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Thorncrown Chapel’s Ozarks Oasis Under Threat

Thorncrown Chapel
Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas (all images courtesy Thorncrown Chapel)

The architecture of Thorncrown Chapel, with its soaring windows inviting the verdant depths of the Ozarks, is a study in instilling peace. Yet a new plan may shatter the tranquillity by installing invasive power transmission lines just outside its pine and glass walls.

Southwest Power Company (SWEPCO) recently proposed a plan to build a nearly 50-mile long path of high voltage transmission lines, 150 feet wide, through the Ozarks woodlands in northwest Arkansas. One of the routes under consideration would slice within 500 feet of Thorncrown Chapel, an exquisite church completed in 1980 that received the AIA 2006 25 Year Award for its mastery of organic architecture. Jeff Danos, member of the nonprofit group Save the Ozarks, an organization aiming to raise awareness for SWEPCO’s potential impact on Thorncrown and the surrounding area, told Hyperallergic over email: “In addition to Thorncrown, several scenic vistas and wildlife habitats stand to be ruined by these lines, and seeing as tourism is our town’s primary industry, any loss of our natural beauty has an impact.”

Thorncrown Chapel in daylight and night
Thorncrown Chapel, day and night

The chapel, which is not affiliated with any one denomination, was designed by E. Fay Jones, an Arkansas-born architect from Pine Bluff who was mentored by Frank Lloyd Wright. Taking inspiration from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, as well as Wright’s Prairie School of architecture emphasizing bringing the outdoors inside, its 425 windows and 48-foot-height pull in the light through 6,000 square feet of glass. All the materials are organic, from the treated pine to its flagstone floor, in harmony with its surroundings (though the structure is reinforced by steel).

Doug Reed, a pastor at Thorncrown Chapel whose father, a retired school teacher named Jim Reed, commissioned the chapel, explained over email: “In order to preserve Thorncrown’s natural setting, Fay decided that no structural element could be larger than what two men could carry through the woods.”

Thorncrown Chapel
Side view of Thorncrown Chapel

The noise and size of the lines is a major focus in the potential disruption to the intention of Thorncrown, and there’s also concerns over the  herbicides that SWEPCO plans to use around the towers and their impact on the environment, an element which is essential to the experience of being inside Thorncrown, immersed in the trees and exterior light.

“We already have much smaller power lines from Carroll Electric to the north of the chapel,” Reed stated. “These are plainly visible from the chapel’s back window. If SWEPCO’s lines go in, we will literally be framed with power lines to the north and to the south. SWEPCO’s lines will greet our guests as they enter the chapel grounds. Fay Jones’ buildings are one with their environment, so to harm the environment is to harm Thorncrown.”

Thorncrown Chapel
The approaching path through the woods to Thorncrown Chapel

While Thorncrown may be his masterpiece, Jones was adept at these beautiful, light-filled meditations on the transcendental, including his airy 1985 Pinecote Pavilion at Mississippi State University from 1985 and the Gothic-tinged Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista, Arkansas. His vision was aimed at bringing a spiritual and religious feeling to architecture, but in a way that was elegant and never heavy-handed.

“I believe people love Thorncrown for more than architecture,” Reed stated. “It has had a profound impact on countless lives. People find peace there and a connection with the divine in some very extraordinary ways. To many Thorncrown is calm in the midst of the storm.”

Those concerned about the potential impact on Thorncrown, as well as the surrounding Ozarks, can submit comments to the Arkansas Public Service Commission. 

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