Over this past December, I had a chance to take a look at two works by the late Louisiana architect A. Hays Town (1903-2005) in my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana.
Town’s work is unique not just because his career was so long (Town was active in South Louisiana for nearly eighty years before he died in 2005 at the age of 101). Town’s renown also comes from the fact that he had two careers, the first as a prominent mid-century Modernist architect of prominent Gulf Coast commercial and institutional works, the second as the architect of residences that seemed to altogether reject Modernist principles and instead embraced the vernacular of South Louisiana.
Town’s career spanned almost the entirety of the twentieth century and his work reflected the century’s changing tastes in architecture. In the 1920s, Town was an architecture student at Tulane University in New Orleans just as the Modern movement was picking up across the Atlantic. In his early architectural career, Town was a dedicated disciple of Modernism, becoming one of the American South’s most-respected practitioners of Modern design.
But in the 1960s, A. Hays Town appears to have switched course. Instead of holding firm to Modernist ideals, he began to look back at the traditional architecture of his home state for inspiration. Town’s work took on a distinctly regionalist tone that focused on interpreting (and in some cases recreating) Louisiana’s architectural past.
I’ve taken a took a look at two buildings in Lafayette, Louisiana, by A. Hays Town which, though only three blocks and fifteen years apart, show the great breadth of Town’s career.
The first was the Lafayette Oil Center, begun in 1952 and designed as a low-rise office complex for Lafayette’s growing oil industry.
Town worked on the Oil Center complex for decades over many phases of growth. But it is probably this first phase of the Oil Center, with its attempt at marrying the needs of the automobile with attractive human-scaled architecture, that best expresses Town’s mid-century modernist optimism.
The Oil Center was conceived as an expansive campus of single-story office bars built with warm-toned common brick. These office bars are accessed from covered galleries that circle wide paved auto courts.
Town balanced the automobile-focused site planning with opportunities for natural landscaping. Town adjusted his design in order to incorporate several existing live oak trees which today have become sculptural centerpieces of some of the Oil Center’s landscaped mid-block courtyards.
The sometimes uncontrollable infiltration of the wild landscape strikes a great balance with Town’s rigid and rational Modern office blocks.
Three blocks away from the Oil Center is A. Hays Town’s University Art Museum built in 1967 for what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
No Modernism here. Town’s University Art Museum is a simple translation of the architectural type that Louisiana is most famous for: the Greek Revival style antebellum plantation house. Though Southwest Louisiana rarely saw antebellum homes constructed on this scale — the plantation mansion type is more likely to be found in southeast Louisiana along the Mississippi River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — Town’s art museum used a traditional architectural language that was more familiar (and more popular) than the Modernist style he espoused in his earlier career.
For his plantation-style museum design, Town looked to the main house at Hermitage Plantation in Darrow, Louisiana, completed in 1814 and believed to be among Louisiana’s earliest examples of Greek Revival plantation architecture. Town’s museum replicated several elements of Greek Revival plantation design including its 24 Doric columns, its hipped roof, and its traditional construction materials of wood timber, brick, and stucco.
Town’s 1967 structure is today part of Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum and is flanked by a new gallery building designed by Eskew+Dumez+Ripple completed in 2003. Though the two museum structures are generations apart in style, they are closer in age than first glance might suggest.