John G. Williams, architect
Talk to folks familiar with the flat-roofed, cypress-wrapped home built for the David Durst family on a wooded lot adjacent to the University of Arkansas, and they’ll first mention the children’s bedrooms. Actually, they’ll call them “sleeping alcoves,” and they’ll smile as they describe their diminutive size—just large enough for a single bed, a wooden nightstand, a closet with built-in drawers—and their trademark accordion doors.
“They were maybe this big,” says Dana Durst Lawrence, remembering her childhood home—a home that’s now passed on to her—as she rises from her seat and takes four large paces to give an idea of the bedrooms’ size. “At night, you’d close those accordion doors for privacy, but during the day, they’d be open to the rest of the living space. The home was meant to be a living, breathing, evolving space. And everything was together.”
That idea of “togetherness” was paramount to the home’s design, a collaboration between architect John G. Williams, founder of the University of Arkansas’ architecture department, and Lawrence’s father, David Durst, who became chair of the art department in 1946. Durst, an abstract expressionist intrigued by the philosophy of the day and inspired by the Bauhaus movement, was instrumental in the realization of a fully integrated fine-arts center (designed, it should be noted, by Edward Durell Stone), that brought together the many disciplines of art under one roof and offered collaborative studio and exhibition spaces that could be used by all. It was an idea that her father wanted to follow him home, into the space he would share with his wife and two young children.
“This whole collaborative idea was in the ethos of the time,” says Lawrence. “It was an avant-garde idea, and it certainly hadn’t come to Arkansas.”
But it was an idea that was shared by many like-minded university folk, spilling out into their salon-like cocktail parties and eventually into Williams’ design for Durst’s home. Built seamlessly into its sloping, wooded site to foster a sense of commune with the surrounding landscape, the experimental home was created to exist as one fully integrated space—a communal living space—flanked by those noteworthy bedrooms.
“When you are in one space together, your artwork is sitting on this table, you’re eating over here, you’re talking to friends over here—it’s all mushed in together,” says Lawrence. “It’s not like you go to work—chop, chop, chop—and then come home, and that’s it. It’s all flowing, one into the next. And the space does that, too.”
It was a radical idea at the time—as was the home’s stark, utilitarian construction, which, along with the Fay Jones-designed Hantz house next door, stood in stark contrast to the stone cottages and red-brick colonials of the neighborhood at that time. Lawrence recalls curious people walking into the house—there was no lock on the door—surprised to find a family inside. She also remembers a drunk man crashing one of the Dursts’ cocktail parties, “asking if this belonged to Tyson’s, because it sure looked like a chicken coop.”
Even today, the two neighboring houses—now both owned by Lawrence—reveal a distinctly modern aesthetic, though the neighborhood has since been largely acquired by the university, which has used the space for structures such as a parking deck and a conference center.
“My father once explained to me what he and his fellow artists were trying to do,” says Lawrence. “He said, ‘We are always trying to express an idea that can’t quite be said in words.’ Always on the cusp, is what I call it.” —kb
IN ARKANSAS, OF ARKANSAS
Fay & Gus Jones House
E. Fay Jones, architect
Six years after graduating at the top of his class—the first graduating class of the University of Arkansas architecture program that now bears his name—and two and a half decades before he sent his Thorncrown Chapel soaring skyward through the treetops, Fay Jones made his introductory statement as a bonafide, full-fledged, honest-to-goodness architect: his family’s home.
It was a fitting choice, given how we now remember the Arkansan who “embodies everything that architecture can and should be,” according to the American Institute of Architects. Jones was humble and deliberate, uncompromising and utterly devoted to his craft; and his decision to begin his career by building his architectural philosophies into his personal space—the place he’d call home until his final days—seems far more than mere happenstance. Though it’s said that he designed the house in a weekend, he had likely been doodling and daydreaming its bold overhanging roof and dramatic stacked-stone hearth for years, waiting for just the right site—that perfect mix of Ozark hills and towering oaks, of shadow and light, of pure, unadulterated Arkansas—to reveal itself. And when it did, he was ready.
“Fay saw organic architecture as something that was natural to the place, certainly place-bound,” says Greg Herman, associate professor at the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture. “It was in a place, and of a place. He built his home into the hillside, and so it’s got that connection to the landscape. It’s in its place, obviously; but being of the place, it’s fused into a single composition by means of the rock, and the hillside coming into the house. It’s a perfect example of who he was as an architect.”
To walk into that space now—to take in the lower level’s earthen walls and stony floors, the upper level’s soaring ceilings and sheet-glass walls—would be a lesson in Jones’ dichotomous fixation on both the earthbound (the cave) and the celestial (the swaying limbs of the forest canopy). To see the boulder that lies in residence in the lower level’s garden room—discovered during construction excavation and now celebrated in the design—would be a textbook example of Fay’s desire to blur the lines between outside and inside. And to stand beneath the gabled ceiling in a puddle of light ushered in through pinewood soffits would be to appreciate Jones’ quest to see the sacred in the everyday. How appropriate then that these relics of his philosophies of design should be represented here in his forever home, an enduring, ever-tangible example left behind by a man who considered himself first and foremost a teacher—a teacher who devoted 35 years of his academic career to the students of the University of Arkansas.
“Fayetteville is a very different place than it was 50, 60 years ago: We have the Internet, and we have all kinds of image resources, and there’s interest in a more globalized view than in something that is of a ‘local’ image,” says Herman. “But certainly, you see him in his students—there’s so many out there that practice in a ‘Jonesian’ mode. All you have to do is look around to see that influence. I know that even those that are interested in other imagery surely appreciate his ethic, his desire to connect somehow with the landscape. Even someone who is working in opposition to the landscape is still affected by it, and I think that’s something that Fay would certainly respect.” —kb
AN UNDERSTATED (MODERNIST) STATEMENT
Noland Blass House
Little Rock, 1952
Noland Blass, Architect
Although Noland Blass Jr.’s mark can be found on many public buildings in Arkansas—the Arkansas Justice Building and Supreme Court Rotunda key among them—the prolific architect’s self-designed Little Rock home may be the most indicative of his dedication to the clean lines and minimal look that characterized postwar architecture.
The three-level dwelling is so understated from the curb that it’s easy to miss on its Midtown street, tucked as it is between the neighboring homes. But inside, massive crank windows, a modern sunken tub, dark beamed ceilings and a split-level living area with glass walls tell a different story.
“This is a house in the tradition of a villa,” says Ethel Goodstein-Murphree, interim dean at the Fay Jones School of Architecture. “It’s embodying an extraordinary sense of luxury within a modern vocabulary.”
The Blass house manages to be modern and minimal without feeling stark, thanks in great part to the way the house is built into its surroundings. Hints of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic-architecture approach can be seen in the way the house meld with the wooded landscape, with the floor-to-ceiling, south-facing windows taking advantage of views over the carefully landscaped backyard.
“The celebration of those hills is important in terms of local history—the history of the Pulaski Heights area as the first true suburb in Little Rock,” Goodstein-Murphree says.
Blass continued his celebration of Arkansas throughout his career, spending 50 years at work in the state and becoming a partner for Erhart, Eichenbaum and Rauch. Blass’ name can be credited to the designs for prominent Little Rock buildings that include Baptist Medical Center and the Arkansas Cancer Research Center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Still privately owned, the Blass house last sold in April 2013 for just more than a half million. —evz