After years of working on big projects in New York, Fayetteville architect Ernie Jacks is earning recognition right here in Northwest Arkansas
Two of Jacks' projects have been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. The Oscar Chambers House in Fort Smith is now officially listed on the registry, and the Dr. James Patrick House of Fayetteville waits for approval.
"I'm very flattered by all this," said the 90-something emeritus professor in the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas. "It's coming awfully late in life. The buildings must be at least 50 years old [to be considered for the historic register]."
Jacks grew up in West Memphis. "And I was there until World War II, when we all went into the military at age 18," he said. When Jacks returned, he enrolled with 17 other students in the university's earliest architecture classes -- taught by John G. Williams in the College of Engineering, according to a history of the school offered by the university.
Edward Durrell Stone, an architect renowned for his modern design and a Fayetteville native, was a guest critic in those early days of the architecture classes, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Stone hired Jacks to work on the medical school in Little Rock.
"But, lo and behold, I was recalled to the military in the Aleutian Islands [in Alaska]," Jacks said.
Jacks spent most of his life working for Stone in New York, so his Arkansas projects are few. "I never worked [in Northwest Arkansas] that long," Jacks said. "Back here, I was primarily teaching.
"I would have liked to stay longer in my career and New York," Jacks said, but his wife Nita and daughter Jennifer were in Arkansas. "Those were some hard decisions," Jacks said. "John Williams was nice to offer me a professorship." Jacks worked his way up through the University, ultimately serving as associate dean of the school of architecture. He also opened a small office for projects in Fayetteville.
The architect's portfolio also was bereft of house designs at this time, Jacks said. When a young Jacks was working with architect Craig Ellwood in Los Angeles, the firm designed several of the "Case Study Homes," commissioned by Arts and Architecture Magazine. The proposal was "to design and build inexpensive and efficient model homes for the U.S. residential housing boom after World War II," according to the magazine's website.
Working later with Stone, Jacks contributed to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India, the U.S. pavilion at World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium, the International College in Beirut, Lebanon, and, the North Carolina State Legislative Building.
Most of Jacks' designs are categorized today as "mid-century modern" architecture, the significance of which brought the houses to the attention of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, which helps nominate structures to the National Register.
"That was the school of thought in the 1950s," Jacks said. "The prevalent philosophies were function, honesty in the material, and making sense -- well, that produces modern architecture."
In an 2011 interview for Clean Lines, Open Spaces, an AETN program about modern architecture, Jacks explained following a design for a historic building "doesn't make sense any more. The construction materials are different. The lifestyle of the people using the building is different. Everything is different. It is inappropriate to borrow forms from past societies and use them today" -- although broad design principles may be used, he said.
"The design of the Oscar Chambers house is an excellent representation of the shift in residential design that was occurring across the country after World War II," reads the National Register description. "The decorative pre-war revival styles -- which were all the rage -- were being pushed to the side by more functional and livable residential designs. Although some people after World War II still believed that only shrunken colonial, Cape Cod ranches or Cinderella homes properly represented the American way of life ... it was slowly becoming apparent to people that architects working with builders can give them better, more thoughtful design for their money."
For example, the Patrick family requested Jacks incorporate into his design a flower area, space for a piano, a kitchen office and the ability for the parents to observe the children from the kitchen. The Chambers' kitchen included an indoor grill, hood vent and countertop of laminated hardwood to be used as a cutting board, because Oscar Chambers liked to cook, according to a June 2015 article on the Midcentury Home Magazine's website.
"Both of these men had large families -- four or five children," Jacks said of the Chambers and Patrick families. "They needed so many bedrooms, it counted as a wing. It took a lot of space for these people."
"If one word were used to summarize the aspiration of the American architecture at mid-century, that word would be 'liveability,'" reads the Virginia Savage McAlester and Lee McAlester book A Field Guide to American Homes, quoted in the Chambers' house National Register description.
INDOORS AND OUT
All of the American Institute of Architecture's award-winning houses during the era showed an emphatic withdrawal from the bustle of the street and from ostentation as well.
Jacks' homes were built to encourage a family's relationship between the indoors and out. Sliding glass doors opened onto courtyards, and large windows along the courtyard facades encouraged residents and visitors to interact with the houses' surroundings -- a design inspired by Ellwood, reads the National Register nomination.
The Patrick house stands on the side of Mount Sequoyah in Fayetteville, overlooking the Mount Sequoyah Woods. Many of the larger trees on the site pre-date the house, and design structures were incorporated around them. The property is certified as a wildlife refuge.
"The Patrick house sits lightly on land, with open steel all around it," Jacks said. The placement of large windows away from the street also provided privacy for the house's occupants.
The home presented a difficult site for Jacks to deal with.
"The Patrick house is dug into the hillside, with open east side view while the west side is totally closed," Jacks continued. "Because of the rock shelf [that ran across the site], we either had to move the house or dynamite the rock. Nobody was too interested in us dynamiting up there," he recalled with a laugh.
The solution was to dig the house into the site -- which also proved beneficial for heating and cooling the house. The long, linear design accommodates the steep slope of the site, and with the front built mainly below grade, the house is not visible from the street.
But the rear facade is located on a raised terrace and comprised mostly of glass and sliding doors to take advantage of the views.
After the Chambers home at 3200 S. Dallas St. in Fort Smith was constructed in 1963-64, the family lived in the house for only a few years. The owner, who ran insurance companies that sold policies to soldiers at Fort Chaffee, returned to Texas and gave the house to his church. The Coffman family owned the house for many years, before listing it on the register and for sale a few years ago.
Through work on the Chambers house, Ralph Wilcox of the Arkansas preservation program learned of the Patrick house.
Patrick served as medic in Japan and then a general practitioner in Fayetteville for 34 years. He volunteered as a physician and served in the Vietnam War. Patrick was director of family practice training with UA Arkansas Health Education Clinics in the 1980s, and Jacks was one of his patients.
Word of mouth recommended Jacks to Patrick for his work on the Chambers house project, and Patrick hired his patient and soon-to-be next-door neighbor to design his modern abode in 1965-66 at 370 N. Williams Drive.
NAN Our Town on 01/05/2017
Print Headline: Mid-Century