Fay Jones spent his life building and creating, bringing elaborate and stylish building designs to life. In the process, the Arkansas native became one of the most respected and innovative architects of the twentieth century.
Jones was born in Pine Bluff in 1921. As a child, his family moved to Little Rock and then to El Dorado. Here, his parents ran the People’s Cafe, a local favorite, for many years. Growing up in El Dorado, he developed a reputation for art as he drew constantly as well as his building all sorts of structures, from crude huts to an elaborate treehouse that featured a balcony and a fireplace.
After learning about famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, he was inspired to turn his passion for art and building into an architecture career. Upon his graduation from El Dorado High School in 1938, he enrolled in the civil engineering program at the University of Arkansas. With World War II on the horizon, he enlisted in the navy in 1941 and served throughout the war as a dive bomber and a torpedo pilot.
Jones left the navy in 1945, and returned to the University of Arkansas in 1950 as the university inaugurated its new architecture program. While still a student, Jones happened to meet his inspiration, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the two began a lasting friendship. Reportedly, while teaching in Oklahoma, it was Wright who advised Jones to return to Arkansas, telling him, “You can build there.”
Fay Jones accepted a position as an architecture professor at the University of Arkansas in 1953. In 1956, he began an architectural firm in Fayetteville while still teaching. Most of his early work was designing a handful of houses in Northwest Arkansas. At one point, he designed a new home for Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. By the early 1960s, Jones’s designs were winning praise from fellow architects and the general public alike. He continued to train new architects, ultimately rising to the position of dean of the architecture school in 1974.
In July 1980, he unveiled what became his most famous work, Thorncrown Chapel, near Eureka Springs. Using a style that Jones called “Ozark Gothic,” he used mostly glass, native pine, and a small amount of steel to create a small chapel that was 48 feet high and included 425 windows and six thousand square feet of glass rising to a criss-crossing web toward the ceiling. The effect was a panoramic view of the surrounding forest and hills. It is routinely used for weddings and worship services. Six million people have visited it since its completion.
The chapel was awarded the highest honor among architects, the American Institute of Architects Honor Award, and won global praise. AIA members also chose Thorncrown Chapel as the best design of the 1980s.
Jones was hired to design projects across the nation, often integrating the natural landscape into the designs. The fame his work had earned led him to retire from the university in 1988. His practice, however, remained small, with his wife handling most of the paperwork and the firm occupying one floor of a Fayetteville office building he had designed. By the 1990s, his fellow architects had named him one of the most admired living architects in the world.
Declining health forced his retirement in 1997. He would pass away seven years later. In 2009, the University of Arkansas honored his memory by naming its School of Architecture after him. The Fay Jones School currently offers degrees in architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design, teaching students to make ideas and possibilities into architectural wonders as Jones had done.