Pig Skin and Wieners, the Early Influences on Preservation Architect Jack Pyburn
Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the “Preservation Technology” podcast. The show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Services National Center for Preservation, Technology and Training. Today we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with Jack Pyburn, preservation architect at Lord, Aeck and Sargent. In this podcast, they discuss Pyburn’s career influences and current preservation projects.
Jason Church: The first thing I want to ask you, Jack, I know you as a preservation architect, but I notice when I Google your name, that’s not what comes up first. It’s Jack Pyburn, football. Let’s just get that out of the way. I want to know why it comes up Jack Pyburn, football.
Jack Pyburn: Well, I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, not far from here. I went to Byrd High School, which was one of only two high schools in Shreveport at the time. Byrd and Fair Park were the two high schools. We had a big pool of people who played in the highest classification in the state, in triple A at the time. I’m the youngest of four boys. My brothers ahead of me were athletes. I was the largest of all of them by a fair margin. It was just sort of assumed I was to participate in sports, and particularly in football, which I did.
I did that through high school, I did okay. I was not a great football player, but I did okay, partly because of my size. I actually, my favorite sport was track. In fact, I competed here at Northwestern a number of times in high school and had good competitors from Natchitoches at the time. I broke the state record in the discus my junior year and again in my senior year. After my junior year, I really thought I would not play football anymore. I didn’t enjoy it that much, honestly. I loved track, it was a real … Something I got a lot of pleasure of and did okay at. I had a four year track scholarship offered at Tulane.
Came football time my senior year, and I said I wasn’t going to play because I was going to focus on track. The football coach, the only time he ever spoke to me, the head coach, and certainly the only time he ever came to the house, came and basically cajoled me into playing football my senior year in high school.
Again, I was not All-State, maybe All-City and District or something like that, but nothing particularly special. A&M showed an interest in me, but not a big interest, but a local alum from A&M did, and I ended up taking a one year make good football scholarship to A&M and giving up a four year, full track scholarship to Tulane, which does not compute, but it’s what happened.
I got to A&M, I did all right my freshman year and I knew I wanted to study architecture. It’s a whole other story why I wanted to do that because I had no real exposure to it, but I wanted to study architecture. The athletic counselor tried to talk me out of it. I spent a semester drawing nuts and bolts in civil engineering until I told them that was really not what I was interested in.
I made the team, I got a full four year scholarship then and so architecture was a five year curriculum. My parents, my father in-particular’s policy was as a son, you worked your way through college. They did not pay our way through college, me and my brothers. All of us ended up going to college, thank goodness. I was basically working my way through school and had chosen architecture as my degree track.
Architecture was a five year program before the four and two six year program was developed. Football was a four year eligibility. After the four years, I figured I was going to spend a year focused on my academics and low and behold, I got drafted by Miami. I decided to go try it, and if I made it, I figured they would … It was the height of the Vietnam War and I had a four year deferment left, but if I made the team, I would lose my deferment. If I didn’t get back in school by September, I’d lose my deferment.
I made the team, again another story about the fact that some weird way, I was deemed to be ineligible for Vietnam, but went back to play a second year of football. I went through the draft review and the draft exams and my recruit thing came back and said I was 4-F, which was not eligible. Never could get an explanation, but I didn’t seek it out either too much, honestly.
Anyway, I got my fifth year of architecture in two springs. I graduated, and at that point I had enough football, I’d had that experience. I told the coach I would retire, so to speak, and I went and got an architecture job in Miami. I had a degree in architecture, I’d never been in an architect’s office. Because I’d always been playing football, and I figured I needed some experience. The football experience itself, I played under Gene Stallings, who had come from Alabama and back to A&M, played for Bear Bryant at A&M. He was a very demanding coach.
It was a very trying exercise to try to study architecture and play football under him. Probably not unlike trying to study architecture and play football for Nick Saban, but from an academic standpoint, he let me keep my scholarship. The Dean of the School of Architecture, who in my sophomore year had met me on the elevator, just he and I, and told me I had to choose between football and architecture or he would. Ended up being a strong supporter after he knew I was seriously committed to architecture, and helped me through that last couple of semesters.
Miami was in its second year of existence and they had trained in Sarasota the first year. A bunch of folks from the circus decided they were going to try out for football. I just remember one story or one experience was a guy who had a circus act of doing things with his bare feet. He decided … Driving nails in boards with his feet was his circus act. He decided he was going to enhance either his circus act or enhance his football, I don’t know or both. He was going to play football with no shoes on.
The expansion teams were made up of two groups. They were made up of recruits like me, just come out of college, wet behind the ears, and old veterans who were expendable at all the other teams that they put out for the expansion draft. One of them was a guy named Alphonse Dotson from Grambling, who had a very illustrious career but was on the downhill side of that career. He knew it, and he didn’t want anybody screwing around with the last remaining vestiges of his football career.
The first play of the first practice, Alphonse broke this guy’s foot and off we went. That’s an example of kind of the ragnot group we were. Miami was a very ragnot group at the time, and consequently we didn’t win any games, but I had a good time. I enjoyed photography, and so we would have news photographer on the plane. I got to be friends with the news photographers.
There were two byproducts. One of that was they would give me photos they took that, where I might be in the photo. Not that they were taking photos of me, but … The other, they would give me camera equipment, old beat up camera equipment that they had moved onto something else, and they enjoyed me being interested in their profession. I had a good time. I got to see, got to travel, things that I had not been able to do as a kid. I got to see the major cities of the country that way. Anyway, that’s my little football spiel.
Jason Church: When you started practicing architecture, what got you from architecture into preservation architecture?
Jack Pyburn: Well, I’ve thought about that. As I said a minute ago, I really did not have a lot of exposure to architecture. We were not a family who was artistic. My parents did not do things that were in the arts. We did a little bit of going to arts events, a symphony every once in a while, things like that. Maybe a play, a local play.
I grew up with my dad, who was in the oil business. He was a drilling contractor in rural Louisiana. I spent a lot of my youth in rural Louisiana. We were stomping at plantation stores. We were just going fishing and eating a can of Vienna sausage and some saltine crackers, and that’s where we would stop. I was exposed to the vernacular rural architecture, and it really was a part of me. I think that’s a big piece.
The other piece that exposed me to architecture was … All these relate to preservation because it comes back to my preservation and my love for preservation in the rural environment, was that I grew up in a time when Sam Wiener was very active in Shreveport.
It is one of the amazing modernist architecture stories in the country, I think. I went to Broadmoor High School, I want to Youree Drive Arthur Circle School. I was the first class of those schools, those were all modern schools done by Wiener, Wiener brothers. My good friend and really the only architecture exposure I had was a good friend of mine, John Walker, who’s a physician in New Orleans now. He lived next door to Sam Wiener, so Wiener’s modernist house was right next door.
I then went to architecture school, and that’s what I was taught. I mean, it was a modernist Bauhaus education. I think all of those things were as much by osmosis as anything. I got to architecture school, but probably the most telling experience was when I had to decide on a terminal project, my fifth year project. I selected the Shreveport riverfront because of the historic buildings on the riverfront.
At the time, they were planning out, conceiving the Fant Parkway, which was this roadway along the river, Red River in Shreveport. Fant was the Mayor, my father’s Sunday School teacher. I look back now and I realize I had this interest in existing environment as a part of my development.
I finished football, and as I say, I didn’t have any experience with working in an office. I thought I needed to find out what that was like and I went to work for a guy named Herb Johnson in Miami, met him at a barbershop. Told him I was looking for a job and he said, “Come on over.” His design director was Mark Hampton, who was a part of the Sarasota School, who had moved from Sarasota to Miami. I had the opp- … We did Bal Harbour Shops and Dadeland, we did a lot of large shopping center work. I had this terrific opportunity to be exposed to Mark Hampton, that kind of work.
I did that for a year and I thought I needed a different kind of experience so I went to a big, what’s called a big E, little A, big engineering, strong engineering, smaller architectural component firm, Connell, Pierce, Garland and Friedman, that had done a lot of work at Cape Kennedy. I found myself there in a strange little environment.
We had an amazing group of Cuban architects that had immigrated to Miami. We had Vincent Scully’s son, was a part of the firm. He was a young guy my age who they had hired, and a guy named Richard Lyons, whose father, Eric Lyons, was head of the RBIA, the Royal British Institute of Architects. We did things like enter the L’oeil competition in Paris. I mean, this was in this sort of nondescript engineering firm that these folks came together. I mean, it was just a fun time.
Then I knew I needed to go back to school. I mean, I had left a lot on the table in both football and architecture. I applied to Columbia, I applied to Washington University in St. Louis. It was, the Columbia program, Preservation program was brand new. I really had no exposure to preservation as such at that time, but Columbia had a good architectural program nonetheless. Probably would have found it if I had ended up going there.
I ended up going to Washington University, primarily for financial reasons, because they gave me support that I needed. I was married with a child by that time. I went to Washington, I got a degree in Urban Design. I actually practiced for a decade as a planner. Fortunately, I got registered. In Florida, you could get registered the year of experience, so I started taking the exam in Florida. Most states were three years at the time. I started taking the exam and got registered.
I was away from architecture for a decade doing preservation planning. I discovered preservation, being a planner in St. Louis. I knew a small group of guys, people that … A firm called Team Four that came out of, young group came out of the Washington Urban Design and Urban Law program. We did some very interesting stuff. I found preservation, to some degree there.
I then moved. We were going to merge with an international firm, now part of AECOM, unfortunately, I think. It was called EDAW, Eckbow, Dean, Austin, Williams. They were a modernist landscape firm from California They had developed a strong national practice, and started to develop an international practice. They became very much an international force as they continued to develop.
We were going to merge with EDAW, at Team Four, our little practice in St. Louis. Under that scheme, I was going to come to Atlanta to open an office for EDAW. The merger fell through but my wife and I decided to come on to Atlanta. We came and I did that for four years, but I was ready to get back, kind of on a smaller, I was ready to start something myself and I wanted to gravitate back to architecture. Existing buildings was something I felt comfortable with, both structurally and architecturally and as well as my interest in existing environments.
Then I basically evolved my capability over time, starting small and building up that knowledge and capability to do that work. I had my own practice for 25 years just focused on preservation, and was asked to bring it into Lord, Aeck, Sargent, who was another firm in Atlanta that had a preservation practice, and the one competitor and group I respected architecturally that did preservation work.
I did that in ’07 and it’s been a great experience. Susan Turner and I shared the same … She was the principle there, shared the same values and focus on what was important about preservation. We have about 15 people just focused on preservation work now. That’s taken you past the early part, but that’ll run you through where I am now. There may be other areas you’re interested in.
Jason Church: I met you through a mutual friend, Tony [Razure 00:17:18] and you had gotten involved with Pasaquan. Tell me a little bit, how did you get involved with Pasaquan, and your role there?
Jack Pyburn: Pasaquan was struggling, and it had a small Board. One of my acquaintances through the AIA in Atlanta was on the Board. They needed to understand what they had, they didn’t really, they were … It was a doctor from Columbus, Georgia, who was kind of leading the charge to say, “This is significant and we need to do something about it.” For those who don’t know what Pasaquan is, it was a folk art site developed by Eddie Owens Martin who went by the name of St. EOM.
He developed it out of Sacrete and these figures and these sculptures out of Sacrete and chicken wire around his mother’s old homestead, and used Sherman Williams paint to do the painting and the rendering of them. He sculpted the concrete and then he painted it, miraculous little piece of work. We developed a, through that connection with the Board, a preservation plan that kind of set the foundation for them to go on and do what they did with the Kohler Foundation and get it in good hands with Columbus State. That’s kind of how that happened.
Still, even when we worked on it, the local community had not embraced the site because of Eddie Owens Martin’s history, which is quite colorful. Fascinating, fascinating piece of social, cultural history there in terms of how the community both didn’t accept him and yet thrived off of him. It’s typical with life. It’s got all kinds of facets to it.
Jason Church: Then did you ever do work with any of the other folk art sites?
Jack Pyburn: Yeah. Paradise Garden we worked on as well.
Jason Church: Today, a little later today, we’re doing a webinar all about the preservation of African American historic sites. How did you get into that as sort of, I don’t want to say a focus, but you’ve definitely done a significant amount of work in that area.
Jack Pyburn: Right, right. One of the things, to me, it’s a sphere of work personally that I did not anticipate would be given as much attention as it has been, thankfully. When that happened, I was … I mean, growing up in the South and knowing the history of the South, and experienced some of the range of what African Americans went through, and for that matter, go through, I thought it was an exceptional statement on our society to be able to acknowledge that, frankly as quickly as we have. Not everybody has, but I think the main body of the society has.
I think that part of it was, for me, an exciting thing about preservation in general. My involvement with it, in part started with the work maybe here at Oakland. The historic structural report for the Slave Cabin. Really for all the structures that we worked on. We didn’t do the work on the Big House.
All of the structures there had this rich African American history intertwined, and the place wouldn’t have happened without them. It was a capable, talented bunch of just innate intelligence and determination, will, faith were embodied in that group of people. I would say that’s kind of where it started.
Then I had the opportunity to work on the Vulcan in Birmingham. Very quickly the place of African Americans in the history of the Vulcan became clear, both in terms of the role of African Americans in the steel industry in the late 19th, early first of half of the 20th century. As well as the position of African Americans in Birmingham relative to the Vulcan. They could only go up in the tower one day a week.
That got me involved in Birmingham, and so the opportunity to work on 16th Street Baptist Church came from that, recently the Civil Rights monument and the Gaston Motel, which is being restored. There’s a joint venture between the Park Service and the City of Birmingham, so we’re working on that, working on that right now.
Along the way, I had an opportunity to work on the Modjeska Simkins house in Columbia, South Carolina. A little vernacular structure, very central to Brown vs. Board of Education and the evolution of the legal foundation for that ruling. A variety of other sites like that. That part’s been …
Jason Church: Well, thank you for talking to us today, Jack.
Jack Pyburn: Yeah, you’re very welcome.
Jason Church: We look forward to having you at new conferences in the future and hearing about new projects you’re doing.
Jack Pyburn: Yeah, good, good. That’s great.
Jason Church: Really appreciate it.
Jack Pyburn: Yeah. Thank you.
Kevin Ammons: Thank you to listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes at www.NCPTT.NPS.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.