You may recall Mark Davis’ guest posts last month about Meridian architect P.J. Krouse, re-printed from the original publication in the Pearl River County Historical Society newsletter, The Historical Reporter. This month, Mark has outdone himself, introducing us to Clair Maurice Jones, who was based in Memphis but designed a number of churches in Mississippi, among other buildings both nationally and internationally. I became aware of Mr. Jones only last year from seeing his name on the cornerstone of Laurel’s St. Paul Methodist Church (1962). St. Paul’s is a little Modernist gem that was also the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rally for the Poor People’s March in March 1968, less than a month before his assassination. Later on, I’ll have to post my photos that church, and now that you’ll know about some of Jones’ work in Mississippi, make sure to keep an eye out for his name on other cornerstones.
Most everyone has to read the name Dizzy Gillespie before listening to his music. Everyone sees Charles Dickens’ name before opening Great Expectations. But no one has to read the name of an architect before entering his building. Architects are the most ignored of artists. Yet their work is often excitingly innovative and subject to the same societal pressures and design trends as the other arts.
Critics see music in modern architecture. With its dependence on the pattern and rhythm created by the interplay of line and shape, it is the refuge of an abstract beauty. In Picayune, Weems Chapel United Methodist Church, completed in 1983, is an example of a small building by an ignored master of regional modernism: Clair Jones.
Weems, pared down to the shapes and symbols of spiritual reference, employs triangles and a trinity of windows in its frontal elevation to suggest the holy life. Above its sanctuary a circular window bathes the congregation in natural light. Both the circle (the shape without beginning or end) and the light are references to God. Pews are divided into three sections with the side sections slanted to the center in the manner of an amphitheater. This adds to Weems intimacy placing its members in direct communion with their pastor and the light. The back wall of the sanctuary is a retractable door that may open for wedding parties or for crowds at holiday services. Parishioners enter the church from its side into a low vestibule that opens into this reception room. From there they may enter the sanctuary. The arrangement employs one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite tricks: making a small space open into a larger one. Psychologically this makes the visitor feel grander the further into the church he goes. This is artistry; but Weems is also the expression of a spiritual vocabulary learned at an early age.
Slideshow images courtesy of Juanita Loveless Gex.
Clair Maurice Jones was born in Gallatin, Tennessee on September 30, 1933. His parents, Rev. Herman H. and Vivian Clark Jones, were immersed in church service and pushed their three children, Herman Jr., Deloris and Clair, to busy themselves in their community and excel in their endeavors. When Clair was a child, Reverend Jones left his post at Nashville’s Braden Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church to accept another position at Key Memorial Methodist Church in Murfreesboro, TN. They enrolled Clair in Bradley Elementary School. One of the oldest of Tennessee’s schools, it was the alma mater of presidential candidate John Bell and of President James K. Polk. Revolutionary War officer John Bradley founded it only three years after the Congressional Land Grant Act of 1806. Its demanding curriculum initiated Clair Jones into serious study.
From there Jones went on to the equally rigorous though larger Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis when the church reassigned his father to Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church. Clair Jones capped off his career at Booker T. Washington taking his diploma and winning the Tri-State Welter-Weight Championship in boxing in 1950.
Next came a five year program of architectural study at Virginia’s Hampton University. Hampton, founded in 1868, had sprung from the American Missionary Association and also had strong ties to the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. While at Hampton, Jones joined the Junior Swimming Team, Alpha Phi Alpha, the Olympic Social Club and the school’s ROTC program. He emerged in 1956 with a B. Arch and spent the next two years as a Guided Missile Officer in the U.S. Army. “After military service I went to Los Angeles where I worked as an assistant designer of retail stores for a major shoe manufacturer. After this I worked at Douglass Aircraft as a designer. Then I worked as a city planner’s assistant for the City of Los Angeles. I joined the United Methodist Church Division of Architecture in 1958.”
Within a few years he had come under the influence of De Witt Dykes Sr., an enthusiastic educator and designer of churches. Dykes recognized in Jones the ability to apply the principles of modernism to projects of an intimate scale retaining the clean lines and sculptural qualities of the style without losing an underlying humanity. Dykes encouraged Jones to continue with ecclesiastical architecture.
In 1972, Jones partnered with Harold Thompson to form Jones/Thompson Architects and Associates. By 1973 he had joined the Guild for Religious Architecture. He also joined the
AIA and soon became a member of its National Design Review Committee. In 1987 he founded the Cinka Engineering Firm.
Over time, commissions expanded throughout the South and with the Elsa United Methodist Church, designed for a predominantly Native-American congregation in Texas, his work extended almost to the Mexican border. Then, more projects came from Caribbean islands and eventually from Kissey, Sierra Leone where there is a large Christian minority. Jones’ design for Kissey Methodist Church was never realized because of political instability in Sierra Leone. Remembering Jones’ travels to view the site, his wife Barbara recalled her unease at the daily vision of soldiers with machine guns on the street. Sierra Leone would soon be mired in a civil war in which many more churches were burnt than built.
Returning to the United States, Jones continued to work on scores of projects. Along with residential design and elementary, high and vocational school buildings, there were also large scale projects: hospitals, buildings for colleges, banks and public housing, housing for the elderly, transit and museum projects.
Concurrent with the high budget commissions, he continued to achieve in church work. It is easier to take millions of dollars and make a lavish cathedral beautiful than to make a space sacred for a small congregation within a restrictive budget. This requires artistry and an exacting eye. Clair Jones has done this more than four hundred times for congregations in towns and cities throughout America.
Clair and Barbara Edwards Jones are retired, he from architecture, she from a position as Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for Memphis City Schools. They live in Memphis, Tennessee in a house Jones designed. Jones still serves on the Memphis Asbury District Architectural Plans Review Committee and has served on other committees for Memphis City Schools and for the City of Memphis Building Fire Code. He frequently advises younger architects seeking direction on many issues. This is certainly fitting. If, as the art historians say, architecture is an abstract and mathematical music, perhaps we, as a society, should find a way to better listen to our buildings. And if not our buildings then, at least, to their builders.
1 This is the same National Challenge Award winning school at which President Obama gave a commencement address on May 16, 2011. Back to post
2 Clair Jones Personal Statement. August 30, 2011. Back to post
3 Dreck Spurlock Wilson. African-American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945. Routledge Books, New York, 2005. p. 178. Back to post
4 Jet (Magazine). John H. Johnson ed. Jan 4, 1973. Vol. XLIII, No. 15. p.41. Back to post
5 Barbara Edwards Jones. Interview of August 15, 2011. Back to post
6 This was not the first time civil strife had directly affected his life. He had previously worked with the congregation of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, MS to rebuild after their church’s destruction of June 16, 1964 in the notorious episode referred to in popular culture as “The Mississippi Burning.” Back to post
7 AIA Guide to the Architecture of Atlanta. Isabelle Gournay, Paul G. Beswick and Gerald W. Sams, eds. p.18. Back to post
8 Information from Key Memorial United Methodist Church records. Back to post
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Clinton Davis grew up in Picayune and received a Master’s in English Literature with an emphasis on Renaissance and Restoration prose and poetry from San Francisco State University. He also studied art history and printmaking at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For two years, he worked with Margaret Kilgallen on “Untitled,” a public arts project designed by artists Ann Chamberlain and Ann Hamilton for San Francisco’s New Main Library. He is currently in his fourth year as editor of the PRCHS newsletter, The Historical Reporter.
This article reprinted with permission from Mark Clinton Davis and the Pearl River County Historical Society