Getting Faubus House on  Registry a ‘big deal’

The back of the Faubus House, which is built on top of a rock bluff.

When the Orval E. Faubus House in Huntsville was placed on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year, it was a big deal for various reasons, current owner Jonathan Formanek said.

“I think it’s a very big deal for the house, because it means it will be historically preserved in its original condition,” he said recently. “That was my commitment when I first bought the house. Normally it takes 50 years of age before they put a house on the national registry.”

Faubus served six terms as governor, from 1955 to 1967.

Work on the house atop Governor’s Hill began in the summer of 1965, with the house being finished in July 1967.

The hill formerly included the home of Arkansas’ Gov. Isaac Murphy, who served from 1864 to 1868.

The house was designed for Orval Faubus and his wife, Alta, by noted architect E. Fay Jones, a native of El Dorado and former professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

The Faubus House was one of the largest residential projects designed by Jones, who also designed the Thorncrown Chapel near Eureka Springs.

Formanek bought the house in 1995 after it had been a bed and breakfast.

“We took all the paint off because the paint wasn’t original. It’s had a new roof, it’s had new heat and air. Otherwise, all the carpet’s original, the draperies are original, the apholstery’s original and all the original furniture that Faye designed is still in the house,” Formanek said.

Being placed on the Registry is “a tribute to E. Fay Jones, but I think also it’s a sort of a tribute to Madison County. It’s a tribute to its site,” he said.

The Faubus house is 214 feet in length and 64 feet at its widest spot. The floor space is about 6,400 square feet with a one-room basement and two upstairs areas, as well.

Important to Jones was that he incorporated the surrounding area into his design. The house sits atop a rock bluff and lines up with downtown Huntsville. Native stone and wood can be seen throughout the house.

Head carpenters were Oscar Dunaway and Glenn Short. Others who worked on the house were Al Short, Faye Laird, Arvil Shipp, S.R. Williams and Harold Williams, Albert Haskins, Elmer Haskins and Garland Haskins. The stone masons were Carie, Billy and Paul Field, Robert Drake and Paul Eubanks.

The Faubus House officially was accepted by the Register on Sept. 27.

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program Director Scott Kaufman wrote in a letter to Formanek, “The National Register is the country’s official list of historically significant properties and Arkansas can feel proud to have a large and growing representation of these tangible links to our past.”

The nomination for the Registry said, “This ... residence, located in Huntsville, Arkansas, hovers along the edge of a bluff and exemplifies Fay’s penchant for designing buildings specifically for the land on which they are constructed.

“Exterior material choice colors and strong horizontal roof line allow the building to essentially melt into the building site,” the nomination reads.

“The interior of the house features numerous characteristics of a Jones project. Inside are flat stone floors throughout, fieldstone used for columns and back-to-back fireplaces, Philippine mahogany for walls and soffits, large skylights, built-in china cabinets, built-in seating, and architect-designed furniture and lighting.”

Formanek said his first night after buying the house was a special one.

“When I first bought the house it was October One, full-moon night. The house has 27 doors. I wandered inside and out all night long. I remember standing on the overlook going ‘what have I done?’ Anybody could buy a house, but I didn’t know you could buy a bluff,” he said.

Formanek first stayed at the house when it was a bed and breakfast. He went back to work in Memphis and told everyone bout it.

About two years later the house was being sold at auction, so he booked a room the same weekend as the sale.

“I was living in a 1,500 square foot in Memphis and perfectly happy. And suddenly, I looked at this 15,000 square foot roof and said, ‘What have I done.’”

Formanek said, “The house lines up with the city square. There’s this incredible town-house relationship. I think that’s unique. This house is only glass, stone and wood. The use of native materials, the use of a rhythmic structure, the house is all based on a grid. You can see the rhythm of the stone columns.” He added that the way light is brought into the home is also unique.

Martha Shilling, who was Faubus’ daughter-in-law, told Formanek recently, “you have done a marvelous job. Beautiful. You have blended the old and the new. It is so great.”

Former Huntsville Mayor Kevin Hatfield remembers when the house was being built.

“I was a kid and Fay Jones, he was over here a lot, he’d go to the Crossbow for coffee and my mother was a waitress. I remember going up here when they were building it. I would see Mr. Jones going through wooden scraps, taking out certain pieces of wood. I asked him, ‘What are you going to do with those’ and he said, ‘We’ll make light fixtures.’”

Hatfield said that at the end of construction as many as 500 visitors a day would come to the site. He said Faubus finally had to close the property. Eventually the public could see the finished house for $1.25 a tour. Hatfield said that in the first six weeks, people came from 30 states and Canada to see the house.

“It was the biggest tourist attraction in Arkansas. Everybody was talking abut it.”

Hatfield said, “Mr. Jones really liked Huntsville. He liked the people, so he was over here a lot.”

Hatfield noted, “You look at this today, it looks like it was designed last year. You can imagine, we all lived in small homes. To see something like this, it was just totally unreal, but I never forgot it.”

Sumner Brashears said he, too, remembers when the house was being built.

“All of us watched it being built and lots of the material was local. For us to have two Fay Jones structures is just amazing for a small town.” Jones also designed the building where Madison County Telephone is located at the corner of Church Avenue and Court Street.

“It’s just an amazing structure. Luckily Jonathan bought it and got it back to its original condition,” Brashears said.

Greg Hermon is associate professor of architecture at the University of Arkansas and director of the Fay and Gus Jones House Stewardship. The house is located on North Hillcrest in Fayetteville.

Hermon said the Faubus House reflects its designer’s passion and skills.

“It’s an amazing house. It’s certainly one of Fay’s most elaborate and brand expressions, but even in that circumstance, he manages to keep it intimate in a number of spaces and sub-spaces that help to make it feel home-like, and the spaces unfold from one to another in a really wonderful way,” he said.

Hermon said the house has “a recognizable Fay Jones style, if you will, and it doesn’t change a whole lot from his earliest expressions to his latest ones, and this is actually from his earlier phase of work. It’s very much recognizable as a work of Fay Jones. The details are everywhere.”

Catherine Wallack is an architectural records archivist with the Arkansas Architectural Archives at the UA. Work from Jones is part of the special collections.

“Its wonderful to see this house. It is a lot of hallmarks of Fay’s work and that it’s incredibly distinctive and responsive to its specific landscape,” she said.

“It’s so long and it hugs the bluff, but it really creates an entry place to experience the view.”

Wallack added, “We can count the number of rooms but I don’t know if we can count the number of spaces. Fay created so many different experiences in every room. It really a pleasure to be here and great to see this house get that designation.”

Wallack said although most of Jones’ work was done on residential projects, it was one design that elevated his status as an architect.

“The bulk of his work was, in fact, residential. Thorncrown Chapel may be the project that gave him his national visibility and catapulted him into fame.”

Ronna Precure manages the Faubus House today. She did a lot of research into the house before approaching the Registry.

“Once I learned the house and what it was, saw everything that was here, learned about the man who asked to have it built, the man who designed it, I felt like there was really no choice but to go to the Registry,” she said.

“I learned here in the house to love the house itself, the light, the stone, the way it made you feel. Small rooms, big rooms, indoor, outdoors,” she said. “In those places where the notes were on its conception and the process that they went through to make what you see here, I just absolutely fell in love all over.”

Precure said the house is in good shape.

“I think it’s where it should be now and we do hope as time goes along we can open it and have people come through that appreciate it. It is quite a gem, both architecturally and historically, as both governors were here.”

Precure said, “I kind of feel like a mom. ... I‘m pretty excited to have my baby finally get its ... stature as it deserves.”

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