Although he lived in Mississippi for only thirteen years, architect A. Hays Town had a profound impact on the state’s built environment through two very distinct phases of his long and illustrious career. During his first period of influence, when he lived in Mississippi, he helped to introduce modern architecture to the state; during his second period of influence he was instrumental in helping rekindle an interest in Mississippi’s vernacular architectural traditions.
Town was born on 17 June 1903 in Crowley, Louisiana, and was educated at Southwestern Louisiana Institute and at Tulane University. He came to Mississippi in 1926 to work as an intern in the office of prominent Jackson-based architect N. W. Overstreet. By the time Town left Jackson in 1939, he and Overstreet had become partners, and with Overstreet’s encouragement, Town had designed modern concrete structures across the state. Many of these buildings had been built under the public relief programs of the Great Depression, and many were schools, including Church Street School in Tupelo, Bailey Junior High School in Jackson, Bowmar Avenue School in Vicksburg, and Columbus High School. This work was widely published nationally and internationally and, as Overstreet had hoped, helped to further Mississippi’s reputation as a progressive state and to pave the way for a broader acceptance of modern architecture.
Town’s family obligations took him back to Louisiana, where he established what became one of Baton Rouge’s largest commercial postwar architectural offices. Despite his great success, Town took increasing interest in the firm’s smaller residential commissions, where he could experiment with forms and ideas derived from childhood memories of traditional architecture in southern Louisiana. He also found inspiration in his recollections of his work with the Historic American Buildings Survey, in which he documented Mississippi’s early structures. Beginning in the 1960s, Town divested himself of most of his commercial work and much of his staff so that he could focus on exploring the South’s diverse vernacular architectural traditions. He developed a unique and flexible architectural vocabulary that was inspired by traditional building materials and methods but that could be effectively applied to contemporary architectural problems.
Town’s later, more traditional practice centered on Louisiana but extended into neighboring states. After Overstreet’s death, Town renewed his practice in Mississippi, where he designed a number of homes in the suburbs of North Jackson, including the Sturgis House and the Puckett House in Eastover, as well as in other locations around the state, including the Elliott House in Brookhaven and the Lampton House in Columbia. These houses illustrate the stylistic variability and compositional flexibility of Town’s later work. He often imagined his buildings to have been built over time as a series of separate projects or subsequent additions, each of which had its own character and form. During this phase of his career, Town designed almost one thousand houses, continuing to work until well into his nineties. He died on 6 January 2005.
Architects and designers from across the Deep South adapted design strategies derived from the final phase of Town’s career to a wide range of building types with varying degrees of success. Town’s work demonstrated the enduring relevance of vernacular traditions and set a new standard against which work of this type could be judged. His influence continues to echo in ongoing developments in Mississippi and surrounding states.
- David Sachs, The Life and Work of the Twentieth-Century Architect A. Hays Town (2003)
- A. Hays Town, Cyril E. Vetter, and Philip Gould, The Architectural Style of A. Hays Town (1985)