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Architect E. Fay Jones Dies
Humble, Brilliant Designer Drew From Nature's Beauty

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

By Jeff Smith

FAYETTEVILLE -- World-renowned architect E. Fay Jones, described as a true renaissance man who blended his work with nature, died Monday. He was 83.

Jones, a Fayetteville resident for a half-century, rose to fame for his unpretentious designs that incorporated natural surroundings.

He won his trade's highest award in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush bestowed on him the American Institute of Architecture gold medal.

The same group named his Thorncrown Chapel near Eureka Springs the fourth-best design of the 20th century. More than 4 million people have visited the chapel since it opened in 1980.

The most notable of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's apprentices never longed for big projects or the fame from them. He chose instead to spend his life in the state where he was born to rear a family and invent a new style of architecture.

"He was probably my whole life," said his wife of 61 years, Elizabeth "Gus" Jones. "He was everything you could ask for in a father and in a husband. When I met Fay, the more time we spent together, I really thought of him as one of nature's noblemen.

"I kind of hung onto his coat strings because he was moving so fast. I think I picked some really good coat strings, though," she said.

Jones was born Jan. 31, 1921, in Pine Bluff to Euine Fay Jones, whom he was named after, and Candy Louis Alston Jones. The family later moved to El Dorado in south Arkansas, where Jones developed his love of architecture.

As a child, he built treehouses so elaborate that firemen had to extinguish one after a fireplace he built in it burned.

Jones' love for architecture was cemented when in 1953 he saw a Popular Science short subject in an El Dorado movie theater on Wright's Johnson Wax building in Wisconsin.

He enrolled as an engineering student at the UA, which didn't have an architecture program. He left the school to serve as a dive bomber pilot in World War II.

He re-enrolled in the UA, this time among the first 17 students in the new architecture department started by John Williams in 1946.

"Even very early on, it was obvious he had a God-given talent for design," Williams said Tuesday from his Fayetteville home. "He not only had a talent to design things, but he also had a remarkable talent in explaining and demonstrating what he was talking about. He was an exceptionally good teacher, especially in design."

Jones met his eventual mentor by chance in a hallway during the 1949 American Institute of Architecture annual convention in Houston. Wright gave Jones an impromptu tour, critiquing the newly opened hotel, The Shamrock. Jones received his master's degree from Rice University in 1951 after graduating from the UA. He taught briefly at the University of Oklahoma. He then spent several summers and winters as a Taliesin Fellow at Wright's camps in Wisconsin and Arizona.

Jones became chairman of the UA architecture department in 1966 and later was named dean of the newly formed School of Architecture in 1974.

Jeff Shannon, the dean of the UA architecture school, said Jones' upbringing in Pine Bluff and El Dorado weighed heavily in his work.

"Just as influential (as Wright) is that he grew up in small towns in a rural state," Shannon said.

Shannon said school officials have had general discussions -- though none specific -- about possibly naming the school after Jones.

A Forrest City couple recently donated money to establish a Jones visiting professorship. Jones specifically picked Dale Mulfinger of Minneapolis for the first professorship last fall.

Mulfinger said Tuesday evening the two met while Jones was on a mid-career fellowship to the American Academy in Rome.

"He was a brilliant and humble architect. He had a very particular style of ideas that he nurtured with glee, with happiness. His work made one smile," he said.

Maurice Jennings, who spent 25 years working as Jones' understudy and later partner, called Jones a "true renaissance man."

"He was just an outstanding architect and outstanding individual. Fay cared so much about people as individuals. He felt his important thing was to take care of his clients," he said.

Jones also took interest in every detail of his work, believing all pieces, from toilet paper holders to light fixtures, create the whole structural design, he said.

"He's left us many beautiful places that so many people can enjoy," Jennings said.

Jones designed 135 residences, 15 chapels and churches in 20 states. He's also designed pavilions, gardens and fountains.

Jones won most of his accolades in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including his prized gold medal given by fellow architects.

"He was very touched he had affected so many people in this way. It, of course, made him very happy and very proud, but he always was a humble man," Jennings said of the award.

Cooper Chapel near Bella Vista, completed in 1987, remains one of Northwest Arkansas' most prominent buildings. Weddings are booked a year in advance at both the Cooper and Thorncrown chapels.

"He was trying to create a place where anyone of any religion could come and think their best thoughts," Jennings said of Jones' chapels.

Many of Northwest Arkansas most prominent people have lived in Jones' natural creations. Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton asked Jones to build his residence in 1959. So did former Wal-Mart chief David Glass. And UA athletic director Frank Broyles and former Gov. Orval Faubus.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton first stayed in a Jones house on Arkansas 16 near Elkins when he lived in Fayetteville. U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stayed at famed UA law professor Robert Leflar's house, designed by Jones, when she arrived to join her husband on the UA law faculty.

Clinton was traveling and unavailable for comment Tuesday but did mention Jones in his recent memoir, "My Life."

"The house proved to be a godsend of peace and quiet, especially after I started my first campaign," he wrote.

Fayetteville jeweler Bill Underwood partnered with Jones in 1965 to design a building on Dickson Street.

"He had the dingiest office you can imagine, in an old building where the Walton Arts Center is now, and I was in a really small building," Underwood said. "I needed a bigger building for my business, and he needed a showplace to put his office."

With a handshake, the two agreed that Jones would design the building in exchange for five years of reduced rent, Underwood said. The firm Jones founded still occupies the upper floor, and there has never been a formal lease on the space, Underwood said.

"That handshake has been good enough," Underwood said. "He had real class, and it's a sad thing to hear he's gone."

Pharmacist Carl Collier asked Jones to design his home after seeing examples of his work throughout Fayetteville.

"My wife grew up with his kids, right down the block, and some of our first dates were tours of Fay's houses," Collier said. "When we got married, we liked the materials he used and his style, and he graciously accepted our offer to design our home.

"He was a master of practicality and material," Collier said. "I could see the Wright influence, but there were differences because Fay embodied those concepts using materials available here."

Jones retired from architecture in 1998, citing health reasons. He had suffered from Parkinson's disease.

His last structure was finished in October 1998. The 41-foot-tall J. William Fulbright Peace Fountain stands between Old Main and Vol Walker Hall, home to the School of Architecture.

He has donated his collection of models, drawings, notebooks, photos, and papers to the UA Special Collections.

In a 1998 interview, Jones said about his legacy, "I hope most of my work is going to outlast me, and I hope people will say, 'This is an architect who did pretty good work.'"

He is survived by his wife and their two daughters, Janis Jones of St. Louis and Cami Jones of Austin, Texas.

Friends visiting regularly made his last weeks "very happy," his wife said. Jones died peacefully at home, Gus Jones said. He died of upper respiratory complications and heart failure.

The family will make funeral and memorial arrangements today with the Nelson-Berna Funeral Home in Fayetteville.

The Morning News. Reprinted with permission. The Associated Press and Dan Craft of The Morning News/ contributed to this report.

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