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OPINION | KAREN MARTIN: Envisioning an architect's dream house

by Karen Martin | June 13, 2021 at 8:53 a.m.
Karen Martin

What does your house say about you? For most, it reflects a compromise, a choice made among available options at the time. You probably didn't design the structure in which you live, and if you've remodeled it, there likely remain some aspects you would change if time and money would allow.

Our homes, in most cases, reflect someone else's vision of functional design rather than our own.

Those visionaries--those architects--live somewhere too. Some reside in houses that they designed. What does that look like, especially to the rest of us who occupy a prêt-à-porter residence?

The Quapaw Quarter Association comes to the rescue in answering that question, with a recent online discussion of architects' personal homes in greater Little Rock with Mason Toms.

Starting with some of the oldest structures still standing and continuing through the post-World War II period in Arkansas, he compared the best-known works of featured architects to the houses they built for themselves to see if there is a correlation between their client designs and their personal surroundings.

And it turns out that those personal homes, which I imagined would be the stuff of fantasy and grandeur, mostly aren't. Although Arkansas' best-known architects are the talents behind many of the state's celebrated structures, their residences were more likely to be advertisements to attract future clients.

A native of Arkansas and a graduate of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, Toms is an architectural historian in the National Register and Survey section of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, an agency of the Department of Arkansas Parks, Heritage, and Tourism, where he specializes in Modern architecture, which promotes sleek, clean lines and eliminates decorative embellishment.

He's also the creator and administrator of Facebook group Arkansas Modernism, which features a different Modernist-inspired building in the state of Arkansas every Friday.

Among his subjects during the hour-long discussion:

Prolific Frank W. Gibb (1861-1932) is the talent behind eight Arkansas courthouses and the Buckstaff Bathhouse in Hot Springs. Much of his energy went into spec houses "as a way to show off his skill," Toms said.

His grand portico-edged house on Arch Street, built in 1910, is believed to have been built for his daughter's coming-out party, Toms said. The family lived there until 1912, then, because they were bankrupt, moved to the Capitol Hotel. "His taste in architecture did not reflect his bank account," Toms said.

Charles L. Thompson (1868-1959), who built elaborate courthouses along with Little Rock City Hall, was responsible for several smaller, simpler homes in Quapaw Quarter with blended Mission Revival (inspired by late 18th- and early 19th-century Spanish missions in California) and foursquare styles (boxy designs that provide a maximum amount of interior space), "which he did quite a bit."

A part of Thompson's success, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, was his firm's ability to design buildings in popular styles even as the styles changed. At the beginning of his career, the Queen Anne style (asymmetric with overhanging eaves, towers, and lots of textures) was popular, and his buildings of those years reflected that.

Then came his adaptations of styles such as Romanesque Revival (round towers with cone-shaped roofs), Colonial Revival (symmetrical two stories with transoms, sidelights, and chimneys), Neo-Classical (dramatic use of columns), Tudor Revival (steeply pitched gable roofs, embellished doorways, decorative half-timbering), Prairie Style (emphasis on the horizontal rather than vertical), Craftsman (tapered columns, exposed rafter tails, covered front porches) and Art Deco (linear with geometric ornamentation).

In 1906 he built a house on South Broadway for himself, "which is where you wanted to live then," Toms said, a combination foursquare and Mission Revival. "It's kinda plain," said Toms, adding that it was a "weird blend."

George R. Mann (1856-1939) created the 1913 Beaux Arts Pulaski County Courthouse Annex. His first house, built in 1905 on South Center Street, had features of Prairie design with big overhanging eaves and a Mission-style front porch.

In 1932 he built a simpler house with classical nods on North Lookout, where he lived until 1938, when he moved to Country Club Boulevard, although that house no longer exists. "Left to his own devices, he went for something more progressive," Toms said.

John Parks Almand, who designed several central Arkansas churches as well as the Medical Arts Building in Hot Springs, worked in a variety of styles including Arts and Crafts (emphasizing the beauty of the materials), Art Deco, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Gothic Revival (pointed arches, front-facing gables), and Mission.

His home on Daisy Gatson Bates Drive (formerly 14th Street), built in 1921, was a Tudor revival with elaborate woodwork and a tile roof on a busy street corner; "more an architectural ad than a residence," Toms said.

In 1954 Almand moved to his retirement home in the Heights, a ranch style with Romanesque influences. "He may have been trying to evolve," Toms said.

J. Yandell Johnson (1911-2000) built residences such as a Cape Cod on Riverview Drive in 1940, with modern touches like cedar shingle siding and slider windows, and another on Lakeview in North little Rock in 1949 in what was touted to be a modern neighborhood; it had stainless steel cabinets and sleek linoleum floors. "His style changes a lot," Toms commented.

By 1964 Johnson switched to a quiet, low-slung house on Crestwood with a diminished presence from the street with a focus on the backyard, "a more natural, earth-incorporated design," Toms said.

Noland Blass (1920-1998), known for elegant structures like the Worthen Bank Building (now the Bank of America), "never found a style he liked," Toms said. "His layouts repeated, but they don't look alike."

His house on Normandy, built in 1952, is low to the earth; "it blends with the landscape and has no interaction with the street, which is significant." It was centered on a glass-enclosed atrium space that welcomed natural light and created an-ever changing focal point for the house.

The novelty of this design caught the attention of the editors of Architectural Record, who featured the house in its October 1966 issue.

At the time, Toms said, "it would have been a really big deal."

There's lots more; you can view the entire presentation here:

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.


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