Little Huts on the Prairie: A Sooner Success

The addition to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma exudes the welcoming air of a village.
The addition to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma exudes the welcoming air of a village. (By Jerry Laziure For The Washington Post)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

NORMAN, Okla. After a few minutes in the presence of the tidy cluster of buildings, you think to yourself, "My goodness, this is beautiful." Much more so than the photographs and drawings you'd seen back in Washington.

Your reaction is about the satisfying, yet strange,

solidity of the tall, windowless, rectangular structures. About the way the blue slate roofs, shaped like pyramids, pierce the sky at dusk. About the soft glow of walls sheathed in warm limestone blocks.

The pavilions in question, linked by glass passageways, constitute the new addition to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. The project was designed by Hugh Newell Jacobsen -- perhaps Washington's best-known architect, certainly one of its best.

Jacobsen's famous ability to respond inventively to almost any architectural context was put to a major test at the corner of Boyd Street and Elm Avenue here, on the northern edge of the campus. You realize this during your first slow drive-by, when your heart sinks at the sight of the building to which Jacobsen's building is attached.

With red brick walls rising more than 100 feet to a heavy concrete cornice, the main portion of the Fred Jones Jr. building, housing the studio art department, is one of those early 1970s specials -- big, simple, dark and ugly. Jacobsen himself must have been struck almost dumb when he realized that this was the building he was hired to build onto.

"Hugh was struggling, there's no question about it," recalls university President David Boren. "We didn't hear from him for months, and then one day he called and he was very excited and he said, 'David, I've got it, I've got it!' Of course, I asked him what it was, and he said, 'A masterpiece!' "

That outburst is uncharacteristic of Jacobsen, who through nearly five decades of practice has been unusually modest about his own work. When people ask the familiar question about which of his buildings is his favorite, his stock response, delivered with raised eyebrows and a twinkle, has always been, "The next one!"

After the completion of the Mary and Howard Lester Wing of this university museum, however, it seems clear that Jacobsen no longer will be giving that answer. "I've never yet done a building that the Michelin guide would send you out of the way for," he told a university interviewer before the new wing opened in January. "But now, at age 75, I feel I finally have one."

What Jacobsen did, in essence, was to ignore that big, old, ugly tower. Or, as he puts it more diplomatically, "I finally decided that the new wing was going to have to look like a building of its own."

The idea that governed the form his new building would take was equally clear-cut. "Most art is made to be seen in homes," Jacobsen said. Consequently, he conceived of the Jones Museum as a grid of attached, domestic-scaled rooms, each expressed on the outside as a discrete pavilion -- and each looking like an exquisite hut.

Although it hardly suits the grand scale of much contemporary art, this idea perfectly fits the Jones Museum collection, whose strengths are entirely in domestic-scale works -- Southwestern painting of the early 20th century, photography, Native American art, small-scale mid-20th-century American moderns, Persian miniatures and Chinese painting and ceramics.

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