A Light On A Hill
Thorncrown Chapel is a very unique chapel located in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, designed by E. Fay Jones and constructed in 1980. The design recalls the Prairie School of architecture popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom Jones had apprenticed.
The chapel was commissioned by Jim Reed, a retired schoolteacher.
Thorncrown is an architectural wonder and ideal for music. With impeccably clean glass windows running from floor to ceiling, it feels completely one with nature and the music brings it all to life. Acoustically bouncing around the space, Jerry King's talent is the perfect accompaniment to any service in the chapel.
Nestled in a woodland setting, Thorncrown Chapel rises forty-eight feet into the Ozark sky. This magnificent wooden structure contains 425 windows and over 6,000 square feet of glass. It sits atop over 100 tons of native stone and colored flagstone, making it blend perfectly with its setting. The chapel's simple design and majestic beauty combine to make it what critics have called "one of the finest religious spaces of modern times."
Since the chapel opened in 1980, over seven million people have visited this woodland sanctuary. Designed by renowned architect E. Fay Jones, Thorncrown has won numerous architectural awards such as the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Design of the Year Award for 1981 and AIA’s prestigious 25 Year Award. Additionally, members of the American Institute of Architects placed Thorncrown Chapel fourth on its list of the top buildings of the twentieth century.
This nondenominational Christian chapel serves as the site for an average of 300 weddings each year; making this the second location in America for weddings after Las Vegas, Nevada.
Thorncrown 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.”
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.
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” 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 man-made 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.”
In December 2020, this spiritual space conducted its first-ever virtual service (in the wake of 2020, and the Covid-19 pandemic.) This service featured the talents of Jerry King, Ann & Doug Reed, Chad Gurley, Tim Hillwood, Melodye Purdy and yours truly, John-Michael Scurio.
It was a special co-creative experience that has been published on The Eureka Springs Channel and YouTube.
With a year like 2020, the message of this service is to hold on to God for "it's this year, not you, that's bound to go away."
Please enjoy this virtual service by clicking on the link above.
Since Thorncrown Chapel is not supported by any denomination or foundation, it depends entirely on donations. The Chapel is located on Highway 62 West, just outside Eureka Springs, Arkansas. There is no admission fee. There is ample parking for buses and RVs. So, while in the Ozarks, stop by what many have called one of the most beautiful and inspiring chapels in the world and be sure to experience a beautiful service* inside the 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.
*Please keep in mind that service times do change depending on the season and time of year.