Architect A. Hays Town needs little introduction in Louisiana.
A household name, his 65-year career yielded hundreds of homes and buildings, among them the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s own Alumni House and a part of the University Art Museum complex.
It's in honor of the 50th anniversary of the latter, known as the A. Hays Town Building, that the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum has mounted a retrospective of his work, "A. Hays Town and the Architectural Image of Louisiana," an exhibition two years in the making that involved three Louisiana universities — UL-Lafayette, LSU and Tulane University.
Carol Reese, professor at the Tulane School of Architecture, was the curator who conceived the exhibit and was assisted by her doctoral students.
“It was a weaving together, a collaboration,” said Reese, who did the research and laid out the exhibition. “The whole Hilliard staff worked hard and were in constant communication.”
The goal was to celebrate the iconic status of the Town building, its 24 columns standing tall around the structure that was the university's original Art Center. Town designed it after the 1812 Hermitage Plantation in Darrow, and reaching a half-century renders it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Today the building, which is located next to the museum, is used for receptions, events, lectures and exhibitions.
“We just wanted to raise community consciousness as to what a treasure it is," Reese said, "and it seemed like the perfect time to put his work on view.
“He was arguably the most important Louisiana architect of the 20th century.”
Town, who was born in Crowley, grew up in Lafayette and later established his practice in Baton Rouge. He died at age 101 in 2005.
Ursula Emery, A. Hays Town Professor at the LSU School of Architecture, also worked on the exhibit with her students. Emery says she learned more about him teaching the class.
“Drawings went through an entire process to become digitized 3-D models,” said Emery. “You learn something about the tone of his work, his voice.”
Eighteen students, three per team and each with a different level of experience, created the models after touring four of the six houses represented in the exhibit. Students built the models, which were then transported from Baton Rouge to Lafayette.
“Student participation was critical. Without the students, there would not be a show,” said Emery. “I told them, 'This has to be perfect. It’s going in a world-class museum in the main gallery. They all have to be an 'A.' "
Emery said she is fascinated by how prevalent Town is in Louisiana, a region that keeps culture tied to place.
“He carries the same weight as Frank Lloyd Wright here,” she said. "He contributed to a culture for a very long time. It’s why he’s so relevant. His houses persist.
“Good architecture will stay around.”
The exhibition explores the sources and success of Town’s residential designs, houses that integrated French, Spanish and Caribbean building traditions. He was one of the first architects to salvage old materials for use in new homes.
His abiding legacy as a regionalist has rendered iconic his homes, of which there are an estimated 1,000, and the show demonstrates his early, later and final work.
Nadya Kozinets, assistant professor of UL-Lafayette's School of Architecture and Design, and her undergraduate students were responsible for the design and color analysis of Town’s palette.
“A. Hays Town was a little remote for them,” said Kozinets. “I think it was really relevant that by creating this exhibit, it reintroduced his work to the new millennium. The prior century to the new century.”
The show strives to show Town’s range of vision, the differences in his work and how each house is different in shape and form.
“There are tons of A. Hays Town houses in Baton Rouge and Lafayette,” said Emery. “One neighborhood in Baton Rouge has around 50, almost like an A. Hays Town museum.”
She said Town designed warm, livable homes.
“They still work. Families still live in them," Emery said. "His attentiveness to place, porches, deep shade, materials — especially in his residential designs. There’s no way he didn’t love Louisiana.”
Grandnephew Rocky Perkins remembers the man in a more intimate way. Perkins lived in Hays’ home and counts him as one of the major influences on his artistic career.
“I was always tailing after him, to antique stores and construction sites. And I worked in his office as a draftsman,” said Perkins. “I did some of his drawings.
“When I quit, he got mad at me.”
Although he actually wanted to be an artist, Perkins nevertheless studied architecture at LSU and said Hays hoped he’d follow him into the business.
“His son didn’t want to," Perkins said, "and I couldn’t do it.
“There was only one A. Hays Town.”
“Uncle Hays” wasn’t one to mince words and didn’t hesitate to inform Perkins he was “making a big mistake” by choosing art. It caused a rift only mended later by a hard-wrung admission, Perkins said.
“He told me he’d wanted to be an artist too and his father wouldn’t let him,’” said Perkins. “It was a great moment. That he approved.”
According to Perkins, Hays was a one-man show, who could handle everything from architects to contractors.
“When he walked on site, people straightened up, almost at attention. He had a Rolls-Royce and he’d let me drive him. He’d get out, pick his way through the mud. It was amazing to see the respect he commanded,” Perkins said.
“I don’t think any architect has done as much since.”
'A. Hays Town and the Architectural Image of Louisiana'
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Through Dec. 29.
WHERE: Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum, 710 E. St. Mary Blvd., Lafayette
ADMISSION: $5, $4 for ages 62 and older, $3 for students; free for children ages 5 and younger
INFORMATION: hilliardmuseum.org or (337) 482-2278
DETAILS: Guided tours offered at 2 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays