If you think today’s “green” architects are pioneers, take a look at the work of Carr Jones. An obscure engineer-builder, Jones clung stubbornly to environmental priniciples we’ve only lately come to cherish--and he started doing it back in the Teens.
Jones was born in Watsonville, California in 1885. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1911. Around this time he designed and built a simple redwood cottage for his parents in Berkeley, kicking off a long and colorful career as what we’d nowadays call a “design-build contractor”.
But Jones was ahead of his time in other ways. He worked in large part with recycled materials--brick, slate, timber, scrap steel and bits of salvaged ornament--from which he managed to conjure lyrically beautiful homes that transcended their humble origins.
Jones’s houses are almost invariably built of roughly-laid bricks left unfinished to show their natural range of colors; many have a gently curving floor plan embracing a central courtyard. His unmistakable elevations are graced by an array of turrets, dormers, and chimneys.
Interior walls are of exposed brick as well, enlivened by a variety of arched openings. Overhead, massive, exposed roof trusses of salvaged timber provide dignified drama. The genius of these houses lies in their perfect balance of the familiar and the unexpected--on the sense of calm lent by an ancient palette of materials, played against the builder’s continual ability to surprise. In a Jones house, every window frames a charming vista; every room is a spatial banquet; every corner holds architectural delight.
Though Jones’s houses share many traits with the Storybook Style homes of the 1920s--aged appearance, serpentine curves, and whimsical details--in his hands these features are organic rather than superficial. It’s a happy result of building in a true medieval vernacular, without undue concern for perfection or popularity. Jones chose his materials and designs not because they were fashionable, but because he believed in their absolute fitness for domesticity.
Just where someone trained as a mechanical engineer acquired these refined sensibilities, we may never know. There’s no doubt, however, that Jones would have been quite comfortable working in today’s dawning era of earth-friendly architecture.
Like many pioneers before him, building with an unwavering conscience brought Jones neither financial success nor even much recognition during his lifetime. When Revival styles lost favor after World War II, the demand for his lovely and personal works became even more modest. He completed a scattering of postwar commissions in the San Francisco Bay Area and designed his final residence in 1966, dying on the morning that its foundations were being chalked out on the site. Jones’s stepson, Doug Allinger, completed the project following his death, and has admirably carried on Jones’s building philosophy in his own work.
Alas, Jones didn’t live to see the birth of the ecology movement in the late 60s, nor the subsequent rise of green architecture--events grounded in the very ideas he’d been practicing for half a century.
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