Gerry Jones: Designer of first Carefree home is still developing mountain homes into his 90s

Gerry Jones

Designer of first Carefree home is still developing mountain homes into his 90s.

By David M. Brown



When Gerry Jones arrived here, Carefree wasn’t Carefree.

The well-known architectural designer and developer, now in his 90s, came to the foothills area north of Scottsdale just after the Korean War, when he had trained U.S. Marines in judo and survival techniques. Before this, he had taught himself design principles, inspired by his time in north China just after World War II until Mao Tse-Tung and the communists assumed power in 1949.

The sublime beauty of the high Sonoran Desert captivated Jones as had the mountains outside Beijing years earlier. Here were mountains with flowering cactus, ironwood, mesquite, and palo verde and untouched boulder terrain. Jones determined that when he designed homes here, he would enhance, not destroy the land.

“My work has always been about sensitivity to nature, colors, and forms, and mountain building sites,” says Jones (he pronounces his first name “Gary”), who lives with wife Leslie in a house he completed in 1978 near the 3,403-foot summit of Black Mountain, where Native Americans made their homes centuries ago.

Built into the massive granite boulders that characterize Carefree, their 4,000-square-foot home is in the 80-acre Hawksnest community, developed by Jones, and adjacent to his newest gated community, 27-acre Nighthawk on Black Mountain.

On nine 2.1−3.6-acre view lots overlooking Carefree and surrounded by the Continental, Bradshaw, and McDowell mountains, Nighthawk will debut its first home this summer, a 5,270-square-foot single-level on 3.6 acres, designed by Jones and built by long-time business associate, La Casa Builders, Scottsdale.

In 1957 to 1959, Jones did the land planning for Carefree’s first 1,400 acres, developed and named by Tom Darlington and K.T. Palmer. He designed and built the town’s first two homes, Lots 139 and 178, both standing and home to residents today. In 1959, he wrote Carefree’s Architectural Guidelines for Mountainside Design, setting out building principles for the community.

Jones has designed high-quality homes for 65 years (1952−2017) and approximately 125 to 135 of his homes are in Carefree.

“Responsible mountain development has been what I believe, what I have designed, and what I have lived in,” he says, “and our new Nighthawk community continues firmly in that tradition.”

Indiana Leads to China

Jones was born on a farm in Indiana. He was painting church steeples at 11 and left home at 13 to find work.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the elite First Marine Division Scouts & Snipers, became a sergeant and specialized in self-defense training. He fought through the South Pacific to the end, including bloody Okinawa, only 350 miles from Japan. Wounded, he received a Purple Heart.

When the war ended, the First Marine Division was sent to north China to complete the disarming and repatriation of 1.2 million Japanese troops. “Because of my interest in self-defense, I wanted to study under three famous Chinese martial arts masters,” he recalls. At the time, 1945−1948, he was living in Tianjin, and the Chinese Nationalists and Communists were fighting the Civil War for control of the country.

“In China I saw the dead from starvation, exposure, and suicide collected each morning from the streets. Inflation was so bad we were using the 100,000 yuan currency bills to light cigarettes,” he recalls, noting that from 1945 to 1948, prices increased 30 percent monthly.

“China at that time was a dynamic, decadent war-torn society, but I admired the Chinese people for their unfailing humor, appreciation of beauty and the knowledge of how to live,” he recalls. Jones and Leslie returned years later to a changing China to accumulate probably the world’s finest collection of the country’s outstanding transitional art, part of which was featured at the Phoenix Art Museum in 2004 and 2013.

The Mahayana Buddhist monks lived in monasteries, which had been built into the mountains from A.D. 700 to 900. “Most impressive was that the monasteries were still functioning as religious retreats after more than a 1,000 years and that they were built into the terrain, stepping up with the natural level floating. One I recall even had a stream flowing inside that delivered food directly to the monks from the kitchen.”

Jones has never forgotten those lessons.

Homes for the Mountains

“When I started my construction and architectural design business in Arizona, in 1952, 95 percent of all houses were standard tract style, built with the cheapest materials and on small flat lots. There were a few of the more costly homes on the south slope of Camelback Mountain, perhaps a total of 12 or 15 homes,” Jones recalls.

He began designing and building homes to fit the terrain. His first Arizona houses, all still standing, are on five-acre hillside lots northeast of 48th Street and Camelback Road, then an outlier Phoenix community.

“The standard method of architecture for hillside homes was very simple, very costly and seriously desecrated the mountain side,” he recalls. This process began with a D-9 bulldozer cutting a flat pad into the mountainside, with cut-bank walls as high as 30 feet; the excavated material was then pushed over the side of the flat pad reminiscent of mine tailings. “On that flat pad, a Kansas-style flatland house could be designed and built in the same tract method as houses on flat land,” he explains.

Jones was appalled by this insensitivity, so he began designing homes to conform to the existing terrain rather than to recontour the mountain at great cost for a flatland house design. He became the only Arizona architectural designer-builder using this method in the 1950s.

“This system of building in harmony with nature made many improvements, saved money, greatly reduced desecration to the mountainside site and allowed storm run-off to follow the original arroyos,” Jones says.

He began talking with interested architects and builders on his methods. “Usually they simply had a blank stare. They hadn’t been taught this in school and, therefore, didn’t think it was valid,” he adds.

But Jones continued on, vigorously defending his principles in practice along the slopes of Valley communities such as Camelback and Mummy mountains, Pinnacle Peak, Clearwater Hills, and Carefree, as well as in California, New Mexico, and Oregon.

In 1974, he wrote a short paper, “Must We Destroy in Order to Build?” He also taught Extreme Terrain Architecture at Taliesin West in Scottsdale for 17 years. In 1984, the Maricopa County Planning and Zoning Board asked Jones to form an architectural committee to write the county’s first Hillside Design Ordinance. Valley architects, Paul Christian Yeager and Jim Roberts, joined him on that committee.

Build sensitively placed homes and build with quality materials for longevity: This was the monks’ chant to him. The 2,400-square-foot DeMille house, Lot 139, in Carefree, the town’s first, is 58 years old, in excellent condition and being lived in. “In 1958 this was a complete breakaway from the Arizona typical boxy tract houses,” Jones says.

The 1970 Slingman House, also in Carefree, is sited on three and a half acres of boulders. Jones recalls that no one would buy the lot because architects and engineers told buyers that it was unbuildable without moving boulders at extraordinary excavation cost.

“I bridged the house over the boulders, the first bridge house in Arizona, moved one small boulder and saved thousands by using the boulders for bearing in lieu of a standard foundation,” he says.

Return clients, the Kirsopps, asked him to design and build their Carefree home in 1977, but the engineers told the owners a driveway could not be built for a house in this location. But Jones built it and also devised a “faceted roof,” the first in the United States, to accommodate many small floor-level changes.

Jones designed another faceted-roof home in Paradise Valley for Dr. Rick and Joan Levinson in 1981, and they’re still living in it, having raised their children there.

“Gerry is very insightful and reads people very well,” Dr. Levinson recalls. “The first time we met, he offered us some designs. We asked, ‘Can you do all of this on our budget? And Jones said, ‘They’re your bricks, and you get to decide where and how to place them.’ We were particularly pleased that this home was to follow our vision and not a rubberstamp or someone else’s ideas.”

And, for their 2015 home, “Casa Blanca,” also in Paradise Valley, Fife Jr. IV and Marci Symington asked Jones and La Casa Builders for a home that would serve them as they raised their young family and then stayed in place.

Jones gave them a home designed and built to stay in place 150 to 175 years.


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