March 19, 1990 12:00 PM

On a wooded hill overlooking a lake in Bella Vista Village, Ark., stands a quiet chapel dedicated to the memory of local philanthropist Mildred B. Cooper. Outside, Ozark pines and oaks play games with Ozark light. Inside, wood and sunlight meet again and Crosshatch their way up and down the nave. The Cooper chapel is one of the crowning achievements of architect E. Fay Jones of nearby Fayetteville, a town far from the steel towers that have made big reputations for many of Jones’s contemporaries.

Yet Jones, 69, does not toil in obscurity. The 200 or so houses and chapels he has designed across the American heartland have spread his name among his peers—and beyond. Last month Jones went to Washington, where President Bush presented him with the gold medal of the American Institute of Architects—an award that puts him in the august company of Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei. “If I could just take that day and cut it up and save one part for next year and another for the next,” says Jones, “even one part could be the highlight of a year or more.”

Jones was raised in El Dorado, Ark., where his parents owned a restaurant. His first buildings were tree houses—including one that had a brick fireplace—but his real ambition was to be an artist. “This was back in the heart of the Depression,” he recalls, “and most people would say that’s going to be a mighty hard way to make a living. But I looked at building and construction as sort of a crude thing, whereas drawing was something fine.” His perspective changed when he was 16, after he saw a film about Wright’s renowned Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wis. “They talked about its curving lines, the marvelous light coming through the skylights,” he says. “They talked about it as a work of art—all coming together in something called architecture.”

A Navy bomber pilot in the Pacific during World War II, Jones graduated with the first class at the University of Arkansas’s School of Architecture, in 1950. The year before, he had been fortunate enough to meet Wright and later spent a crucial four-month apprenticeship with him at Taliesin, Wright’s famous home in Spring Green, Wis. “I had some nice offers to go to New York City, and I was very tempted, except it didn’t seem like a place to raise a family,” says Jones, who is married and the father of two daughters. So in 1953 he started his own firm in Fayetteville, with his wife, Mary Elizabeth, as bookkeeper and office manager. At the same time, he began teaching at the University of Arkansas, where he became the first dean of the School of Architecture.

In the years since, he evolved his own “Ozark style”—buildings that use local materials and blend with the landscape, like his award-winning Thorncrown chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark., which is made of pine two-by-fours, glass and stone. “The action in architecture is in the big cities,” he says, “but there can be excellence in small things.”

—Michael Neill, Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.

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