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Robert Lawton Jones: Tulsa’s ambassador of International Style

A key partner in the city’s most influential architecture firm, Jones refined modernism in Oklahoma

Robert Lawton Jones House, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

It’s still striking more than half a century later—a low-slung rectangular home on East 47th Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, remains a beacon of futuristic design in the mid-American city. The home Robert Lawton Jones designed for his family of seven is a far cry from its neighbors: exposed steel frames, blue and red panels, diagonal steel braces. But it represents a model the architect would use to create some of the city’s most recognizable buildings.

Tulsa was an oil-boom town that contains a wealth of Art Deco designs. But Jones, along with the architects at the powerhouse firm Murray Jones Murray, created some of the city’s great civic architecture, including the celebrated Tulsa International Airport, boasting simple, spare ornamentation.

Biography

Robert Lawton Jones House, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

Born in McAlester, Oklahoma, Robert Lawton Jones received one of the more elaborate educations in modernist design. It started when he decided to head out to Chicago, reasoning that an aspiring architect should make his way to the “most exciting city in architecture.” In 1949, he studied at the University of Notre Dame in nearby South Bend, Indiana, while working for Chicago firms such as Perkins + Will.

In 1951, he began graduate school at the Illinois Institute of Technology, learning from the dean of “less is more,” Mies van der Rohe. And if that weren’t enough, he then earned a Fulbright scholarship and studied in Germany under Egon Eiermann, one of Germany’s most prominent postwar architects.

Jones was lured back to Oklahoma in 1954 with an offer to design a Civic Center Master Plan. The job returned him to his home state and led him to David George and Lee Cloyd Murray, two other homegrown architects with a modern bent. His impact was multiplied when he decided to partner up with two Murray brothers to form Murray Jones Murray in 1957.

It was clear from the start that Jones had big ideas—when the partners discussed the collaboration, Jones said his goal was to become to most respected firm in Oklahoma within five years. The brothers though that was brash, but just a few years later, leaders from both of the state’s biggest architecture schools praised Murray Jones Murray as a local leader, and it appeared the goal had been met.

The rapid ascent established the firm as a local and regional powerhouse that could and would take on large institutional commissions. Their redesign for the Tulsa International Airport brought Miesian grace to the Jet Age (as well as a layout praised today for its simplicity and effectiveness), and their modernist St. Patrick Catholic Church showcased progressive, expressive ecclesiastical work on a large scale. The firm reached its peak in the early ’80s. Soon after, Jones would begin teaching at the University of Oklahoma and retired from architecture in 1997.

St. Patrick Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

Buildings to know

Built on a 2-acre site near a pecan orchard, Robert Lawton Jones’s family home brought Case Study style to the plains. The one-story, 2,800-square-foot home was one of the first International Style homes in the region, and featured innovative energy conservation systems, including a well-water cooling system and passive heating.

The home would be immortalized in a photoshoot by famous lensman Julius Shulman, who captured two of Jones’s kids riding tricycles up the driveway. After Jones moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the home was purchased and restored by local real estate agent Marty Newman and his mother Rita.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was a box of a different sort. From the exterior, the windowless concrete structure may seem cold. Inside, however, it’s a revelation. A series of precast concrete panels, each with a imprinted angel, like the open interior, are suspended by parabolic arches designed by engineer Felix Candela. The simple structure, a result of the parishioners’ limited budget, offers a powerful refuge for faith.

Tulsa Municipal Airport, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust
Tulsa Municipal Airport, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust

Legacy and reputation today

Like the firm he helped build, Jones is instantly associated with Oklahoma modernism. Named an AIA fellow in 1970, he has influenced generations of architects, planners, and designers, both in his role at the firm—MJM hired, trained, and mentored hundreds of designers—and through his work at the University of Oklahoma School of Architecture, where he was both an instructor and director.

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