During a recent conference of architectural historians convening in New Orleans, I learned of the passing of C. Murray Smart, former dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, and scholar of 19th century Victorian architecture. I missed seeing him at recent meetings of both SESAH and NCSA, which he earlier attended, and I knew he had not been well, so I inquired of a colleague from Murray’s home state of Arkansas. “We lost Murray in August,” she said simply, and we both were immediately close to tears. Her message and the expression on her face reflected so much more than the mere sharing of news. We both understood Murray was far more than a close colleague and friend; he would be dearly missed, and his circle is wide.
I first met Murray at an annual conference of the Nineteenth Century Studies Association (NCSA). We shared an interest in 19th century English architecture: I was reading John Ruskin and William Morris and studying the Arts and Crafts Movement; he was studying Victorian churches and stained glass, and I would soon become aware of his book Muscular Gothic and his continuing study of glass. I learned he was the dean of an architecture school, and we have many times laughed at my intemperate reaction to that news: “My God, a dean who’s a scholar as well? Who’d a thunk.”
At that NCSA meeting, Murray and I spoke of SESAH, an architectural history society that had been founded in Atlanta a few years earlier. He was immediately interested to learn that a “local” chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians was indeed regional, and he asked what steps would be needed in order to bring Arkansas into the fold. What followed was the most professional state-sponsored “application” to join SESAH imaginable: documentation with signatures of Arkansas scholars showing a statewide interest in formalizing the affiliation, further expression of interest in the form of offering to host a SESAH conference in Arkansas, and affidavits from individuals ready and willing to serve the society. Arkansas joined SESAH in 1986, and Murray continued to show leadership for years following: Arkansas hosted SESAH conferences in 1989 (joint with SECAC in Little Rock), 1998, and 2014, the latter two in Fayetteville.
It was during that 2014 Fayetteville meeting that I saw Murray for the last time, seeking him out at SESAH’s keynote address in order to exchange a brief hello. On that occasion I came to understand more fully how beloved he was in his home community. He had almost casually informed me much earlier that he was recovering from brain surgery, had retired some years ago but was still teaching a course or two. His cherished school of architecture was always central to his professional life. At the Fayetteville conference, Murray made a concerted effort to join the audience at SESAH’s keynote address from historian Gwendolyn Wright, and when it was announced that Murray was in the audience, an explosion of applause burst forth from an audience who clearly loved this man. You can tell what is perfunctory versus what is boundless, and the audience’s express of joy, simply from knowing Murray was amongst them, rebounded off the lecture hall’s walls. Murray was their teacher, standing heads above a community of truly talented scholars and award winning professors. Murray Smart was special, and everyone in that hall knew it.
As I sat there, I thought back to those earlier years when I was a young scholar first rubbing elbows with a “dean” whom I had just met, but whose kindred spirit and whose professional interests in common I have enjoyed over several decades since. I had traveled to Wales to look at William Burgess interiors in Cardiff, because Murray’s book had encouraged me to take a first hand look at a notable 19th century decorative artist and architect that I knew only casually. I found myself in obscure locales in rural Gloucestershire, delighting in the High Victorian Gothic interior of Holy Innocents Highnam, recognizing that I would not have known about this extraordinary church were it not for Murray. I, too, was his student, even though I had never attended University of Arkansas, and I understood why, in the end, that that Fayetteville audience had responded with thunderous applause simply because Murray was in the audience. His students and colleagues everywhere acknowledge his impact, and we remember him with respect and high regard, and with fondness, and with gratitude for all he gave to us as our teacher.