It is woefully inadequate to say renowned architect A. Hays Town’s work belongs in a museum. When, as anyone who has driven past the shadows of his majestic installation on St. Mary Boulevard already knows, his work is a museum.
Luckily, this meta paradox does not inhibit the Hilliard University Art Museum’s latest showcase, “A. Hays Town and the Architectural Image of Louisiana,” guest curated by Tulane University School of Architecture professor Carol McMichael Reese and running through Dec. 29.
Timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hays-designed Art Center of Southwestern Louisiana, the exhibit tells an intimate, visual story of “the evolution of Town’s work over more than 70 years of practice.”
And while it’s hard to imagine any better place to pay well-deserved homage to Town and his impact on our region, the breadth of his influence on our culture extends way beyond the ivory tower.
Maureen Dugas-Foster, a residential designer and founder of Designing Women of Acadiana, researched Acadian architecture as part of her master’s thesis at UL Lafayette and credits Town with elevating the region’s vernacular architecture.
“When people say they want a traditional Acadian style home, what they mean is they want a reinterpretation of an A. Hays Town home,” says Dugas-Foster. “He bridged the gap between traditional and modern and added contemporary flair.”
She says although construction costs are high, she regularly gets requests from clients to incorporate Town signatures, such as shaded walkways, arched doorways, French doors, reclaimed wide-plank pine and brick floors. Equally sought after is his suburban courtyard design, where the outdoor space is planned as intricately as another room.
“You go around to new constructions, and it’s there,” says Dugas-Foster. “People are re-creating it whether they mean to or not.”
And more often than not, they mean to. She says clients have gone so far as to text her pictures from specific Hays Town houses to illustrate something they want.
“Sometimes, they think they know more about A. Hays Town than me,” she laughs.
In Dugas-Foster’s opinion, his work has such staying power because of the way he used native materials.
“He was sensitive to his environment and the atmosphere of the home — going into a barn or abandoned warehouse and finding things to implement into a project,” she says. “He was ahead of his time.”
It’s true, Town was salvaging mantels and building pergolas long before Joanna Gaines was a gleam in HGTV’s eye. But according to design historian and educator Jeffery McCullough, the allure of Town’s designs goes beyond our pop-culture obsession with coziness.
“What people are looking for is comfort,” McCullough says. “But that isn’t achieved just by using old brick and beams. There has to be a rhyme and a reason, like there was in Town’s work.”
An adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design, McCullough lives primarily in New York but splits his time between the city and what he calls a “Hays-Town-inspired” house in Lafayette.
“‘Hays-Town-inspired,’ for better or worse, gets thrown around a lot,” he admits. “Architects and contractors use it as a marketing tool. It’s a positive sign of how his influence is lasting, but it gets misused.”
McCullough, who is also in the process of researching an academic paper about Hays Town, says when designing in his style, people often overlook one of Town’s most marked characteristics.
“One of the things that’s true about any Hays Town design is that his proportions are always perfect,” says McCullough. “That is where people are going wrong.”
For example, McCullough describes in detail an addition McCullough designed for a house in Lafayette, where Town’s work was an influence from start to finish.
“The window/door wall is very much like the window wall of several Town-designed houses, as is the fireplace and the built-in bookcases that flank it,” he says. “Moreover, the scale of the addition is in keeping with the scale of the 1960s ranch house, and keeping scale in check is something that Town did brilliantly.”
McCullough draws parallels between Hays Town and Frank Lloyd Wright. He says in a similar way Wright created a Midwestern vernacular, Town expanded the idea of Louisiana architecture, and it’s unfortunate his residential work sometimes gets pigeonholed.
“One of the most fascinating things about him is how multifaceted he was,” McCullough adds.
Look no further than the current real estate market to see examples of this — where four distinct A. Hays Town houses are for sale. Listings range from $895,000 to $2.3 million and come with the superlative descriptions to match: “A. Hays Town Masterpiece” and “One of Mr. A. Hays Town’s Finest!”
Ivy covers the façade of the most modestly priced listing, set back on Girard Woods Drive. Its eggshell-blue shutters and French doors draw you in long before you make it past the gnarled oak stretching across the front lawn. Stepping inside, you’re surrounded by an intangible sense of warmth. You can see how as a potential buyer it might be tempting to play “I Spy,” checking off a mental box of every signature feature: wall of windows, antique fireplace, stainless kitchen counters, brick-paved breezeway, shiplap and, yes, even a pergola.
But the longer you spend inside the home, the more McCullough’s words ring true: “He thought about how a structure he was designing would function. His details reveal themselves slowly over time.” In this case, a family home, designed with a large kitchen, generous indoor and outdoor living space and a non-split floor plan, featuring three bedrooms in the same wing.
This is the first Hays Town house listing agent Christi Van Eaton has represented, but she says she was struck by how much potential buyers respect the history and original design of the home.
“For this type of buyer in this price range, they can change it, but they don’t want to,” says Van Eaton. “They’re very respectful, wanting to restore in his fashion with modern updates.”
She predicts the potential buyer for this home and homes like it share a sentiment she sees gaining traction.
“They want to raise their children in a home environment they may not necessarily recall from their childhood, but what they recall from their grandparents,” she says. “They have a vision for their family life.”
This ideal of a family home is at the core of Town’s designs, whether it was a vision he gave us or something he tapped into that was there all along.