Fay Jones was still a boy in Arkansas when he first heard of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was the 1930s, and though the famous architect was already in his seventies, he was as busy as ever. As recounted in an essay by Gregory Herman for the digital exhibit Fay Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright — Organic Architecture Comes to Arkansas, Jones watched a newsreel about Wright’s recently completed Johnson Wax Headquarters at his local movie theater and was immediately hooked on architecture.
He would grow up to not only become a notable architect, but to also form an important friendship with his architectural idol during the last decade of Wright’s life. The older architect wielded an enormous influence on Jones that visibly impacted northwest Arkansas’s architectural landscape. Curated by University of Arkansas (UARK) archivist Catherine Wallack, the online show tells that story through nearly 150 photographs, letters, newspaper articles, and other ephemera.
A joint project by the University of Arkansas Libraries’ Special Collections and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Library and Archives, it comes at a strategic time. In 2013, Crystal Bridges purchased Wright’s Bachman Wilson House in New Jersey and has since moved it to the museum’s property in Bentonville, where it will open to the public this summer. It will be Arkansas’s first Wright-designed home — something that would have thrilled Jones had he lived to see it. While the online exhibition includes images and correspondence related to the house — which Wright was designing around the time he and Jones became friends — it focuses much more on the mentor-protégé relationship between the two men.
Jones would never have met Wright if he hadn’t had a little nerve. According to a 1960 profile in The Arkansas Gazette (included in the show), he enrolled as a student in UARK’s then-new architecture program after serving in World War II. Goaded by his professor John Williams, he attended the 1949 American Institute of Architects conference in hopes of catching a glimpse of Wright, who would be receiving that year’s Gold Medal. While in Houston, Jones found himself at a party where Wright was the guest of honor. He told the newspaper:
When I found the room where Mr. Wright was being entertained and took a stand near the door and waited, hoping to see him make his exit. As I stood there, Mr. Wright came out of the room. John [Williams] was right on his heels. For some reason Mr. Wright paused and looked at me carefully, but I was too awed to say anything. John, who had never even seen Mr. Wright before, came to my aid. “Mr. Wright,” John said, “this is Fay Jones, one of our students.” Mr. Wright offered his hand. John winked at me and was off! I muttered “hello” or something. People began to crowd around Mr. Wright. He grabbed my arm and spent the next 30 minutes discussing some of his views on architecture.
The meeting was transformative. In 1953, Jones applied for an apprenticeship at Taliesin, an artist’s colony Wright established near his home in Wisconsin where young creatives could work and study under him. The architect, who was by then in his eighties, admitted him.
Jones and his wife Gus spent the next few months immersed in Wright’s “organic architecture.” The design philosophy emphasized natural materials, smart insulation, and a strong connection to the outdoors. In notes taken while at Taliesin, Jones defined it as an architecture where “every part, every piece has a role to play, and they join together to the benefit of all.” Wright whimsically dubbed such houses “Usonian” — a term he borrowed from 19th century author James Duff Law, who thought it was a better, more specific word than “American” for describing something that uniquely originates in the United States.
After the fellowship was over, the aspiring architect followed Wright’s advice to return to Fayetteville and teach. “Go to Arkansas,” Wright told him, according to an interview Jones later gave. “They are a small group — young and unspoiled; maybe you can do some good there.”
Though Jones’s life became wrapped up in the university, his friendship with Wright continued. Every year, the Jones family visited Wright’s Taliesin II house in Arizona for an Easter gala, an extravagant party captured in the many pastel-hued snapshots included in the show.
“The strong light that you cast into dark corners and far reaches has been so enlightening, and continues to be most helpful to me and my family,” Jones wrote to Wright in 1955. “Our association with your work — our active participation in the Taliesin Life — has been the most meaningful thing in our lives.”
In 1958, he implored the ailing Wright to come speak to his students in Arkansas. “We are very much in need here of your thought provoking ideas and the enthusiasm which your presence always seems to inspire,” he wrote in a letter. Wright agreed and flew to Arkansas less than a year before his death. A black-and-white photograph taken during his visit shows the two architects standing side-by-side. Jones is literally beaming.
But the Arkansas native wasn’t merely Wright’s acolyte. By 1960, the year after Wright died, Jones had already designed more than a dozen buildings in Northwest Arkansas. Though homes like the Hall Residence in Bentonville clearly exhibit Wright’s concepts about organic architecture, they also show that Jones had ideas of his own.
While Wright championed horizontal structures, Jones built vertical ones like the Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs. As Herman writes insightfully in his essay, “Wright considered nature as an earth-bound expression, Jones found his connection to nature in that which grew up from the earth. Perhaps the distinction came from Wright’s background — prairie bound, in awe of the horizon; Jones, a man of the hills, surrounded by rock ledges and forests.”
But Jones never forgot Wright. He painstakingly preserved all his communication with Wright down to the labels on packages Wright sent him. In 1991, a year after he received an AIA Gold Medal of his own — the only of Wright’s students to ever receive one — he told a crowd,
There has seldom been a day since that early fall morning in 1953, when we packed our things and drove away [from Arkansas], that I have not had at least a few moments of remembering life as it was then at Taliesin — and of being uplifted by that recall — and of feeling enormously grateful for some immeasurable (and indescribable) ingredient that was added to my life by that experience.
In another speech, he credited his discovery of Wright as being the catalyst that led him to architecture.
[His] words and his works have shown (more than any others I have ever known) that, whatever the art of our intent, however we shape the things we do, whatever architectural language we speak — it must somehow express something more than mere accommodation, and its expression must transcend mere building, mere construction, mere technical achievement.
Fay Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright — Organic Architecture Comes to Arkansas can be viewed on the University of Arkansas’s website.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.