The Fort Worth chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ annual home tour takes place Saturday and Sunday. Four houses will be opened to the public this year, including one designed by architect John Wesley Jones, who was known for his mid-century modern structures.
The architecture of mid-century modernism was a hard sell in Fort Worth. The flat-roofed, horizontal buildings, built in the 1950s and ’60s — especially the homes — were never very popular in the city.
The few that are left are scattered among the first ring of suburbs. Houston has such an abundance of these homes, ranging from the modest to significant architectural masterpieces, that it has regular mid-century modern home tours. Dallas has some; Fort Worth, only a few.
Jones was one of the champions of this style; his signature stacked stone buildings with flat roofs and unbroken facades are gems of the genre. He had a thriving practice and built medical buildings, shopping malls, and office parks throughout Texas, but he he is remembered for his residential work.
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Jones was born in Oklahoma, and his family moved to Fort Worth, where he graduated from Central High School. His university studies were cut short by the stock market crash of 1929. He worked for a while as a draftsman and then hopped an oil tanker to Europe, where he spent a number of years studying architecture in England, Scotland, Greece, Holland, Belgium, France and Yugoslavia
Returning to Fort Worth in 1940 with a worldly view, he designed furniture — made of mesquite and other rarely used woods — that was carried by Lord & Taylor in New York and Neiman Marcus in Dallas. In 1961, he opened his architectural practice in Dallas, then relocated to Fort Worth in 1983.
Jones died in 1997, leaving an extensive legacy of built projects across the United States — including local structures such as the Ridglea Office Park, Indian Hill Apartments, Ridgleawood Townhomes, West Sixth Street town houses, a cluster of homes built for family members along Park Place Avenue, the R.E. Sweeney house and Stonebridge addition.
Many of Jones’ residences are based on a garden concept, where the exterior of the dwelling presents an almost blank facade, often with only a front door in evidence. The house wraps around an interior courtyard, and the windows open to this intimate exterior. This affords a plenitude of natural light and maximum privacy. Jones even incorporated this garden-view privacy into his apartments.
The Jones home
The tour home built by Jones in 1959 is owned by interior designer Connie Blake. The 4,250 square-foot house is perched above the Fort Worth Zoo, and within calling distance of the big cats whose roars can be heard from her decks. During the winters she has a spectacular view of west Fort Worth, once the trees leaf out her house is cloaked in privacy. The house is stacked on a hillside and the small front facade conceals its size.
Blake, who lived in Mistletoe Heights, was looking for a home and found this one in 1996. While she wasn’t particularly interested in a massive renovation project, that’s what she bought.
The house had been severely neglected, but she could tell it was well designed, and during the past 18 years, she has refinished almost every surface and replaced every utility.
“If I’d only known,” she laments. There was no way to know the damage that had been created after years of neglect. “Why would people let a property like this go into disrepair? It couldn’t be because they disregard the architecture; it must be monetarily unworkable,” she says.
She says the bones were intact, and with that she based her vision on the end result. Still she says, she’d rather work with neglect than a hideous rehab, “because in that case you have to remove the redo,” she says.
Blake found a great deal of the interior trim had been removed and some woodwork had been painted white, “but the bones were intact, and the integrity of the architecture remained.”
One thing she didn’t have to do was move walls, windows or doors. She didn’t need to enlarge the bathrooms or add more closet space. Jones was very generous in his space allocation for storage, and a long hallway that leads from the public portion of the house to the master bedroom is lined with closets.
Shortly after Blake bought the house, she obtained a set of blueprints from Jones’ wife, Marilyn. The plans show the kitchen had all the amenities popular for the time — a built-in ironing board, washer and dryer and a deep freezer. All those have been banished to other rooms so that in Blake’s reconfigured kitchen there is space large enough to practice her ballroom dancing.
She took on the project a room at a time, and when she finally moved outside to redo the driveway and the front yard, she was finished and now is ready to move on. “I don’t need another project, I want to travel and not worry about the property.”
She fantasizes about leaving like they do in movies — throwing a few silky things in a suitcases and waltzing out the door.
“I’d like to sell every piece of furniture and accessory in this house and start over,” she says. Then she pauses. “I’d have to take the Marilyn Monroe chairs, and my Baccarat butterflies, and my grandfather’s trains.” Then she remembers the boxes and boxes of holiday decorations in the basement, and it become apparent movers will have to be enlisted to get her out of the house.
Jones’ town homes
The Jones-built apartments along Westridge Avenue that are backed by the Ridglea Country Club golf course were considered quite an exclusive address when they were built in 1960. There was a vetting process to be allowed to live there, says Beverly Baker, who moved in when she was 35 years old in 1977.
At that time, she recalls, she was one of the youngest residents. Most of the units were two-bedroom/three-bath apartments, some with as many as three private courtyards — attractive finds for retirees who wanted to stay close to their original west-side stomping grounds and whose families wanted them in smaller, easier-to-care-for homes.
About a decade after the apartments were built, they became town homes and are now coveted properties for their inimitable mid-century style.
“When we moved here from Ryan Place, we wanted something modern, something from the 20th century,” says Dennis Mynatt.
He and partner Ken Voise, a cabinet maker, found one of the Ridgleawood Townhomes in foreclosure. It had had some atrocious renovations, including a kasbah-themed wet bar with flocked wallpaper. They tore the place apart, down to the studs, and began the laborious task of rebuilding to LEED standards.
Their careful attention to repurposing, recycling and using green materials garnered them a platinum certificate for their troubles.
They counted nails, weighed all the metal they removed and reused stones from the fireplace. Every surface is new. The only remaining piece of Jones’ original material is the rock wall in the living room. That had been painted and had to be sandblasted.
“People have done a lot to these places,” says Rebecca Lawton, much of it not in keeping with the original ethos of modernism. Lawton, who is a curator at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, has lived in Ridgleawood for five years. She had noticed the property when she first moved to town.
“The first eight years I lived here, this group of town homes really spoke to me,” she says, “but I never saw a sign for an open house, or a ‘For Sale’ sign.”
She befriended Carter Bowden, owner of Carter Bowden Antiques, and he invited her to see his home, as he was ready to move into Montgomery Plaza. Eventually, she bought from him.
She was attracted to the amount of light that floods through the floor-to-ceiling windows and is slowly buying mid-century furnishings for her home.
“I bought all these pieces to honor the architecture. I wanted pieces that fit the scale. You have to stay cool and low,” she says.
A small group of Jones-built apartments on the edge of downtown are probably the most original Jones structures left in Fort Worth. Anne Allen, a public project manager for the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, lives in one of these. The stove is the original push-button KitchenAid, and the first dishwasher in the unit was replaced less than two months ago.
Allen makes do in less than 525 square feet of space with one bedroom.
“I wasn’t sure I could live in two rooms, so I did a lot of space planning,” she says. One thing that helps is a penchant Jones had for building entire walls of closets. Allen’s hallway, which is part of her bathroom, is lined with them, and so is her bedroom.
Her living room has a stone wall — one of Jones’ signature elements. It also helps that Allen has a separate art studio, so her art practice does not spill into her small living space.
She says it is well laid out, and despite the low square footage, she has hosted as many as 30 people in her home. The key is to open her large sliding-glass door and incorporate the courtyard as part of her entertaining space.
The ample storage, private courtyards, good flow of space, and modernist sensibilities of Jones’ homes make them coveted addresses in Fort Worth. Often there is a waiting list for the apartments and as Lawton found, the townhouses rarely come on the market. As for his houses, the AIA tour today and tomorrow, Sat. April 26 and Sun. April 27 is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to see the inside a Jones home.