The Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs
The Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark., 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.
Built in 1980, the Chapel immediately began winning design awards from national and international groups. The first award came in 1981, and in 2006 the building was again honored with a 25 year award by the American Institute of Architects, which uses the award to recognize buildings that have had a dramatic impact on the profession. Widely studied, the design principles of the Chapel have been seen in imitation buildings as far away as Nebraska.
The materials of the building are further remarkable in that almost all the materials came from the Eureka Springs area. It was a local, green project before such things were hip. Designed to allow people to enjoy God in nature, the Thorncrown Chapel is open to the public. April to November it is open from 9 am to 5 pm, and 11 am to 4 pm in March and December. The Chapel is completely closed in January and February.
Due to the popularity of the Chapel, there is a long list for those who wish to have events at the building. Overflow space has been created to accommodate additional requests to use the area for ceremonies, but for those seeking a June wedding in the Chapel it will be necessary to book far in advance or consider a Friday or Sunday wedding.
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 architectural landmark:
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:
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.”
E. Fay Jones
“I saw opportunity here to create architecture. The distinction I am making is that all building isn’t architecture, just as all writing isn’t literature or poetry, even though the spelling, grammar, and syntax might be correct. There is something in architecture that touches people in a special way, and I hoped to do that with this chapel.”
- 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.
Project name: The Thorncrown Chapel
Location: 12968 Highway 62 W, Eureka Springs, Arkansas 72632, United States
Materials: Steel and glass
Site Area: 7.6 acres (3.1 ha)
Project Area: 1,440 sq.ft
Completion Year: 1980
Visit The Thorncrown Chapel’s website: here
Client / Owner / Developer: Domenic Alvaro
Architects: E. Fay Jones – Arkansas 72632, United States
Text Description: © Courtesy of The Thorncrown Chapel, AIA
Images: © The Thorncrown Chapel, flickr-Daniel Mease, flickr-Keith Ewing, flickr-PhotoFan32, flickr-Elise Johnson, flickr-BrianinLR