Stone’s Throw from Campus

Copyright 2011 Ben S. Pollock

Catherine Wallack, a University of Arkansas interior design professor, deserves praise for curating a comprehensive exhibit of furniture produced by the Fulbright family’s wood business and designed by Edward Durell Stone. Wallack is credited with putting together the show, but University Relations leaves unsaid who’s responsible for honoring him after years of convenient memory loss.

The record snow storms kept me from seeing the exhibit until last weekend. It closes today. I would’ve walked uphill on roads of ice if if the mess had continued, rather than risk missing it.

Expected was the cool 1950s furniture — chair, footstool, sofa, chaise longue, bench, coffee table, screen. The pieces properly fit in the era of Eames and Le Corbusier. The seating and screen were woven by the area’s Gibson family of split-white oak weavers. Terry Gibson gave a demonstration at the gallery Feb. 8, just as the last snowstorm began. (Conflicts prevented me from seeing it and the Jan. 27 lecture by Hicks Stone, a son of Durell Stone.)

The local pieces are clear and sunny, not the black leather and the stained, molded plywood of the contemporaries. Eames pieces are comfortable and durable, and Le Corbusier’s certainly are sturdy if not always ergonomic. Durell Stone’s chaise would be great in my house, but I’m not sure about his others. We were not allowed to sit much less touch the pieces. My practical knowledge comes from the wood-wove rocker that my sister lent over two decades ago. I’ve had the seat replaced once, and in the last year the new one is showing stress, but maybe that’s what cushions or blankets are for, to mask breaks and prevent splinters to the thighs.

The Edward Durell Stone pieces were manufactured by Fulbright Industries, the family business of late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright (1905-1995), run in its last decades by his progressive mother, Roberta Fulbright, Bill always being in public service, including UA chancellor. Sen. Fulbright and Stone were contemporaries growing up in Fayetteville. Stone studied at UA then moved on to Harvard and MIT.

The wall cards and a couple of farm relics proved the origin of Stone’s plan. The felloe is a short length of curved wood that put together with other fellies becomes the outer rim of a wagon wheel. Side by side, fellies top the Durell Stone footstool. The primitive plow handle forms the legs and bottom supports of the chair, sofa and chaise. if Le Corbusier was inspired by the Industrial Revolution, Durell Stone paid homage to the hardscrabble family farm.

Privy to Bauhaus

It’s this last bit of art history for which Wallack should be commended in directing our attention. She could’ve stayed with a Bauhaus narrative and kept us Arkies proud of yet another native son. Meanwhile, there’s the Fine Arts building itself, and the unlamented, razed Carlson Terrace apartments.

Durell Stone designed the art building, which also houses elements of the music and drama departments. Besides the gallery, it has two auditoriums, the theater mainly for drama (315 seats) and a concert hall (220 seats). The music space has quirky Moderne touches, which provide good acoustics. The gallery has three mobiles by Alexander Calder, a friend of Stone’s. My favorite touch is a huge minimalist chandelier in the two-level Fine Arts library. Yet the offices, studios and classrooms, as well as the theater, could have been built mid-century by anyone, pretty generic, and that’s fine. It was completed in 1951, and the furniture exhibit was to honor its 60th anniversary. This web page from 2001 has good photos and comments (I don’t know Diane Wilson, but her website is quite a find).

The building has a grassy courtyard with a reflecting pool, small shade trees and installed benches, stunning when the university weeds it. But even when it’s tidy, students never seem to hang out there to study or talk. This leads to an architectural conundrum: Does it “work,” and does that matter? I can’t answer, other than to say I’m proud my name on the “Senior Walk” is etched on the southeast side of Fine Arts. When I attend faculty recitals in the concert hall, I can’t believe it’s in “Fateville.”

Which leads to the final Durell Stone contribution to the University of Arkansas, the Carlson Terrace, a 15-building cluster of 300 graduate student apartments, completed between 1958-64, according to a Feb. 7, 2007, copyrighted article in a local, regional or state newspaper (shhh). The last of them were razed in 2007 to make way for a softball field and other athletic amenities, according to June 2007 articles. In 2005, five Carlson buildings were razed for “the Jones-Lindsey Gardens, a 6.45-acre park used for UA events and tailgating by university donors during football season.”

Jones is Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and Lindsey is area developer Jim Lindsey. The “gardens” comprise a grass-covered parking lot. Over the years, area residents and students defended Carlson Terrace with varying degrees of success. As can be seen in the photos the complex may be iconic but rather undesirable, except perhaps for foreign students from the Soviet bloc. Then Vice Chancellor for Fundraising G. David Gearhart (now chancellor) called them an “eyesore” in the February 2007 article. In any case, few protested four summers ago when the remaining Carlson buildings were knocked down.

Durell, alkaline batteries, right?

When I copy-edited Carlson Terrace articles in 2005 and 2007, few seemed familiar even with the name Edward Durell Stone. Growing up in Fort Smith, my dad was so proud to point out in magazines or TV shows what marvels he created, like the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and Stanford Medical School in Menlo Park, Calif. This winter’s furniture exhibit used for research and display a 1961 Life magazine pictorial of the “progressive” University of Arkansas, showing the architect, the Fine Arts building, and his friend Bill Fulbright, the powerful, worldly senator.

Whither now, state of the Ark?

Durell Stone (1902–1978) may be momentarily overshadowed by the next generation’s hallowed Arkansas architect, E. Fay Jones (1921–2004). Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) can be seen in both of their designs, but Jones was closer to Wright and Durell Stone to the Europeans. I doubt either saw themselves as rivals or mentor-protege. The differences are vast.

Durell Stone as an adult spent little time in the state, while Fay Jones was based here. Durell Stone can be seen only with UA-Fine Arts and apparently part of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. Stone usually was commercial: embassies, museums, Radio City Music Hall.

It’s quite a kick in Fayetteville and Fort Smith to drive around and chance on a Fay Jones house or orthodontist clinic — Wright’s Prairie style with an Ozark twist. Jones generally was residential: houses, small offices and a few chapels. In retirement Jones was genial and available; I got to shake his hand once.

The state and UA boast of the architecture school, with good reason: It graduates superb designers. What’s ironic is the handsomeness of the Fayetteville campus — despite its buildings having no common aesthetic, like the red brick facades of many land-grant universities or even the tile roofs on nearly every Stanford edifice. Outside of a new UA dorm quadrangle, no two buildings match. Even opposite sides of the Arkansas Union and Mullins Library, added years later, have nothing in common. UA freshmen orientation probably takes twice as long.

Today, originals of Eames and Le Corbusier go for top-dollar in the antique world. Slightly updated versions of both still are made, while knock-offs abound. The Durell Stone/Fulbright collaboration was a failure, manufactured between 1950-52 then kaput, for classic business reasons. No antiques: Ebay lists zero items. The UA exhibit does not emphasize this.

Fayetteville welcomes Durell Stone back to campus. The current crew running UA’s Fay Jones School of Architecture probably won’t let anyone neglect or forget him for a while.

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