Thorncrown Chapel Wins AIA 2006 Twenty-five Year Award

The Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark., has received the 2006 AIA Twenty-five Year Award for architectural design that has stood the test of time for 25 years. The small but soaring glass and cross-braced pine chapel, designed by the late E. Fay Jones, the 1990 AIA Gold Medalist, nestles into an eight-acre woodland setting on a sloping hillside in the Ozark Mountains. It stands 48 feet with 24-foot-wide by 60-foot-long dimensions for a total of 1,440 square feet. Its 425 windows, made of 6,000 square feet of glass, filter woodland light across its upward diamond-shaped pine trusses to form ever-changing patterns of light and shadow throughout the day and night.

Five million people have visited Thorncrown Chapel since it opened in 1980. The nondenominational Christian chapel serves as the site for an average of 300 weddings each year. Thorncrown, which received a national AIA Honor Award in 1981, is fourth on the AIA’s Top 10 list of 20th-century structures. Robert Ivy, FAIA, architecture scholar, critic, and Jones’ biographer, described Thorncrown as “arguably among the 20th century’s great works of art.”

Ozark Gothic
Thorncrown Chapel sits in the Ozark woods, inspired by Sainte Chappelle, Paris’ light-filled Gothic chapel. Jones referred to Thorncrown’s style as “Ozark Gothic” since he wanted to use solely native woodland elements to form the chapel structure matched to its natural setting.

The vertical and diagonal cross-tension trusses support a folded roof and are made from local pine but are no larger than what could be carried through the woods (larger trusses were assembled on the floor and raised into place). All of the wood was hand-rubbed with a grayish stain to blend with the bark of the surrounding trees and stone. Hollow steel joints link the cross-braces to form diamond-shaped lighting. The walls are just clear glass. The floor is made of flagstone and surrounded with a rock wall to give the feeling that the chapel is part of its Ozark mountainside. Looking upward inside the chapel a visitor will see the complex of trusses to perceive a crown of thorns.

Traditional exterior Gothic buttressing was replaced by Jones with interior, interlocking wooden arms to keep the exterior walls upright. Jones called this reverse result of Gothic cathedral architecture “operative opposite.” Openings at each end focus attention on the altar and the Ozarks. Visitors enter through an angular Gothic doorway. The only steel is in the diamond-shaped patterns in the trusses.

The minimal furnishings consist of uniform oak pews; 12 oak lanterns; blue cloth; and sculptural metal in places such as the chapel cross, lectern, pew support bars, door handles, and lighting grates. The overall effect is considered a forest within a forest. It’s a place, Jones once said, “to think your best thoughts.”

Let the outside in
“Let the outside in” was a principle of Jones’ chief mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the most important element of Jones’ design at Thorncrown. Thus, Thorncrown never looks quite the same. Its appearance changes during each hour of the day and during the different seasons of the year. Jones stated he “saw the potential for light play on the structure.” So he enlarged the roof-ridge skylight to increase “the sense of drama.” At night, the 12 wall lanterns, each attached to a column and illuminating a cross, form infinite reflections in the glass to give the perception of infinite crosses throughout the forest. The chapel’s skylights also reflect the pine beams at night through the glass to form crosses that appear to surround the entire building.

With light come shadows. As example are the shadows of trusses that dance on the flagstone floor to emulate the outside branches, while also reinforcing the truss right angles and diamond patterns to generate a patterned perspective through the entire chapel. It’s interesting to note that despite its small, gabled-shed structure, the chapel appears, on approach, as if it were the largest tree in the area because of the sunlight, generating a manmade and natural appearance. The 1981 AIA Honor Award jury noted, “One experiences pleasure and a sense of discovery upon arriving. Using minimal means, this chapel is a spiritual space.”

A dream made real
Approximately 5 million people from around the world have found their way up an Ozark wooded path to see the chapel. During certain times of the year, the chapel draws more than 2,000 people per day, and Sunday services draw 300 people. AIA Executive Vice President/CEO Norman L. Koonce, FAIA, writes in the AIA publication Fay Jones that at Thorncrown there is a great sense of peace. “You feel calm. It is the special genius of this place, its ‘humility,’ if you will, that Thorncrown Chapel captures and quietly celebrates.”

Thorncrown was the dream of retired teacher Jim Reed, a native of Pine Bluff, Ark. In 1971 Reed purchased the land that is now the site of the chapel to build his retirement cabin. However, other people admired the location and would stop at his property to view the beautiful Ozark hills. “It became evident to us that the tourists liked our driveway,” Dell Reed, widow of Jim Reed, said in a 2004 interview. “They would come into our driveway and have picnics. One afternoon Jim said ‘wouldn’t it be great if somehow, way back in the woods, we could build those folks a glass chapel?’ They all seem to want to get off the highway and into the woods.”

Reed and his wife wanted it to be a chapel in the woods to give wayfarers a place to relax in an inspiring setting. Reed contacted Jones, then chair of the University of Arkansas Department of Architecture, who was well known for his intimate style of Arkansas chapels and private homes that relied on Ozark and state materials. As it turned out, both Reed and Jones were natives of Pine Bluff, Ark., and both also had the same first-grade teacher. Jones designed Thorncrown, but the estimated cost to complete it was $200,000, more than double the Reed’s original investment. Reed went to banks in California to try to secure the rest of the money, as construction of the chapel moved forward. But the banks kept telling him, as Dell Reed once described, “People don’t build glass chapels for tourists in their backyards in Arkansas.”

As Thorncrown sat half-finished, the Reeds wrote letters and asked for loans, finally receiving a letter from an Illinois woman who wrote that she would lend the remaining money. The chapel was built, opening in 1980. Jim Reed passed away in 1985. Dell Reed still lives in their cabin and maintains the chapel. Their son Doug Reed is currently one of Thorncrown’s three interdenominational ministers. Since Thorncrown Chapel is not supported by any denomination or foundation, it depends entirely on donations.

Jones passed away on August 31, 2004, at his home in Fayetteville, Ark., at the age of 83, survived by his wife and two daughters. He will always be recognized as the man who built Thorncrown Chapel, and remembered as one of the leading architects of the 20th century.

—Russell Boniface

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Photos © Greg Hursley.

Did you know . . .
• Jones’ interest in architecture began with the design of tree houses in high school.
• As an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, Jones developed a design style that earned him the moniker among colleagues of “the small Frank Lloyd Wright,” to which Wright responded, Jones was fond of recalling, “There is no such thing as a small Frank Lloyd Wright.”
• In addition to his buildings, Jones is also known for creating unique designs for furniture.
• Thorncrown Chapel is approximately two miles from a summer tourist colony at Eureka Springs, Ark., off Highway 62 West. (It is closed January and February except for weddings.) For directions and hours: go to ThornCrown.com; call (479) 253-7401 by 1.p.m; or email thorncrown@thorncrown.com.
• November through the third week in December the chapel has one Sunday service at 11:00 a.m. Sunday services are held at 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. April through October.

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