SIGNATURE STYLE: Carr Jones
Taking whimsy seriously
SF Gate:Builder Carr Jones put Arts and Crafts style into the storybooks
Dave Weinstein, Saturday, September 13, 2003
The style is called Storybook, Fairy Tale, Disneyland or Hansel & Gretel, and the adjective most often applied to it is “whimsical.” In Hollywood, where the style developed, its earliest exponents were often motion picture set designers – experts in faux everything.
But Carr Jones, one of the great Storybook builders of the Bay Area, took his work very seriously. Both his architecture, and people who know him, suggest that Jones (1885-1965) was faux nothing.
“He was his houses,” says Lana Kacsmaryk, Jones’ daughter-in-law.
“He was just pragmatic and practical,” says Ruth Scott, who lives in Mill Valley in the last home Jones designed. Jones was no stage designer, she says, but was rooted in the 19th century Arts and Crafts tradition with its emphasis on honest craftsmanship and natural materials.
“I call my house a peasant house,” she says.
Jones homes may have turrets and spiral staircases, arched doorways and swooping rooflines. But they are also fire resistant and livable, she says, and filled with modern touches like radiant floor heating and walls of windows.
Unlike some Storybook builders, whose fairy-tale features were add-ons to standard plans, Jones crafted his homes the way a medieval craftsman would have, often living on site along with his craftsmen and working alongside them.
Jones studied engineering, not architecture. He did his own designs and contracting and much of the handiwork. His work indicates how much personality and seriousness a builder could bring to a style, even one as seemingly hokey as “Storybook.”
Storybook homes differ from their more sedate “period revival” cousins by striving even further to evoke medieval or rural Europe. Instead of relatively restrained Cotswold cottages or Mediterranean villas, we have homes that evoke Ruritania or the Brothers Grimm.
On a typical Jones house you’ll see brick outside and in, curves and random patterns. Roofs sway as though weighed down by thatch, and shingles splash across like waves. Homes are often L-shaped or U-shaped, and the ends of the wings often curve. One wing of the house often faces the courtyard with a California Mission-type arcade.
Inside you will find a two-story living room with an immense fireplace and a spiral staircase leading to a balcony, floors of randomly arranged terra cotta and tile, and built-in, hand-carved cabinetry. Walls are thick – 16 inches or more – and often curved.
Jones never left California, friends say. He got his ideas from National Geographic and Architectural Digest.
Many of his materials were scrounged. Used bricks were plentiful and cheap after the 1906 quake and he used recycled timbers and phone poles, refrigerator tubing for radiant heat, and disassembled old stoves to create built-in kitchen islands.
One sure Jones touch is a pyramid-shaped gable end filled with glass and decorated with curved beams – like half timbering with glass between the timbers, instead of mud mixed with thatch. The effect is medieval, modern and startling, and brings in a lot of light.
Montgomery, who has filled his Piedmont home with antique American furniture, art and an HO train set, enjoys the view he gets from the Chippendale armchair near the fireplace – through a curving corridor and several arched doorways to the dining room beyond. He loves the rhythms provided by the curves, the light and the home’s emotional warmth.
He also loves surprising Jones fans – they often ring the bell and ask to look – by taking them around back to an 800-square-foot mother-in-law cottage Jones added to the property in 1954. It’s got bracketed doors, a medieval chandelier – and a wall of glass facing a canyon and a low-pitched shed roof. It’s vintage mid-century modern.
“He wasn’t as traditional as you think,” Montgomery says.
Another surprisingly modern Jones house was built in Pleasant Hill in 1948, a rambling ranch with curved brick walls and a sod roof. It was demolished in 1996.
No one knows how many structures Jones built. Some publications say about a dozen, others 50.
Twenty-seven buildings built or substantially remodeled by Jones can be readily documented. There are undoubtedly more. At least 24 are extant. Almost all are houses.
At least five are in Berkeley, six in Oakland, three in Piedmont (counting the mother-in-law cottage), six in Contra Costa County (at least one demolished), three in Marin, one in Palo Alto, and one in Cucamonga in the Southern California desert.
Some, like the restaurant Postino in Lafayette, have become local landmarks.
But many are hard to see, hidden by walls or foliage.
Jones himself never made much of a mark as a Bay Area personage, though his homes attracted attention and followers. He never craved fame, Scott says. “He was a content man within himself.”
Nor did he crave or gain wealth. “He was a working man and he was not in it for financial reasons,” she says. He never sought jobs. Clients came to him after seeing one of his houses.
Friends describe him as mild, soft-spoken, a man who listened more than talked. When he talked, Scott says, “it was about architecture – and how you did things.”
Jones was a strong man of average build, but very short – as are his doors.
Jones loved to invent – he developed a form of adobe that could withstand rain without being plastered, Scott says – and loved building. But he wasn’t ambitious, she says.
“Somebody said to me, ÔCarr Jones would never have worked a day in his life if he didn’t have to eat,’ ” she says.
But he was an elegant man with fine manners, Kacsmaryk says, and attentive to the details of daily living. “You wouldn’t set a milk carton on his table,” she says.
Jones, who was born in Watsonville and raised in Monterey, moved with his family to Berkeley and received a degree in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley in 1911. Some accounts say he studied with Maybeck but Scott says it isn’t so.
But he undoubtedly knew the great Arts and Crafts style architect. Two of Jones’ earliest buildings are in the Berkeley hills north of campus where Maybeck lived and did much of his building.
The homes, built in 1914 and 1916, before the Storybook style took hold, are Craftsman in tone along the lines of Maybeck, mixing wooden board-and- batten siding with brown shingles and complete with Swiss chalet balconies. By the mid-1920s Jones was building in his mature style.
One Carr Jones owner in the Berkeley hills describes how his home was built,
with information gleaned from neighbors who watched: Jones and his wife and a crew of six or seven workers moved onto the site, built a brick wall, then started on the house. Five years later it was done.
Jones also turned a flatbed truck into a mobile home for himself, complete with a ladder leading to a sleeping porch on its roof, Scott says.
Jones, who was twice married and raised a stepson, built a sod-roofed home for himself and family in Orinda in 1948. In 1954, Scott says, he was “discovered” by Mrs. Fulton of Fulton Shipyards in Antioch.
Jones found himself remodeling many buildings at the shipyard and at her home, and living in a home she owned not far away – and remodeling that. He worked for Fulton until he died.
By the 1960s Jones was suffering from severe arthritis. He was ill when Ruth Scott and her husband, Alan, sought his services in 1964. They knew his work because Alan Scott’s aunt lived in a Jones house in Walnut Grove.
“He liked us because we wanted to do the work ourselves,” Ruth says. Jones visited the site, a hillside in Mill Valley, and drew up a plan. The work was done by the Scotts and their children, a small crew, and by Doug Allinger, Jones’ stepson.
Though Allinger, a mason, had absorbed Jones’ style and ethos, he had never worked with him. The Scotts’ home was his first Carr Jones-style building. He has since built several, including some that are well known in Contra Costa County.
Jones died of cancer in October 1965, the day they started work, Scott says.
Living in a Carr Jones home has challenges as well as charms – though Montgomery, a tall man, says, “In the years I’ve lived here I’ve only knocked my head once.”
“You need a repair, you have to call in a craftsman,” another owner says. Her husband adds: “It’s like living in a museum – which I suppose wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste.”
In Belvedere, the locally landmarked Audrey Jones Beck Cottage from 1930 is coming onto the market and preservationists worry that the buyer may tear it down. The hidden, hillside site offers gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The city’s preservation ordinance could delay demolition for only 90 days, and Roger Felton, a member of the Belvedere Historic Preservation Committee and a neighbor of the house, hopes a buyer comes forward who loves Carr Jones.
Most people who live in his homes stay there awhile and care for them, Scott says. “People do get possessed with Carr Jones houses.”
Style: Storybook, Fairy Tale, Hansel & Gretel. Jones developed an idiosyncratic version of this already idiosyncratic style based in the Arts and Crafts tradition. He used brick and other natural and recycled materials to craft homes that recall peasant farmhouses blended with California missions.
Active: Jones built from 1914 to the early ’60s primarily throughout the East Bay.
Known for: fine brickwork, swooping roofs, turrets and arched doorways, balconies and glass-filled gable windows.
Other practitioners: William R. Yelland created Normandy Village on Spruce Street near the UC Berkeley campus and other Storybook monuments. Storybook building can be found in any town that had much construction in the 1920s. Normandy Gardens on Picardy Drive in Oakland is a superb example of a Storybook subdivision by architect Walter Dixon.