Thorncrown Chapel

Hometown Heroes, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on November 12, 2000
Thorncrown Chapel

When the late Jim Reed envisioned a chapel nestled in woods surrounding his hillside home just outside the Victorian village of Eureka Springs, Ark., even family members thought he was crazy. “Everyone called him the nut on the hillside,” Reed’s son Doug recalls. But hindsight’s 20/20.

With its gingerbread-laden houses and boutique-lined streets, Eureka Springs has long been a mecca for city dwellers looking to recapture the small-town charm of a bygone era. Native Americans once revered the place for the healing waters that gave rise to its name, and today Eureka Springs enjoys a growing reputation among spa-goers and honeymooners. Only The Great Passion Play, a production about the last days of Jesus Christ, draws more people to the tiny, carved-out-of-limestone Ozark community than the soaring glass and pine structure of Thorncrown Chapel.

Twenty years after its completion, Reed’s brainchild, built as a place to contemplate the wonder of nature, is a pilgrimage destination for more than 100,000 annual visitors and the site for a yearly average of 300 weddings. The American Institute of Architects recently named Thorncrown fourth on its Top 10 list of 20th-century structures.

Architect E. Fay Jones never imagined that the modest chapel he agreed to build on Reed’s property would become such a phenomenon. Jones, then chair of the University of Arkansas Department of Architecture, clearly remembers his first meeting with Reed.

“It was the beginning of a great friendship,” says the one-time apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright (the “Father of Modern Architecture”). Within minutes, Jones and Reed–both natives of Pine Bluff, Ark.–realized they’d had the same first-grade teacher. That common background, however, didn’t mean the two men always saw eye-to-eye.

After a month of working on plans for the 48-foot-high chapel, Jones was disappointed by Reed’s initial reaction. “Jim said, ‘That doesn’t look like a chapel to me.’ But then he showed the plans to his family; they liked it. And he’d roll them out to get the grocery sacker’s opinion,” Jones says with a wry smile. It wasn’t long before he began framing his woodland chapel.

Some 4 million people from around the world have found their way to the wooded path behind the house Reed’s widow, Dell, still calls home. It’s a short walk, with a bend in the trail opening up to the soaring structure of glass and cross-braced Arkansas pine. Inside, 425 windows and a ridged skylight filter woodland light to “let the outside in,” a principle of Frank Lloyd Wright, says Jones, and the design’s single most important element.

Furnishings, meanwhile, are minimal: uniform pews line the 24-foot-wide by 60-foot-long chapel, and wooden torchiers, suspended at intervals, light the way to the cross adorned altar. The effect is one of stunning simplicity: a forest within a forest. It’s a place, says Jones, “to think your best thoughts.”

Eurekan Ron Bell agrees. As a former chapel employee, Bell had the opportunity to witness Thorncrown visitors each day over a two-year period. “People would come in stressed out from the rat race. After a few moments of sitting quietly, they’d relax and take in the beauty of the architecture and the surroundings. You could see the peace on them when they rose to leave.”

Doug Reed, now one of Thorncrown’s three interdenominational ministers, says his father would be gratified that the chapel he dreamed of sharing with passersby had turned into a place where they can meditate on the beauty of nature. “Dad wanted to give something back,” Doug says simply. His sentiment is echoed by all who knew ReedThorncrown Chapel has become a gift not just to the small town of Eureka Springs, but to a much larger community.