Dr. Hill and students
Artist 'J. Frank' left his mark all over town

By Dudley Brown, Staff Writer

James Frank Collins was a man with many interests. He was an architect, a painter and a hunter; he made ceramics, worked with wood, played in an orchestra and was involved in a variety of civic organizations in Spartanburg.

The architecture and art of Collins, known as "J. Frank" by his friends, is on display at the Spartanburg County Museum of Art through Oct. 22. The collection ranges from blueprints to watercolor paintings to a bust of his daughter.

"His mastery of so many media is impressive," said Katherine Aul, a Wofford College student.

Aul and Karen Goodchild, an associate professor of art history at Wofford College, researched Collins for the exhibit as part of the college's Community of Scholars program.

Collins designed houses, schools, churches, hospitals, businesses and athletics facilities, including Duncan Park Stadium.

Goodchild describes Collins' artwork and architecture as formal and restrained; she said he stuck to classical approaches while many Modernist methods were gaining popularity.

Collins was born in 1883 in Steele Creek, a rural community outside Charlotte, N.C. His father was a farmer who also taught music.

Collins attended Davidson College for a year before leaving school to pursue apprenticeships with architects in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina. He married his childhood sweetheart, Lois McDowell, in 1908; they moved to Spartanburg in 1910.

It's uncertain why he moved to Spartanburg, though.

Collins practiced architecture here between 1910 and 1957. He also created other forms of art until his death in 1969 at 86.

Les McMillan, a Spartanburg architect, grew up on South Converse Street and said he remembers Collins giving him architectural magazines when he was a kid. Collins lived on Alexander Avenue.

McMillan said he didn't know Collins well because he was a child, but he's sure Collins had some influence on him deciding to become an architect. McMillan said he admires Collins' designs, his favorite being the old Water Works building downtown.

When McMillan was starting his firm, he bought file cabinets from Collins' daughter, Emily. It was then that he came across a watercolor painting by Collins in one of the drawers. The left side of the painting, which includes a windmill and a house, is damaged, but McMillan has it framed. He loaned the painting to the museum for the Collins exhibit.

Goodchild said Collins designed many of the homes in Converse Heights during the 1920s and 1930s, including one owned by former Secretary of State James F. Byrnes on Otis Boulevard. While the affordable bungalow-style home was being built, Collins built larger and more expensive homes with neoclassical elements, such as columns and dentil moldings. Goodchild said it's an example of how Collins designed what his clients wanted and they could afford the more expensive homes.

Collins, who was a mason, was commissioned to design the Masonic temple downtown. The temple was built in 1927 and remains an imposing structure; it's described as having an Eclectic Classicism style.

Other buildings designed by Collins include the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. on West Main Street, the Spartanburg General Hospital, Andrews Field House on Wofford's campus and Andrews Hall at Converse College. Goodchild said Collins probably received many of his commissions because of his connections through various organizations.

A listing of 53 buildings designed by Collins is included in the exhibit. While many are noted for their expensive, detailed designs, Goodchild has found some disparity.

"You can see the structural racism in these buildings," Goodchild said.

Collins designed the Southside Elementary School, which was built in 1939 and now serves as the Spartanburg County Museum of Art. It was originally a school for white children and was built with bricks and detailed ornamentation.

He also designed Cummings Street School, which was built in 1926, for black students. Unlike Southside, Cummings Street was built with cement blocks and its façade was basically plain.

Both buildings were long, two-story rectangles, but Cummings Street School was smaller, even though the school served all grades of black students. Goodchild said the disparities are signs of the times Collins lived in.

Duncan Park Stadium was built in 1926 and it has a long history of being the site for baseball games, but it's also been a spot for other events. Thousands of people came to the stadium to see pilot Charles Lindbergh when he visited the city in 1927; it also was the site of a 1943 rally celebrating the contribution of textile workers to the war effort. Even Byrnes received a hero's welcome at the stadium once.

"Duncan Park was more than a sports arena," Goodchild said. "It was a community gathering place."

Goodchild and Aul said they didn't learn much about Collins' personality. The only surviving relative of his they could find was a niece who lives in Charlotte.

"He didn't do anything wild or crazy, but he was designing for a certain population," said Scott Cunningham, assistant director of the Museum of Art.

Dudley Brown can be reached at 562-7212 or dudley.brown@shj.com.