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Arkansas Properties on the National Register of Historic Places: Evelyn Gill Walker House

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program - Monday, January 07, 2019

The Evelyn Gill Walker House at Paris in Logan County was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 16, 1993. 

Summary

The Evelyn Gill Walker House is the second structure designed by Tolbert E. Gill and exhibits the same “naturalistic” or “rustic” style that he earlier established when constructing his own residence. Although architecturally significant if only for its association with Gill, the Evelyn Gill Walker House is distinct from the earlier structure in that it reflects the maturing of Gill as a designer, craftsman, and builder. Whereas Gill was confined in the design of his own residence by an existing frame structure, the Evelyn Gill Walker House afforded him with the opportunity to incorporate much of his considerable concrete sculpting abilities into the actual design rather than as applied decoration or outdoor sculpture. For these reasons, the Evelyn Gill Walker House is being nominated under Criterion C with local significance.

Elaboration

Paris, Arkansas, was the first Logan County seat, achieving that status in 1874 via the authority of a county-wide election held to determine the location of the center of county government (though there were probably settlers of European descent living in the area prior to that time, it is not clear how many there were and to what extent they formed a cohesive community of any kind). Paris grew gradually and prospered, largely due to its location on one of the major overland roads between the rich, cotton-growing land of surrounding rural Logan County and both the Arkansas River and the Little Rock-Ft. Smith Railroad that ran along its north bank. It became an important regional hub, therefore, not only for the conducting of official county business but also for trading, social activities, and obtaining other services.

Paris also grew as a result of the German-Swiss immigration that occurred during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The explosive growth of the railroad industry in Arkansas after the Civil War tied many of the heretofore rural and relatively isolated parts of the state into a national and international network that would generate far-reaching social and economic implications. One of the earliest was the realization on the part of the railroads that their fortunes would only be enhanced through the encouragement of new settlement from outside the state, thereby increasing the demand for both passenger and freight traffic. European immigration in particular increased dramatically after the cessation of hostilities that had closed many Southern ports and rendered even some Northern ports unsafe. Many of those that arrived from such countries as Germany, Italy and parts of Eastern Europe were usually poorer people from rural areas that possessed few work skills, typically knowing only one of the building trades or farming.

One need shard by all immigrants to the United States, however, was land, and this was one commodity the railroads in particular possessed in abundance. The railroad industry had been rather successful in convincing the federal government that large land grants along their railroad lines were necessary to create the nationwide rail infrastructure that the government (and the railroad owners) desired. This was certainly true of the fledgling Little Rock-Fort Smith Railroad that completed its line between the two cities in 1876 and in the process gained an abundance of unclaimed land on both sides of the Arkansas River with which to lure immigrants to the valley. Even the new immigrants that did not purchase their property directly from the railroads frequently followed other countrymen who did in order to remain part of a familiar and culturally-cohesive community. Paris certainly received its share of German-Swiss immigration, due in part to its status as a governmental and commercial hub for the region, but due also to its relatively close proximity to the fledgling Benedictine abbey at Subiaco, located approximately five miles to the east, which would become a religious and cultural focus for these largely Roman Catholic immigrants.

By one account, Tolbert E. Gill — himself either a German immigrant or a first-generation American descended from German immigrants — first came to Paris, Arkansas as early as 1918; however, virtually all sources agree that he relocated to the northern county seat of Logan County (northern and southern districts had been created by 1900, with Booneville becoming the seat of the southern district) by 1920, at which time he began work on this residence. Gill’s principle vocation was a clothing and dry cleaning service that he owned and operated in downtown Paris, though he purportedly worked as a barber prior to his arrival there.

Clearly, Mr. Gill acquired some construction expertise along the way (one informant recalled having heard that a local architect, Mansill “Max” Sutton, designed both Gill’s own residence and the Evelyn Gill Walker House; however, though it is known that Mr. Mansill did design several buildings in Paris, interviews conducted with several members of the extended Mansill family did not produce any documentation of this, either written or recalled). Located across State Highway 22 (known locally as West Walnut Street) from the home of his in-laws, Gill began with a small, wood frame building already on the site. Doing the vast majority of the construction work himself, Gill expanded and elaborated the existing building to create this residence for himself and his family over the next fifteen years. Though the overall design of the house itself is not unusual — a one-and-one half story gable roof core with a single-story, wrap-around section that includes both an open porch and an enclosed room — the style and construction technique reflect a clear confidence and proficiency with masonry construction. Gill’s previous construction experience is not known, but given the fact that he built this himself and over a period of fifteen years, it is quite conceivable that he was self-taught. Nevertheless, this three-dimensional, bouldered aesthetic is unique and without known precedent (there is no reason to believe that the similarity to the Crystal River Tourist Court buildings is anything other than circumstantial), as are the bouldered stone walls, bird baths, planters, and other landscape features designed in the same style.

The concrete sculpture surrounding the residence, however, is another matter entirely. In its essentials it bears a remarkable resemblance to the concrete sculpture of Dionicio Rodriguez, the sculptor of Mexican ancestry who worked out of his studio in San Antonio, Texas. Rodriguez designed and installed his unique sculptural work at sites in Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee during the 1930’s with one of his largest and best known installations occurring at the T. R. Pugh Park in North Little Rock, Arkansas. His rendering in concrete of such natural forms as mushrooms, logs, and stumps was decidedly distinctive during his lifetime and has since become the focus of substantial scholarly and curatorial study to understand and appreciate his work more completely. While there have been artists who have attempted to imitate Rodriguez and his sculptural style, such study has uncovered no known stylistic antecedents.

There is substantial evidence to support the contention that Mr. Gill was, in fact, directly exposed to both the work of Rodriguez and the concrete techniques Rodriguez employed to craft his sculpture. One informant who was raised in Paris during Mr. Gill’s lifetime recalls that Mr. Gill spent time in North Little Rock helping Rodriguez with the work in T. R. Pugh Park in the mid- to late-1930’s, during which time he was also finishing the house and, presumably, beginning the landscaping work on the surrounding yard. This account of Mr. Gill’s experience is corroborated by another local resident who knew Mr. Gill personally during Gill’s later years. Mr. Ray Blaty recalled that Mr. Gill had told him of spending some “slack time” over the course of several summers in North Little Rock, working with Rodriguez on the creation and installation of the various sculptures there. It is known that Rodriguez frequently employed such assistants; and though Rodriguez could speak little English, he apparently experienced little problem in communicating his techniques to his helpers. Even a cursory comparison of Gill’s concrete sculpture with that of Rodriguez reveals the remarkable stylistic similarities, and so virtually confirms the influence of Rodriguez. However, it is important to note that Mr. Blaty and others specifically remember Mr. Gill working on and producing these works himself, and later he even opened a small studio and store on the south side of town for the purpose of making and selling his creations; and thus there is no reason to suspect that he simply brought some of Rodriguez’s own work for installation in his yard.

Although he was occupied with his outdoor sculpture through World War II, Gill managed to begin construction circa 1938 on a house as a wedding gift for his daughter, Evelyn Gill Walker. Completed approximately five years later (the interior may not have been finished until 1945), the Evelyn Gill Walker House is the second structure designed by Tolbert E. Gill and exhibits the same “naturalistic” or “rustic” style that he earlier established when constructing his own residence. Although architecturally significant if only for its association with Gill, the Evelyn Gill Walker House is distinct from the earlier structure in that it reflects the maturing of Gill as a designer, craftsman, and builder. Whereas Gill was somewhat confined in the design of his own residence by an existing frame structure, the Evelyn Gill Walker House afforded him with the opportunity to incorporate much of his considerable concrete sculpting abilities into the actual design rather than as applied decoration or outdoor sculpture. For these reasons, the Evelyn Gill Walker House is being nominated under Criterion C with local significance.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Blaty, Ray, Interview, April 2, 1993 and May 25, 1993.

Czaplicki, Karen, Interview, December 3, 1992.

Workers of the Writers’ Program. The WPA Guide to 1930’s Arkansas, with a new introduction by Elliot West. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1987 (original copyright 1941).



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