Tennessee Modernism: The Hunter House by E. Fay Jones

Structure: Dr. Sam Hunter House
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Architect: E. Fay Jones
Date: 1964
Story: In Memphis, Tennessee there lived a couple, Dr. Sam Hunter and his wife Jody. “Hunter” seems an ironic name for a doctor, one would think he’d be a park ranger or something, but I digress. In the late 1950’s, Jody was flipping through an architectural magazine when she spotted a black-and-white photo of a house architect E. Fay Jones had designed.

E. Fay Jones in front of his architectural drawing

Now, let’s talk about architect E. Fay Jones for a minute. Jones was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He got an architecture degree at the University of Arkansas, obtained a master’s degree in architecture from Rice University, and then took a job teaching at the University of Oklahoma. He returned to Arkansas a few years later and ran his own architectural practice while also teaching at his alma mater (UofA). Jones was a close friend and protege of Frank Lloyd Wright, and their relationship would prove fertile ground for Jones, it would propel him towards a strong organic modernist streak, which would eventually cement his place as one of the most prolific modernist architects in Arkansas. But all of that fame n’ fortune hadn’t happened yet. So let’s get back to the Hunters.

In the early 1960s, the Hunters went to Fayetteville, Arkansas to meet with Jones and ask him to design them a house. Jones was reticent. He preferred to supervise his builds, but given that Memphis was roughly ~320 miles away, that would be impossible. After some discussion, the Hunters convinced Jones to design them a house in Memphis by promising him they’d “get a fine, conscientious builder so [Jones] could show [the builder] how he drew on a grid system.” Jones recalled, “It gave me a little confidence to do work farther from home.”

But before he would draw any plans, Jones asked the Hunters to keep journals about how they lived and what they did every day, so he could discover what was important to them. Dr. Hunter put it this way, “[Jones] said ‘I don’t want to know how many bathrooms you want.’ He wanted a philosophy of [our] life.” Chief among the Hunter’s desire were unrestricted vision to the outdoors, the ability to watch the weather change, and a house that brought the outside inside.

The house itself was constructed of heartwood tidewater cypress (a favorite of Frank Lloyd Wright’s due to its warm red tone and natural resistance to water). The woodwork (including 300 cabinets, lighting, seating, and tables) were built on site. The floor was made of flagstones, and Jones had a designated “stone hunter” whose job it was to artfully find-and-place the stones in such a way that they (1) looked aesthetically good and (2) used as little mortar as possible.

And thus it was that E. Fay Jones, notable Arkansas architect, designed a house in Memphis.