From Shadow Patterns: Reflections on Fay Jones and His Architecture
“Soon after the renaming of the [University of Arkansas] School of Architecture after Fay Jones in April 2009, it became clear that, except for the excellent monograph by Robert Ivy, there was a dearth of written material on our school’s namesake, belying his international stature,” writes former Fay Jones School of Architecture dean
Jeff Shannon in the preface to his new book, Shadow Patterns. “Upon reflection and discussion with peers, it became clear that there were a number of scholars, clients, friends, former staff and practitioners that had some tangential or direct relationship with or interest in Fay Jones and/or his work. Thus the idea of a book of essays about Jones was born.”
One of those friends of Jones was Roy Reed, a retired journalist, accomplished author and former University of Arkansas journalism professor who’d commissioned Jones back in 1978 to design a house for him in rural Hogeye. In Reed’s contribution to Shannon’s book—an essay titled simply “Fay Jones,” published here in full—he recounts a side of Jones that receives comparatively little attention: his easy laugh, his whimsical imagination and his ability to fill even the most silent of moments with his practiced, measured wisdom.
An important person dies and they name a big institution after him and he becomes mythologized as somber and humorless, somehow more serious than the rest of us. I don’t want that to happen to my friend Fay Jones. I want him to be remembered as the good-humored Welshman that he was. Fay was a laughing man.
The Welsh are the wits, singers, and poets of Great Britain. If E. Fay Jones had been reared in Wales instead of El Dorado, Arkansas, he might have given Dylan Thomas a run for his money. For someone who was good with math, he was also uncommonly good with words.
Attention has been paid to Fay’s unusual middle name, but not much to his first and last, both Welsh to the core. Euine is Old Welsh for John, and Jones, of course, is quintessentially Welsh.
You hear of Americans who live for some years in a foreign country and find themselves dreaming at night in Spanish or French or Greek. I suspect that Fay dreamed in the verbs and syntax of architecture. In his waking hours, he was a continuous act of cerebration, his mind working to plant on the landscape what it imagined and conjured as he looked, dreamed, and calculated. Calculated, yes. The load-bearing beam was never far from his mind.
As his health declined in his later years, he often slept fitfully. It soothed his unrest to get out of bed and draw. I’ve seen his bedside sketchbooks. He refused to call the simple little drawings anything serious—at first blush, they were just doodles—but they clearly were something more. They were architecture as it might be dreamed by a genius with insomnia and a sense of humor, or the philosophical musings of a person with something on his mind. I have one of his late-night sketches hanging on one of our walls. The drawing shows a man who seems to have been shipwrecked on a nearby planet, a barren little orb. He is waving for help toward the earth, which looms across the sky. With his sense of humor, Fay was unlike his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, another Welsh-American architect. Wright was not famous for making people laugh.
Our man had the Welsh gift of storytelling. His favorite genre was the not-quite-dirty joke. Over a period of two or three years, Fay, Gus, and I went to lunch every Monday after he and I had spent the morning at their dining table with a tape recorder. I interviewed him 59 times for the oral history program at the University of Arkansas. I don’t know where he got the jokes, but he came with at least one new one every week. Gus and I would laugh out loud after he finished each one. Then Mrs. Jones, remembering her upbringing, would say, “Oh, Fay!”
Our interviews and lunches went on until two weeks before he died.His body declined steadily during his last months, but his sense of humor stayed strong.
So did his love of music. When Norma and I lived in London years ago, we had a neighbor who had moved over from Wales. I remember his singing. He led the neighborhood caroling every Christmas, and I can still hear his beautiful voice and see the joy in his face as he led us through the streets serenading the residents. I doubt that Fay could carry a tune, but he loved music. It is my belief that every Welsh person has music in the genes. Fay used music in his work, and he thought it had a lot in common with architecture:
In architecture, you have rhythm—regular rhythms, irregular rhythms. You have colorations—orchestration of things. Incidents, terminals, climaxes. The terms mean one thing in music. They mean a similar thing in architecture. A row of columns can be a row of columns, but it can be a regular rhythm. Evenly spaced, it can be a regular rhythm in reading a building… . You play a piece of music and you design a house that looks like that piece of music. I was working on the Harrel House. I remember several times playing the “Firebird Suite,” and after playing it, I would seem to have kind of a breakthrough on the problem. For various reasons, it doesn’t bear a really precise analysis, but I guess music could be the art that’s most closely related to architecture, as far as I’m concerned.
Fay was not reticent about sharing his emotions. He was always ready to talk about what he had learned in his art, but he was just as eager to share his enthusiasm for it. Get him talking about the Stoneflower house at Eden Isle, for example, and watch his eyes light up. Or get him talking about some other house, one that he may have designed half a century ago, and go with him as he moves into the hallway entrance and his memory recovers a detail, maybe a layering of wood on a door facing, and suddenly he is engrossed. He is back in that place and that time with that client, and he still likes the person or—very rarely—does not, and his feelings come out without reserve. The Welsh are quick to say how they feel.
Load-bearing beams. I take spells of looking at them in our house, which he designed in 1979. The house is shaped like an old-fashioned barn with a steeply pitched roof. The ground floor comprises the living room, dining area, and kitchen. The top floor (of three counting a full basement with an office) accommodates a loft at one end and an enclosed bedroom at the other. The rest is open right to the top. If this were a real barn, you could stack enough hay in it to feed the cattle all winter.
I like to nap on the couch in the ground-level living room. Sometimes when I rouse up, my eye fixes on one of the two beams supporting the roof. Glimpsed for an instant, you might think, “What a marvelous thing. Those beams miraculously hold up the roof without any support. How did he do that?”
If a stranger were to usurp my place on the couch someday and open his eyes on those beams, he might also think that they are supporting the roof on their own. Then his eye drifts down and he sees that instead they are supported by an elaborate system of bracing and cross-bracing that seems to rest mainly on thin air. The bracing sits on a pair of thin wooden columns. The columns are too insubstantial to be of much use. True, they stand on a stone hearth. But if the stranger is of a serious turn of mind, he quickly realizes that the whole business—tons of wood and stone—is supported at the bottom by no more than half an inch of oak floor. He surmises that under the floor is a basement and, as far as he can tell, that basement is filled with empty air. At that point he will suspect Jones of practicing some black art. Perhaps he has sold his soul to the Devil.
What the stranger cannot see from the living room is the answer to the riddle. Directly under the hearth is a homely but entirely reliable foundation—a very substantial stack of concrete blocks rising from the concrete floor of the basement.
Weight-bearing beams. Weight-bearing walls. Weight-bearing stone and concrete. Weight-bearing ideas. All from the fertile brain of this Welshman who practiced poetry and made no attempt to resist whimsy, but put his faith in foundations.
The structural elements in our house were simply beyond debate. They had to be there. Fay had been trained as an engineer before he became an architect, and sound construction was always his first consideration. But after that was taken care of, he enjoyed unleashing his imagination. Sometimes his imagination outpaced the no-nonsense perceptions of the construction crew and the clients, and occasioned a certain amount of comment and discussion, not to say argument.
For example, his design of our house included an unusual siding on the exterior walls of the top floor. On the first-floor walls, the cedar boards were to run vertically with the seams covered by ordinary half-inch battens. But on the top floor, they were to run diagonally with the seams covered by battens an inch high and only an inch wide. Functionally (Fay the engineer), those diagonal battens were designed to shed blowing rainwater. Aesthetically (Fay the artist), they would provide a light show. On the southern wall, they would run parallel to the leading edge of the roof and to the quite dramatic lines of a window with glass held in place by an X crossing of cedar two-by-fours. The window was eleven feet square and sixteen feet high, set like a diamond above the loft. That wall would catch the sun nearly all day, summer and winter. In summer, it would be blocked from the inside by a wide overhang of the roof. In winter, when the sun is low in the sky, it would be welcomed into the house and penetrate all the way to the kitchen floor at the north end. But in all seasons the sun would play on those diagonal batten boards and catch the eye of anyone walking by.
When Steve Schoene and his crew saw the plans, they raised the alarm. These were honest, serious men, and they understood the need to save money. They feared it would cost $600 or $700 in additional labor, and would require days of mitering and sawing. After the carpenters continued to express concern, Fay gave a convincing argument for the design. Then, in case the builders were still doubtful, he went to a fallback position that we later came to understand was a carefully cultivated device for settling arguments. He fell silent. He just stopped talking. That meant the argument was over. The carpenters followed Fay’s instructions without further discussion.
As the last board went on, they stood back and looked. The effect was stunning. At every passing minute, the sun struck the protruding battens and cast a shadow beside each one. The shadows swelled and thinned by small measurements all day, on the west side of the boards in the morning, on the east side in the afternoon.
Light and shadow were almost as important to Fay as weight-bearing beams. Inside our house, light is a constant actor. It changes from hour to hour, moving from playful and bright to dark and sulking. Few events are more dramatic here than a thundercloud rising in the south. One of our first house guests, a fearless investigative reporter, was treated to an electric storm of Germanic proportions in the middle of the night. His bed was near the big southern window. He came down to breakfast pale and shaken and repentant of his sins.
We found during construction that the design of our house was not static. In the beginning, as we explored several possible sites for ours, Fay at one point suggested a Wright-style house that would sit on stilts and straddle a wooded gorge with a small stream running through it. That would have been a dramatic setting, but Fay rather quickly backed off because of the obvious cost.
At another point, Fay considered leaving intact a large slab of limestone in the basement, as he had in the basement of his own house. Ancel Waterson, the dozer operator who excavated the basement, argued strongly against it, saying it would leak and cause problems with mildew. Fay could have made a case for leaving it, but he gave in. That limestone outcropping provided the first real excitement at the building site. Ancel brought some dynamite, and several of us stood around and watched. He drilled a hole in the rock and placed a stick of dynamite in it. Then he ran a fuse about seventy-five feet down the path to his pick-up. The truck was parked facing away from the coming explosion. Ancel raised its hood and told all of us, half a dozen or so men, to stand in front of the truck and stick our heads under the hood. We did. He pushed the plunger. A second later, the dynamite exploded with what I thought was an unnecessarily loud noise. Three or four seconds after that, shards and lumps of limestone began to fall around us. Three or four small chunks hit the hood of the truck and rattled our ears. I later found pieces of broken stone, some the size of basketballs, fifty yards from the basement. I occasionally run across a piece thirty years later. It was a thrilling show. I still wonder: What would the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration think of Ancel’s safety device?
I won a few contested points with Fay. He first designed the bottom edges of the roof to hang to about 5 feet above the floor of the porch on the eastern side and the deck on the western side. I objected; I wanted to see out easily without bending, especially from the western deck, which looked down over the pasture, woods, and distant hills. Fay argued that from a seated position in the living room or on the deck one could see out easily. Yes, I said, but I wanted to be able to stand on the deck on summer evenings and watch the cows and sunsets and airplane contrails. He gave in and raised the roof to 6 feet.
Norma and I were anxious about the proposed height of the banister surrounding the deck. The banister would be almost twenty inches high, and the floor of the deck was about eight feet above the ground. We expect to have grandchildren, we said. What if one of the little fellows— five of them, as it turned out—tumbled through that opening and fell to the rocky ground? Nail up a chicken wire net, he said. We shrugged and gave up. We did not put up chicken wire. No kids ever fell through.
Through all the comment, discussion, and good-natured argument, I never sensed hostility on either side. I think he was not just a businessman trying to be nice to a client. He told me later about a few clients he did not like. He did not hesitate to argue with them.
Norma and I were hostile sometimes, but never toward Fay. For example, I was outraged over the cost of fabricating the steel bands that supported the clay flue tiles running up from the hearth. The company charged $386.25 for steel latticing and a few braces to hold the tiles upright. In my construction diary, I find this entry: “This is one of the few times since the beginning of the house that I feel cheated, taken, swindled. I have the same feeling when I pay $1.10 a gallon for gasoline for our Honda.”
I was continuously angry with Ozarks Electric Co-operative. I had always been a fan of electric co-ops. I had seen the bullying of some of the big private utility companies in Arkansas and beyond. Public power co-ops were supposed to be different. But we discovered a similar attitude from Ozarks Electric when we began to deal with its managers. My suspicions apparently were evident even before we started building. I once asked Fay in an interview to talk about his project for us, and he laughed and quoted from the letter I wrote to him from my newspaper’s bureau in London describing the house we wanted:
The first thing I remember is opening up this letter from London … you described a few things about the house you wanted to build. The thing I remember was that it had to be something where you didn’t mind a little dirt. You described it as a really rural house, which seemed appropriate for that area… . I remember you said you didn’t want to pay the utility company a damned dime. That was one of the things I chuckled at, I remember. You wanted a passive solar—you didn’t say “passive solar,” but by what you described, it looked like you wanted to do a house using as little electrical power as you could.
My diary entry for August 5, 1979, after construction was underway, showed a fully developed anger. I had first asked the utility to run a power line from the highway to the house site on May 7. The carpenters needed power to run their equipment. Now, in the heat of the Dog Days, I phoned the power company one more time to ask why our electricity had not been turned on. The services man in the office said he was waiting to hear that we had a “meter loop” in place. What the hell is a meter loop and why had no one at the power company told me about it?
Aug. 16: “We are still having angry trouble with Ozarks Elec.”
Aug. 31: “Ozarks Electric finally turned on power Wed. Aug. 29, three months and 22 days after I asked for it.”
I reckon it’s now time for me to say a good word about Ozarks Electric. We’ve had numerous damaging storms through the years, and the power company has always responded as quickly as it could to restore power when trees and limbs knocked down the lines or when a nearby transformer was struck by lightning. I hereby express my gratitude. Of course, there was the big ice storm of 2009, and the several days that we went without power unnecessarily because a crew from Mississippi that Ozarks Electric had imported to help in the emergency failed to spot a loose meter loop. It was only after an observant neighbor spotted it hidden behind a line of trees a quarter mile from our property that they fixed it. But what can you expect from Mississippians?
There were unavoidable delays during construction. My diary entry for November 23, 1979, reads, “The roofer, Bill Center, was to have started installing cedar shingles two weeks ago. He had to go deer hunting instead.”
And domestic problems: “Nov. 2: [John Doe], a carpenter involved in some obscure Eastern religion, off seeing about one of his ‘wives.’”
Our son John Reed, home from Madrid after working there enough years to speak English with a Spanish accent, worked on the house most of the fall and spring before heading off to finish college. He fell one day from scaffolding and struck a square corner of a steel table. He had a deep wound in his leg that had to be sewed up in the emergency room. His was the only serious injury to any of the workers.
John and Norma stained almost all of the woodwork, inside and out. He also picked up all the trash and debris a week or so before he left. For the rest of his time on the job, he never passed a piece of trash without adding it to the burn pile.
As if the normal problems of building a house were not enough, I fought the Highway Department all that year over its plan to run an interstate highway through Hogeye. One proposed route would have put it across our land. It eventually went through West Fork, which was pleased to have it.
Here’s what some of the outer world looked like during those days:
April 9: “Economy worsening—20 per cent prime interest rate, inflation rate 18 per cent, unemployment rate 6 per cent. Carter and Congress trying to balance budget. Lumber prices down (too late for us) as construction industry stalls. American hostages still in Tehran. Carter broke diplomatic relations with Iran this week. Soviet troops still in Afghanistan.”
During the year of construction, we were pleased that Fay and the builders kept our limited finances in mind. The final cost was considerably more than we had budgeted for, but we were not overly disappointed. Some things had to be postponed—a garage, finishing the basement—but we were entirely happy with the house. The architectural awards for Fay began to roll in almost as soon as it was finished.
He reflected on those awards not long before he died. “A lot of houses that cost ten times that much haven’t won awards or things, and this one’s just copped to anything that’s come along.” I mentioned the National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. Our house was one of three of his designs to win that, along with Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs and the Pinecote Pavilion in Mississippi. He noted that the total cost of all three was less than half a million dollars. Honor awards, he said, usually go to buildings that cost many millions, some as much as $20 million.
But each one [of his winners] has been the least expensive project that has won in that year in that category.
That was especially sweet for him. He was aware that he had become known as a rich person’s architect, and that bothered him. He wanted to prove that he could still design a modest house. I think that was the main reason he took us on. Designing Sam Walton’s house at Bentonville no doubt was satisfying and profitable. But he knew that newspaper people are not in Sam’s income bracket. They usually are paid less than the people they hire to fix their plumbing. Here he had a challenge, a house that would cost only a little more than a really good barn.
I don’t want to portray Fay as merely the jolly, loquacious Welshman. He was far more subtle than that. Sometimes he caused me to think of Gene Roberts, a great reporter that I used to run with. Gene used silence as an interviewing technique. He would ask a single question, then retire into silence. The interviewee—typically a politician— would finish his answer, then wait for Gene’s next question. It never came. Gene sat there looking at him until the poor fellow, unable to stand the silence, would start talking again. That might be repeated half a dozen times before Gene saw fit to shift to a new subject. The silence-filling monologues provided a lot of interesting new facts.
Fay used silence in a similar fashion. I found myself disagreeing with his design details on some occasions, as the carpenters did on the diagonal siding. I would state my objection, then wait for his answer. Frequently, Fay just went silent. Filling the silence, I continued to talk, and often went on talking until I had brought myself around to his point of view without his saying a word. He never called me a fool for arguing the point. Sometimes, if he thought I did not understand his reason for a detail—maybe the house would fall down without it—he explained with splendid simplicity why it was necessary or desirable.
I hesitate to mention the problem of the square chimney tiles. When the carpenters began to stack them one on top of another, they quickly noticed that the two towers of flues were beginning to spiral. They were not going up in straight lines. A close examination of the ends of the tiles and a call to the company that made them revealed the reason: The machine that makes clay tiles causes each tile to twist slightly in one direction as it leaves the machine. That would have made no difference if our tiles had been circular. But in square tiles, that tiny twist destroyed the symmetry of the exposed chimney towers.
The carpenters had to spend many hours grinding and straightening the ends. That added hundreds of dollars to the cost. Afterward, when I was able to laugh about it, I referred to the flue towers as Fay Jones’s Vietnam. Our unhappy adventure in Southeast Asia was still on America’s mind in the late ’70s.
I wish I could interview him one more time. I’d square off at his dining table and turn on the tape recorder. Then I would look him in the eye and ask a single question: “What do you think about square flue tiles?” Then I would sit in silence and wait. And wait.