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E. Fay Jones, 83; Wright Pupil With Own Vision

September 03, 2004|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

E. Fay Jones, one of the 20th century's leading architects, who is best known for his Thorncrown Chapel, a web of wood, glass and stone in Eureka Springs, Ark., has died. He was 83.

Jones, a former University of Arkansas professor, died Monday at his home in Fayetteville, Ark., the university announced. Jones had Parkinson's disease but the university did not release the cause of death.

In a career spanning half a century, Jones designed 135 residences as well as numerous chapels and churches. He created fountains, gardens and commercial structures. His work can be found in 20 states, including California. He also published 15 books.

His Thorncrown Chapel was voted the American Institute of Architects Design of the Decade for the 1980s, beating out such notable structures as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the World Financial Center in New York City. Another poll of the institute's members on leading 20th century architecture ranked Thorncrown fourth after Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house in western Pennsylvania and the Chrysler and Seagram buildings in New York City.

A native of Pine Bluff, Ark., Eunie Fay Jones stopped using his first name, an old Welsh form of John pronounced "u-wan," because people had trouble saying it.

He grew up in Fayetteville and El Dorado, Ark., where his parents ran a restaurant. As a youngster, he developed a talent for building and art, constructing several elaborate treehouses, including one that burned down from a fire touched off by a spark from its fireplace.

In his late teens, Jones, who had been interested in engineering, was drawn to architecture after seeing a short film on Wright's Johnson Wax Building, which was then under construction in Racine, Wis.

"I saw the camera moving up those columns and the light flowing in, the camera shooting up those curving walls," he told a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor some years ago. "Well, of course, I walked out of the theater that day knowing that it was an architect that I wanted to be."

Jones' plans to study architecture were stalled by World War II, however. He joined the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served as a pilot in the Pacific.

After the war, he went to college on the GI Bill, earning a bachelor's degree in the first architecture class at the University of Arkansas.

He earned a master's degree at Rice University in Houston before teaching at the University of Oklahoma and then at Rice. While in Houston, he met Wright and later studied with the architect at the Taliesin compound in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona.

But while Wright was flamboyant and brilliant, Jones' gifts came in an unassuming and genial package. He preferred the quiet of Arkansas and set up a small practice in Fayetteville.

His work was grounded on Wright's principles of organic architecture, the relationship of the building to the landscape and the use of natural materials in construction.

"Jones is probably the most outstanding disciple of Wright to have established his own practice and work," Robert Adams Ivy Jr., editor of Architectural Record and author of the book "Fay Jones," told Associated Press. But Ivy added: "Jones' work, his own hand, always seems to come through."

Jones considered the Thorncrown Chapel to be his most important building because, he once told Progressive Architecture, it represented a "weaning" from the more overt homage to Wright.

Started in 1971 and finished in 1980, the nondenominational Thorncrown Chapel is in a woodland setting. Tall and narrow, it soars 48 feet into the trees, contains 425 windows and rests atop more than 100 tons of native flagstone.

The wood used is simple Arkansas pine two-by-fours. Only materials that workers could carry along a narrow path to the building site were used in its construction.

The site has become a mecca for tourists, with more than 4 million visitors since it opened.

The success of Thorncrown led to other commissions for Jones.

Although he was primarily a designer of residences, his next best-known work was probably the Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista, Ark.

In Southern California, a fine example of work by Jones and his longtime partner Maurice Jennings is the SkyRose Chapel at the Rose Hills cemetery in Whittier.

While he was honored for his larger works, his single-family dwellings became prized in their own way. His houses generally had an open floor plan and tended to minimize the distinction between indoors and outdoors.

"Sky is very important to me in that it's that great source of light and there are so many nuances of the sky.... I can't think of a building I've ever done that doesn't have skylights ... or something else to bring in the natural light from the sky," he told the Christian Science Monitor.

Writer Ellen Gilchrist bought one of Jones' earliest homes in Fayetteville.

"I never want to leave this place," she told the New York Times some years ago, "because there is always something mystical happening. It's stamped with Fay's mind, but mostly it's open to the big creation."

In 1990, Jones was presented with the American Institute of Architects gold medal by President George H. W. Bush at a White House dinner.

The keynote speaker at the event was Prince Charles, who is the royal architectural critic.

"Fay Jones' buildings speak of what [writer and art critic John] Ruskin termed 'the poetry of architecture' -- a poetry arising out of buildings in harmony with their natural surroundings," Charles said. "They seem to evoke the amplitude of nature -- without damaging nature. Thorncrown Chapel was built in the woods from timber carried to the site by hand. Not one of the trees around it was touched."

Jones is survived by Gus, his wife of 61 years, and two daughters.

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