetteville and in the cabin “Stoneflower,” in Eden Isle, Ark., he incorporated a lower level built into natural rock grotto formations. Spring rains seep through the rock and form controlled pools of water. Light is brought in from above to illuminate the grottos and works to create interesting shadows along the rock ledges. Fay had a studio adjacent to the grotto in his own home, and in his final years, he kept busy painting intricate flower patterns on days when he felt well enough to work.
In 1990, the AIA honored Fay Jones' career by awarding him with the AIA Gold Medal. Prince Charles of Great Britain presented it to Fay, characterizing him as a “powerful and special genius who embodies nearly all the qualities we admire in an architect.” Those of us who had the good fortune to spend time with this great man continually witnessed that power being expressed through humility and genius—and intertwined with good humor.
He attributed his sense of humor to growing up with the name Fay and then marrying a beautiful woman whose nickname is Gus (Mary Elizabeth). Of his Arkansas place of birth, education, and practice, he said, “I live in the hotbed of tranquility.”
Fay Jones died peacefully at his home in Fayetteville, Ark., on August 30, 2004, from complications of heart problems and Parkinson's disease. He was 83.
Dale Mulfinger, FAIA, is a principal of SALA Architects, in Minneapolis, and is an adjunct professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota. In 2003, he served as the Fay Jones Guest Professor at the University of Arkansas. He is also the co-author of The Cabin (The Taunton Press, 2001) and the author of The Getaway Home (The Taunton Press, 2004).