John Shearer: Learning About R.H. Hunt-Designed Arkansas Church Turning 100

Friday, October 16, 2020 - by John Shearer

One of the interesting aspects of writing a story for an easily accessible online publication like chattanoogan.com is that you never know who might be reading it.

 

As evidence, I have written over the years on noted local architect of yesteryear R.H.

Hunt. He designed such still-standing downtown Chattanooga buildings as the Hamilton County Courthouse, the James Building, the Maclellan apartment building, Second Presbyterian Church and Memorial Auditorium.

 

He also designed dozens of out-of-town buildings in various Southern states stretching to Texas, and I have visited and written about a small handful of them as well.

 

Recently, I received an email from Dr. Charles Paris, who is on the archives committee of First United Methodist Church in Fort Smith, Ark., in the northwestern part of the state. 

 

His church worship building in what is the Natural State’s second largest city is getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021. It was designed by Mr. Hunt, he said, and he was looking for old architectural plans of the church and any other pertinent information on the architect.

 

While I have occasionally come across his old plans, I am not completely sure where those on his out-of-town buildings might be. 

 

He also forwarded some photos he had taken of his church, and which accompany this story, and it was interesting to see them. 

 

That church building has the classic Greek Revival stye with columns and steps in the front, and actually looks from the outside a little like University Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, N.C., that Hunt designed and which I have written about after visiting. 

 

On the inside, the Fort Smith church has that classic curved-shape balcony found in Hunt structures like Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga and Central United Methodist in Knoxville, another church I have chronicled after a visit.

 

However, Central with its red brick appearance looks much different from the outside than the Arkansas church.

 

Longtime Chattanoogans might think First United Methodist of Fort Smith also looks a little like the now-razed Centenary United Methodist Church that stood across Lindsay Street from Memorial Auditorium before the current First-Centenary building was built a few yards east in the early 1970s.

 

However, a check at the Chattanooga Public Library revealed the Centenary Church was designed by the Rev. J.A. Baylor, a former Centenary pastor who also had some architectural training and was the architectural secretary of a Methodist board at the time.

 

Dr. Paris said his church in Fort Smith was dedicated on May 15, 1921 – two months after the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga opened – and has remained pretty much the same. 

 

“There really have not been many changes to the sanctuary, (other than the) installation of air conditioning, movement of the organ from the left side of the choir loft to the center and general maintenance issues,” he said in an email. “But overall, she looks just as she was constructed.”

 

Besides similarities in traits and looks that many of Mr. Hunt’s buildings have, his structures are also usually connected by their handsome qualities.

 

Mr. Hunt, who was basically a self-trained architect and lived until 1937, was not necessarily considered a trend setter with his own creative or ground-breaking ideas, but he was known for his prolific and nice examples of the popular trends of the time.

 

His buildings all seem to be appealing edifices on the landscape and almost always draw praise, not criticism, especially as the years have passed and the classic craftsmanship and materials get more expensive to reproduce.

 

Mr. Hunt’s structures also had a spreading quality, as they definitely dotted a lot of towns. According to some information Franklin Architects passed along to the Local History and Genealogy section of the Chattanooga Public Library a number of years ago, his known buildings in other places include seven in South Carolina, one in China, eight in Florida, close to 30 in Georgia, 17 in Kentucky, and three in Louisiana.

 

Also, he designed about 75 structures in Mississippi, two in Missouri, eight in Oklahoma, 37 in Texas, 15 in Virginia, four in West Virginia and one in Walla Walla, Wash.

 

He also designed dozens of buildings in Chattanooga and throughout Tennessee.

 

His other buildings in Arkansas other than First United Methodist include two buildings at what is now Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, First Presbyterian Church and a residence for J.D. Trimble in El Dorado, a schoolhouse and Baptist church in Frazier, and a high school building and two Arkansas State University structures, including a girls dorm, in Jonesboro.

 

Most of Mr. Hunt’s designs were public buildings like schools and churches, and he no doubt had an inside track into contacts. Long forgotten is how big a staff he had or if he ever stressed over all that work. It was also rumored that he did some of the church projects for free or maybe a discount.

 

One resource said B.F. Hunt also worked with him in Chattanooga, and William G. Phillips was his chief draftsman.

 

He also had an office in Dallas, Texas, which he opened in 1919 in the city’s Southwestern Life building. Mrs. C.B. Carter was his secretary and treasurer in the Dallas office, and W.L. Love was his chief draftsman.

 

So, Mr. Love was no doubt in charge of taking Mr. Hunt’s plans for First United Methodist (initially First Methodist Episcopal Church) in Fort Smith. The same reference book said that church cost roughly $100,000 to construct. 

 

By contrast, the reference article said a Presbyterian Church Mr. Hunt designed in Brownwood, Texas, cost $80,000 about that time, and a Baptist Church in Muskogee, Okla., cost $200,000.

 

Further research would be required to see which of all these buildings are still standing. Just in the last few weeks, the former Highland Park Elementary in Chattanooga that Mr. Hunt designed was torn down to make way for a construction project for the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. 

 

One could spend countless highway miles and hours visiting all of the remaining Hunt-designed structures outside the Scenic City, but no doubt a lover of historic and well-done architecture would be entertained.

 

And Dr. Paris has made one old Hunt church far away from Chattanooga easy to visit – at least virtually!

 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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