It started with a simple question put to a cherry-picked group of our state’s foremost architects and academics: Which residential projects across Arkansas epitomize the very best of our state’s architectural heritage? The answers—and there were many—created the foundation for this collection, a series of 13 homes, all of which were built to last.
Jacob Wolf House
Jacob Wolf, Builder
High on a stately hill overlooking the White River in a town once known as Liberty stands the grand log home of Jacob Wolf. Now in the heart of Norfork, the structure was built, hewn log by hewn log, by Wolf, a territorial legislator, to serve as the courthouse for the newly created Izard County. Today, the dogtrot building (so named for the first floor’s distinctive breezeway that provided dogs and their owners a place to escape the summer heat) is famous as the state’s oldest public building. But from its early days, the structure served another role as the Wolfs’ family home.
It’s unknown whether the family used the building as an extension of their home just a few steps away during its stint as a courthouse. In any case, it wouldn’t be long before the building became the Wolfs’ official residence. When the county was split after only six years, Wolf’s son, who’d followed his father into the Legislature, passed a bill ensuring that the property—and the newly redundant courthouse along with it—was returned to its original owner, who happened to be his father.
“So [Wolf] got it funded, got it built and got it given back to himself,” says Tommy Jameson, the architect in charge of the structure’s extensive 1999-2002 restoration.
The building would remain in the family for nearly a century, saving it from the rot and ruin that destroyed so many of the state’s earliest public buildings. Still, time took its toll. During Jameson’s restoration, Amish craftsmen had to replace most of the logs in the building’s lower section and complete myriad other tasks, such as returning the floors to their original height.
Now owned by Baxter County, the Wolf House is once again a publicly owned building. It remains one of the mid-South’s finest examples of “vernacular” architecture—built using methods passed down through generations instead of methods learned through formal training. —nh
Grandison D. Royston House
If you were to choose a piece of architecture that embodies the American Spirit of the mid-19th century, you could do no better than the family home of Gen. Grandison D. Royston, a lawyer and U.S. district attorney for Arkansas.
Built around 1845 in Washington, Arkansas, a historic small town turned state park, the Royston House is one of the state’s earliest examples of Greek Revival architecture, a style inspired by the strong columns, simple horizontal lines and gently pitched roofs of ancient Greek temples.
“I could talk about the architectural elements of the building—the crafting of the porch columns, the window moulding, the floor plan—but those are small details compared to what the style means to the evolution of American architecture,” says Ethel Goodstein-Murphree, associate dean of the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture.
Those early Americans, she says, saw classical-inspired architecture as “a noble expression of the values of this democratic country.” And while those values were writ large in the great public buildings then being erected across the country, frontier craftsmen like those who built the Royston House distilled the style into something fundamental. White-washed wood replaced fine stones. Square timber stood in for fluted columns. But despite using these “lesser” materials, a certain beauty still resonates today.
Greek Revival remained popular until after the Civil War, when its strong association with the antebellum South may have contributed to the style’s decline. But though tastes have changed, the style still holds a special place in the American consciousness. Perhaps that’s why Grandison Royston’s house is one of the park’s most popular historic homes. —nh
Lake Village, 1859
Modest dwellings were once the rule, even on the largest and most prosperous of Arkansas delta plantations. Record cotton prices in the 1850s changed that, at least for the lucky few.
With their newfound prosperity, well-to-do farmers—among them one Lycurgus Johnson of Chicot County—began to build large mansions meant to showcase their power, cultivation and, of course, wealth. Greek Revival architecture’s broad porticoes and imposing columns were ideal for this purpose. Lakeport Plantation, the 17-room Greek Revival mansion built in 1858-59 for Johnson and his family, is the grandest example of this style left on the Arkansas side of the river. The L-shaped home features a soaring 16-by-26-foot entry hall with a painted floor, a rose window on the front-porch pediment and an attached kitchen, which was rare at the time.
The plantation stayed in the Johnson family until 1927, when it was sold to Sam Epstein, a Russian immigrant and successful merchant. Epstein’s grandson donated Lakeport to Arkansas State University in 2001. An extensive six-year restoration effort helmed by the university’s Delta Heritage Initiative included a lab analysis of paint samples to accurately match the plantation’s original colors, and a painstakingly accurate refashioning of doors and the plantation’s rose-shaped window, using hand tools and historic techniques. Lakeport opened to the public as a museum and educational center in 2007. —jbr