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Buildings that incorporate past and present

by BROOKE GREENBERG | January 22, 2023 at 1:52 a.m.

Bad English has got me wistful and nostalgic this morning. For years, I could count on Paul Greenberg to emit a little shriek of horror--I'm not sure if it was a true reflex or just good theater--when I read him a line like the one I just discovered in The Wall Street Journal, in an article about the recent storms in California. Brace yourselves.

"A sea-level rise can tip the balance between something that is impactful to something that is next level."

It comes from Patrick Barnard, identified as a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. How could a geologist use "impactful" and "next level"? And just where is that tipping point between the two?

Until this morning I thought that the study of geology caused a person to develop a good sense of poetry. To study geology, you have to reckon with immense depths of time while learning to look at fossils and rocks and fault lines and describe them with extreme precision.

Those requirements must, by some grace or zen, develop the ability to look and listen the way poets are supposed to. Open up "The Geology of Paleozoic Arkansas" (Cary Croneis, 1930) and pick out a random sentence or two:

"The black shale itself is scantily fossiliferous, and was once considered barren; but diligent search in it will usually reveal crushed and fragmentary shells of pelecypods. At several places a rather well preserved fauna has been found at the horizon of the black shale."

Found poetry. Nothing is wasted. Words have concrete meanings. Pelecypods are bivalves: clams, cockles, mussels, oysters. "Pelecypod" might be long and Latinate, but unlike "next level," it means something.

Ellen Gilchrist fed my belief in the poetry of geology. In 1999, Jim Whitehead retired from directing the creative writing program that he, Bill Harrison, and Miller Williams founded at the University of Arkansas in 1965. Gilchrist was a student in that program in the late 1970s, and I would guess that she has sold more books than anyone associated with it.

She started teaching in the program in 2000 and wrote a short essay about trying to find someone to take over Whitehead's post.

The faculty's favorite, Gilchrist writes, was Davis McCombs, who worked as a ranger for seven years at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. His book of poems about the cave "is mysterious and wise and philosophical and tender. It is about wandering in the interior of the earth. There is no resentment in the book, only wonder and tenderness and love."

And then she strikes her blow: "Most of the manuscripts from our other candidates are about their own interior spaces."

As Norman Mailer said, Ellen Gilchrist is a national treasure.

From 1987 to 2013, she lived in a house that Fay Jones built on Mount Sequoyah in Fayetteville during the late 1950s. (His design dates from 1956-58, and he oversaw the construction, which was completed in 1960.)

Gilchrist contributed an essay about the house to Jeff Shannon's collection "Shadow Patterns: Reflections on Fay Jones and His Architecture." She writes that the only way to understand a Fay Jones house is to live in it: "It won't give up its secrets on a few visits. You have to live in it season after season and year after year to appreciate and understand the workmanship and genius."

With charm and tact, she writes about her efforts "to solve the problems of living in a house built by a genius." Cold concrete floors, low entrances, a rainwater-fed indoor pond she had to seal up: all of these things were worth enduring for "the way the light makes its way around my house as the days and seasons go by, visions in rain and panoramas in snow and ice."

Down the hill from Gilchrist's Fay Jones house and west across U.S. 71 you'll find the Rock House Historic District, also known as the Wilson Park Historic District. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995; at the time it contained 47 houses that were considered contributing. ("Contributing" means that a property is over 50 years old and no one has altered its original character by, say, covering it with vinyl siding.)

The 47 contributing houses were built in styles used all over the country during the late 19th and early 20th century (Italianate, Queen Anne Revival, Colonial Revival, Craftsman, and Mediterranean), but the unusual character of the district comes from Fayetteville's topography and climate, the narrow streets, and the 13 rock houses that give the district its name. All have fieldstone foundations, and 12 have exterior walls built entirely of stone.

The study of geology must develop the sense of architecture as well as poetry, for 11 of the rock houses were built by geologist Noah Fields Drake (1864-1945). Drake was born at Summers, 20 miles west of Fayetteville, and studied civil engineering at the University of Arkansas. After graduating in 1888, he spent a year working for the Arkansas Geological Survey under John Casper Branner.

Drake left Arkansas to work for the Texas Geological Survey for a few years, and meanwhile Branner sent his assistant geologist Theodore B. Comstock to investigate claims that the Ouachita Mountains were full of silver and gold.

Several mines, mainly in Montgomery and Garland Counties, had already received $113 million from investors, and when Branner publicized Comstock's report that the mines contained no silver or gold, Arkansans raged in the press and burned Branner in effigy. Gov. Simon P. Hughes defended Branner, and Gov. James P. Eagle reappointed him twice, but the Legislature dissolved the Geological Survey in 1893.

Branner moved to California to teach geology at the Leland Stanford Jr. University, and Noah Fields Drake followed in order to become his student. (Herbert Hoover, who mapped zinc- and coal-bearing formations in northern Arkansas in 1892, also went to Stanford to study under Branner.)

Drake received a Ph.D. in geology from Stanford in 1897, and in 1898 went to China to teach at Pei Yang University (now Tianjin University). From 1900 to 1905, Drake conducted a geological reconnaissance of Tientsin Province (now Tianjin) and produced one of the earliest geological maps of any part of China. He returned to Pei Yang University from 1905 to 1910, then returned to Stanford, and finally returned to Fayetteville in 1912.

Several of the houses in the Rock House Historic District feature koi ponds surrounded by bamboo, and I am told that Noah Fields Drake got the idea to build them during his time in China.

I hope that's true. No artifact is original. Cultures borrow, from the past and from each other. People go abroad, they get ideas, they come home, and at best, they make better things from local materials. Beautiful, simple things from what's available at home. A quiet koi pond behind a fieldstone bungalow. That's how it should be.

Brooke Greenberg lives in Little Rock. Email:

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