Bayou Icon | LARRY JAMES
article by Georgiann Potts
photography by Kelly Moore Clark
LARRY JAMES HAS DESIGNED over 5,000 custom house plans and has sold predesigned plans for over 15,000 homes throughout the United States and many countries as far away as Japan. These homes range from the on trend “tiny houses” at 240 square feet to homes featuring over 17,000 square feet of living space. His homes have been featured on the covers of Better Homes and Gardens and House Beautiful plus other national publications. He designed the personal residence of Mitchell Gold in Hickory, North Carolina, a well-known furniture manufacturer. Larry is one of the principals who created The House Designers, one of the first online internet sites to market predesigned home plans. In addition to his residential design career, Larry has designed and developed two subdivisions, North Point and Sterling Fields. At age 76, he has no interest in stopping anytime soon.
Larry is active in several civic endeavors that enhance the community. He was a founding member of the Sterlington Planning and Zoning Board and served as Chairman of the Main Street renewal program for Bastrop. Through this association, Larry designed nearly all the new facades in Historic Downtown Bastrop.
Because of his career in design through which he has helped countless families build their “dream homes” and because of his willingness to lend his expertise and time to support small town economic development, Larry James is our May BayouIcon.
Creativity needs solitude, and Larry enjoys spending time alone, but he also loves people, and has a passion for designing homes that are just right for them. He talks closely with his clients, listening to their dreams carefully. This way he learns what they really want, how they will live within the home (a key to the final design), and what special elements they hope to have included.
With that information, Larry creates homes that are truly custom. He makes suggestions during the process to help the dreams fit the reality of the laws of math, geometry, and physics, but he always remembers that his client’s dream is the most important first step to the ultimate design.
A Family Heritage – Building . . .
Larry’s mother, Pauline Pickett, was born in Bastrop in the home that her father, John Pickett (a carpenter), had built. Larry’s grandmother (Mema Pickett) never spoke ill of anyone nor did Larry ever see her angry.
Larry’s father, Bennie James, was a sharecropper in Wisner who left school in the 5th grade to support his mother and four siblings. He met Pauline when he came to work at the Bastrop papermill.
James remembers his father was smart, kind, and ambitious. He dressed well, was an entrepreneur, and a good businessman. Larry’s father retired as a supervisor at the papermill. Pauline loved reading and even did a few paintings. She, too, dressed well and was very stylish, but it was her heart that was most beautiful to Larry. “She completed a two-year degree from the newly opened junior college in Monroe,” Larry says. His mother died at age 59 and that spurred his “Time is short; do it now!” attitude. Through the years many people told Larry what a good listener she was and how much she cared for people. It’s easy to see where Larry got both of those skills.
The couple had two sons, Larry and a younger brother, Paul. Paul made a career at AT&T and in his own communications service business. Larry’s career path would not be quite so linear.
Larry spent his childhood in Bastrop all except for one year when the family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Larry’s dad served in WWII and Korea, and it was during the Korean conflict that the move occurred. Larry was five.
The epicenter of Larry’s childhood was in 3rd Ward on the Old Monroe Road in Bastrop near the New Friendship Baptist Church. Brother Paul was the hunter, while Larry discovered many interests to exercise his creative mind. “The mailbox, magazines, and the library were my best friends,” Larry says.
When he was 7, Larry discovered house plan books. The hand-painted water-colored renderings of the houses fascinated him. “The designs made the homes look real” Larry recalls. This fascination would become a lifelong passion.
Between 7th and 8th grade, Larry remodeled his bedroom. He took measurements, drew a floor plan, designed a place for everything, and then built all the furniture to go in it. He built an “L” shaped elevated platform. “The scheme was 1950’s modern which was the style of the day,’’ Larry explains.
Though he lived in a house built by his grandfather, Larry thought the house was “old” and was a little embarrassed. The home was raised off the ground with steps up to the front porch. Constructed using white board and batten siding, it had a red brick chimney on one side. “Ironically, white painted board and batten farmhouses are now all the rage,” Larry says. “I have designed hundreds of homes based on the home that I was once ashamed of.”
Larry’s vision of the world beyond Bastrop was broadened through yearly vacations the family took. Most were week-long, but one summer Larry remembers that the family planned a two-week vacation to Florida. “We thought we might need to lock the front door while we were gone for that long, but we never found the key,” Larry says. “Times were different then.”
EDUCATION HAS PLUSSES AND MINUSES
Larry’s creativity sometimes interfered with traditional education. He always loved learning on his own – something he candidly admits is probably the result of his not liking being told what to do – but that curiosity was not always appreciated. When he was in first grade, the family’s Life Magazine – dedicated to dinosaurs — arrived. Larry took it to his teacher and said that this was what he wanted to study. Perplexed, his teacher dismissed the idea because her first graders were “too young and would not understand.”
Larry made good grades through elementary school, and enjoyed art. He excelled in penmanship, thanks to his 4th grade teacher, Clara Pratt. His test scores for high school qualified him to take advanced classes – including Latin. Unfortunately, a bowling alley opened in Bastrop and his grades fell. After his dad talked to him, the grades changed for the better. Again, art was a favorite class and Robert Younger, a favorite teacher.
Larry has always worked. During his senior year, hoping to make enough extra money to go the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, Larry walked around the Courthouse Square asking every store for work. All summer, he filled in for people who were taking summer vacations. He delivered drugs for the drug store, sold “high heel sneakers” at Rains Shoe Store, and even “created” a job by asking stores if they wanted their windows painted for the rodeo that was coming to town. By summer’s end Larry had saved $1,200. He didn’t go to the World’s Fair because his dad wasn’t happy with that idea. The next year he did go to New York to sell books door-to-door. He outsold 3-year veterans, but the job was short-lived. His sales partners all left after less than a week of selling. Larry sold solo one more day and then he, too, took a bus home – a 48-hour trip.
Larry’s work ethic never changed. He entered Northeast Louisiana State College at age 17. He earned a B.A. at the age of 21, and soon after a M.A. degree in fine art with studies in art history, painting, drawing, graphic art, and ceramics. College appealed to his independent spirit because he was 100% responsible for himself. To put himself through without debt, Larry worked every summer at the papermill and in the art department as an intern.
As Larry was about to march in for his graduation with his B.A. in 1968, his name was called, and he was asked to sit on the stage during the graduation. “I thought I was in trouble for not paying a campus parking ticket!” Larry remembers. “Turns out I was an honor graduate and didn’t know it.”
AND THEN ALONG CAME DIANNE
During his senior year, Larry began dating Dianne Pyle, a Bastrop girl he had gone to high school with. She was going with a friend of Larry’s in the art department, but the friend moved to Pittsburg. Larry saw his chance and the two began dating. They dated for a year. After graduation, Larry got a job doing advertising design for the Bastrop Daily Enterprise. “We got married on June 28, 1968, and we had $78 to our name. LOVE!” Larry says.
It was wartime, and Larry was vulnerable to the draft. At age 21 he took a job as a high school art teacher at Terrebonne High School in Houma where some of his students were 20. They lived in an un-air-conditioned mobile home in the middle of a sugar cane field. “We survived on Chef Boyardee spaghetti and Sweet Sue Chicken and Dumplings until we decided Vietnam didn’t look that bad,” Larry says. He took a chance and left teaching to return to Monroe and earn his M.A. in ceramics with a minor in painting. Eventually Larry was given a 4F deferment and they were free to start a new life away from small towns.
Dianne has always been supportive of Larry’s career dreams. When he told Dianne that he believed he could improve mobile home design and he was going to Dallas and get a job doing just that, she believed in him. After putting together a portfolio of designs – floor plans and 3-dimensional exteriors all drawn by hand — Larry went to Dallas and landed a job on his first interview.
The two moved to Dallas where they both learned about the differences in life in a small town and a big city. Although Larry advanced quickly with a very promising future, the two soon realized that there is no place like home. They moved back to Monroe and Larry began working with Dianne’s father, Don Evans, who was a builder and designed homes. Ironically, Evans had built Larry’s parents’ new modern 60’s home in Bastrop when Larry was a senior in high school. Four years later, Larry married Evans’ daughter and began creating a career of doing what he loved best, designing homes.
SWEET HOME, LOUISIANA
When Larry was 27, he bought his father-in-law’s home design business and built the office on Justice Street that he still occupies today. Larry considers Evans to be one of his most valuable mentors. “He was patient and gave me an opportunity to work for him – even when I thought and acted like I knew everything but really knew nothing,” Larry says.
Larry finds that working for himself is most rewarding. While not for everyone, it suits his personality. Over the years there have been challenges. One is that he can’t do the work faster. He has averaged 15-25 active clients all the time, and takes in over a hundred new projects each year. “In the 50 years I have been in business, I can only remember about 45 minutes that I didn’t have any projects waiting to be designed. I have been richly blessed,” he says.
Another challenge has been technology – learning new CAD programs to design houses in 3 dimensions, for one. “It’s great for the client and the designer, but it is a steep learning curve for anyone at times. Still, I’m learning and loving it more every day,” Larry says.
Larry has been fortunate to have talented people who have worked with him in his business. “Early on, Randy Shultz brought talents to the table I did not, and will never have. Michelle Stokes started working as an office assistant while in high school. She was 17 years old. She has been invaluable and indispensable, taking on multiple responsibilities, and doing them perfectly for 40 years.”
PARTNERS IN FAITH
In every aspect of their relationship, Larry and Dianne are partners. Both have a deep faith on which they rely when they face a challenge.
After Dianne worked in retail sales for a time, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf coast. A temporary rescue mission was opened in Bastrop to aid Katrina victims and Dianne was put in charge of operations there. Later the relief center transitioned into a thrift shop that Dianne and her late friend, Sandra Coats, managed. This work touched Dianne and Larry, and they formed Thrive Ministries, a nonprofit to help those in need.
Six years ago, the couple built Thrive on Thrift – a store that helps local people by taking donations of used goods and selling them at low prices — in Sterlington. The thrift store provides jobs for 20 people who need to work but might not be able to find employment elsewhere. “Dianne loves every one of them, and shares her faith with every customer,” Larry says. “This ministry has been yet another blessing that has come to us — and countless others — through faith. The property that the thrift store is built on was sold twice and both deals fell through. We were upset each time, but God’s plans are always better than our plans.”
Another story of faith was the creation of Sterling Fields. The property was purchased, Larry had designed the streets and figured the number of lots that could be developed, financing was approved, and a name was chosen, “Sterling Fields.” They were debt free. Should they gamble it all at 60 years of age?
Early one morning during Larry’s quiet time, he asked the question “Should we do this?” Larry closed his eyes, opened his Bible, and placed his blind finger on the page. The verse it pointed to read “Do your planning and prepare your fields then build your house.” (Proverbs 24:27). Larry rushed downstairs to wake Dianne. Their decision was made. The verse was later painted on the walls of the community post office as a birthday gift by their niece, Angela Leachman.
Though Larry and Dianne don’t have children of their own, they believe that God has blessed them with many children – nieces, nephews, and their youth group family at Christ Episcopal Church. “We are Uncle Larry and Aunt Di to many young people,” Larry says.
Both agree that the only thing that matters in life is to find ways to love people and help others whenever possible. By doing so, they are living their faith. Each is doing that every day, whether designing houses or lifting up those who need it most. And each is the other’s biggest cheerleader and best friend. They know that life is remarkable and filled with His providence. The main street in Sterling Fields is named Providence Park.