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. 

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...

5 replies on “Thorncrown Chapel’s Ozarks Oasis Under Threat”

  1. What a gorgeous church. Reminds me of Lloyd Wright’s Wayfarer’s Chapel in Palos Verdes, CA.

    When a building foregrounds its relationship to nature, then preserving the building means preserving the nature around it too. Imagine if FL Wright’s Fallingwater suddenly lost its trees and river! So few places are left on earth that provide a real feeling of sanctuary. It sounds like these developments would destroy that within Thorncrown.

    Thanks for the link to submit comments to the AK public service commission.

  2. This is where “progress” challenges human nature. Don’t let the greed of a power line destroy something that EVERYONE can enjoy and respect. You see a grand photo of this building and you can’t help feeling something! Preserve this landmark!

    1. I think the issue for the church is that those power lines are much shorter than these, which will be 150 feet tall with 150 feet of space at their bases, which they see as being more intrusive than the existing power lines on Thorncrown. Here’s a more recent news story with more details:

  3. I’ve been to the chapel, and walking to it on a narrow path through the woods and then being surrounded by nature that feels untouched by the outside world is integral to the experience of the building. Having power lines within view will compromise the experience. (And I encourage everyone to make the trip at some point. And you should plan a visit to the nearby hot springs as part of your visit)

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