Eureka Springs’ Open-Air Thorncrown Chapel is a Paragon of Environmental Design

by , 04/26/13

thorncrown chapel, arkansas, eureka springs, american institute of architects, sustainable building, sustainable design, national register of historic places, ecological architecture, environmental architecture, green building, sustainable architecture, green architecture

With all the contemporary emphasis on modern sustainable architecture, sometimes we seem to forget that environmentally friendly architecture has existed for a long time. Built in 1980, Thorncrown Chapel was created to highlight its location, which was – and still is – an attractive natural setting for tourists in the area. The owner of the site, Jim Reed, hired well-known architect and Frank Lloyd Wright alumni E. Fay Jones to design and build the project. The chapel is constructed from native timber to match the setting around it, and it was awarded the “Twenty-Five year award” by the American Institute of Architects.

The Thorncrown Chapel shows us how proper planning can reduce a building’s impact on its site. The vertical and diagonal cross-tension trusses are made from lengths of pine cut to size so that they could be carried through the woods. The selection of materials was also an important consideration- all the timber came from local sources (this was before Forest Council Stewardship), the floor is made out of flagstone, and the building is lined with a rock wall that links it with its surrounding environment.

But the Thorncrown Chapel’s most important feature is the way it completely blends into its surroundings. The glazed facade turns what could be a rather heavy object in the middle of the forest into a light, almost invisible structure. The transparent facade allows visitors to experience the forest while being inside the building. The building changes with the weather and the surrounding forest, ensuring that every visit is unique.

+ Thorncrown Chapel

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  1. May 2, 2011 at 12:20 am

    Did you know that 26,500 children die each day of hunger and preventable diseases?

    Do you still believe in a good God?

  2. Kestrel Jenkins January 25, 2011 at 10:43 am

    impeccably gorgeous.

  3. lazyreader January 25, 2011 at 8:04 am

    You will travel far my little Kal-El.

  4. Rabur0 August 8, 2008 at 4:29 am

    this is pretty cool i want it i want it i want it

  5. carlsgurl08 April 2, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    im getting married in november and i can’t wait…… its a very beautiful place!!!!!!

  6. D.C. Infidel September 11, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    Or one might think, “There is no god, but there are great architects.”

  7. David I, Emperor September 2, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    A church, by its very design, should inspire awe. Even the infidel should think “How mighty this god must be, to have such a structure.”

    This one succeds admirably.

  8. sarah September 2, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    There is another church like this called wayfares chapel in palos verdes, california

  9. aQ August 1, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    …me identifico mucho con la obra, creo que es de eso lo que se trata la vida, el llegar de una manera sencible al entorno que nos rodea… no requiero de la construccion de algo artificial para…: sentir…

  10. Chad July 17, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    Jones designed another beautiful chapter very similar in Fort Worth, TX. My wife and I were married there.

  11. che-che July 5, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    It is really a masterpiece…stunning even during the day…I’d love to spend some time in it, just seat and think…really beautiful.

  12. Rose July 5, 2007 at 10:17 am

    I was married in this chapel and always dreamed of doing it since I first layed eyes on it. I’m from Missouri and Eureka Springs was a quick get-a-way location. The whole town is great and the chapel is just a treasure. The chapel is an awesome sight and what makes it even better when you visit it, is you don’t just pull up in a car and there it is. You have to walk on a winding path in the woods to get to it and then it just stands there in all its glory. I had researched the designer and being an interior designer myself, I found it to be a perfect fit for my wedding day. Unfortunately the times they offer for ceremonies are not forgiving, I chose 6 am for my ceremony and even though it was not what I thought to be ideal, I walked in while it was still dark outside and walked out with the sun.

  13. Stacey Diehl July 4, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    This has to be the most stunning manmade object… I really need to see this at twilight.

  14. Kevin July 2, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    I have been fortunate to have visited Thorncrowne Chapel and the Mildred Cooper Chapel, and they are both stunning. While there are certainly similarities between the two, Thorncrowne comes across to me as being more simple, straightforward and slightly rustic, while the Cooper Memorial is more elegant and graceful, with Gothic undertones.
    In keeping with the ideals of organic archtecture and respect for the environment and the building’s site, Fay Jones designed Thorncrowne Chapel in such a way that no materials were used in the construction that could not be carried into the site by more than two workmen. In this way, he was able to leave the surroundings of the building almost totally undisturbed, which adds to the impression one gets that the building literally grew up out of the earth. It is truly amazing to behold.

    I have also been to Fay Jones offices in Fayetteville, Ark., from which his firm continues to operate to this day.

    As far as the Wayfarer’s Chapel in Palos Verdes is concerned, it too is a spectacular effort that sit on an incredible site overlooking the Pacific. To the best of my knowledge, Frank Lloyd Wright had nothing to do with the design of this chapel, which was created entirely by his son, Lloyd Wright, who was a very accomplished southern California architect in his own right. And although Fay Jones may have been aware of the Wayfarer’s Chapel, which was built in the mid 1950’s I believe, I think it unfair to accuse Jones of copying it when he designed Thorncrowne Chapel.

  15. 2human July 2, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    I am not familiar with the building, the architect, or the background. On seeing this beautiful chapel, however, I am surprised not to see more of an attribute to Lloyd Wright (the son of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright), particularly of his “Wayfarer’s Chapel” located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles, and built in the 1950s, I think. This particular chapel is indeed beautiful, but it is closer in concept and execution to Mr. Wright’s original design in California, even though it has been nicely copied and adapted for its current location.

    I do not wish to disparage the architects beautiful product, I just think the original inspiration belongs to Frank Lloyd Wright, and to the way his son adapted and enhanced his sense of design, and I am surprised that they are not more fully credited in what I have read and see here.

  16. Greg July 1, 2007 at 1:27 am

    Beautiful architecture. Too bad a great structure like this was wasted for worshipping imaginary friends.

  17. rek July 1, 2007 at 1:06 am

    Rachael – I don’t think of Arkansas as a foresty place, that’s all. I’m not American either, so don’t assume I have the same preconceptions about random states.

  18. Geoff Cohen June 30, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    Amazing to see the way it blends into its environment which is often the opposite of the way a structure such as this is built. Rather than calling attention to the building, the restraint is remarkable and such a positive example of living within the world rather than imposing ourselves on it. It reminds me of a chapel in Sedona, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, designed by I believe a Wright disciple, that also fits in with its setting so stunningly.

    I love Cat’s description of elves building this, though I see other small creatures from a Star Wars movie as the construction crew.

  19. João Sousa June 30, 2007 at 9:14 am

    A really interesting building! It really breeds the Wright’s spirit of constructing!

    Without needing to create a lot of tricks pull light into the interior space, the trees already make a wonderfull ceeling with spots of light, creating a very mystical place to be.

  20. Cat Laine June 29, 2007 at 7:53 pm

    Wow. It’s something you could imagine the elves from Lord of the Rings making. Beautiful.

  21. chris June 29, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    Was going to mention the similar church in Hot Springs, AR, but Rachael beat me to it. Here is the link to photos and info on it:

  22. Sean June 29, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    I, like D, also grew up in Fayetteville but I don’t have the same happy memories of his architecture.

    I had a few friends growing up who lived in different Fay Jones homes and all I remember is that Jones’ devotion to the FL Wright aesthetic of “everything is part of the structure” resulted in me smashing my head against a half-dozen different hanging lamps in the various houses, usually leaving scars on my head.

  23. Rachael June 29, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    They do hold weddings there to help defray utility costs, maintenance and upkeep. It is closed during weddings.

    It has central air conditioning, a must for humid Arkansas, even in the shady woods. It likely has a heat pump, with gas furnace or combo, for winter heating needed on cloudy days.

    Here is a similar chapel recently built in Hot Springs, Ark.

  24. D June 29, 2007 at 11:34 am

    I grew up in Fayetteville AR where Faye Jones practiced. If you stop by his office you can get a pamphlet that give the address of all of his local projects. There are quite a few, though mostly homes. When I was home last (I live in CA now) I went on a tour of all the ones in northwest Arkansas. I never knew much about him when I lived there. In CA I became an Architecture student and learned more about him. Unfortunately though he also died at the same time and I never got to meet him. I met his work though which to me was satisfactory. I eventually did a case study of this project.

    The overhead trusslike design is meant to be the opposite of a buttress. Faye Jones called it a “reverse operative.” It keeps the walls from bowing out from the inside. For those wanting to get married here I am not sure how often they allow it. On the same site they have another chapel built which is intented for marriages. It too is built by Faye Jones. They want Thorncrown to be known as a “wayfarer’s chapel,” not as a marriage chapel.

    I wish the article would have shown more picture of the details, because to me that is what made the church more stunning, for example the door handles are a similiar trellis design. As far as I know the temperature isn’t controlled, except perhaps by the trees. It is very shady there in summer and not in winter. But I am not certain. When you visit now though it is nothing like this starkness shown in the picture. They have some awful music playing and they have hung garlands all along the side and also plants. It was christmas time though, in summer it is slightly more subdued.

    They also have service there every sunday. Though there isn’t iconography, the cross is built into everything. The cross at the altar is actually outside. It is a thin steel cross set in the flagstone just behind the glass wall behind the altar. I was told that they have only every had to replace one piece of glass. They have the glass cleaned once a year, which isn’t cheap. I worry about how the chapel is aging. For example a lot of the plating on things like the door handle is nearly completely worn away.

    There is another chapel similiar to Thorncrown in the area in Bella Vista. It is called the Mildred B Cooper Memorial Chapel. It too is an amazing building, second only to Thorncrown because it was built second. It is its equal though in person. It is a steel structure making use of gother arches instead of trusses. Thorncrown is delicate, this chapel has much stronger design elements, almost Art Nouveau.

    Here is the website:

    Obviously I love his work. I would recommend the book “Faye Jones” published by the AIA to any who wants to better understand his projects. Truly Faye was a great architect. I will always admire how he practiced with a contentment and humility and greatness I do not see in any currently practicing architect.

  25. frances June 29, 2007 at 9:32 am

    How is the temperature controlled inside?

  26. Rachael June 29, 2007 at 9:06 am


    And why is that, rek? Preconceptions about Arkansas? If you’ve never visited here, perhaps you should some day. It might change your mind about a lot of things.

  27. rek June 29, 2007 at 4:38 am

    I’m also an atheist and this church is beautiful. I’m surprised to read it’s in Arkansas though, I immediately assumed northern California/Oregon or Hawaii.

  28. Eddie Walker June 29, 2007 at 12:12 am

    I’ve been there for a wedding. It is pretty amazing.

  29. Rachael June 28, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    I live about 3 miles from Thorncrown Chapel.
    Anyone of any faith (or of no faith) can get married there. It is open to visitors and is a non-denominational chapel – not a church.

  30. Rafaella June 28, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    I simply LOVE this church, I’m not religious by any extent… And this is a church I would NOT mind getting married at!!!

    Love it, love it, love it – I’m a big NATURE FAN!!! Anything that has to do with nature, and animals…

    10 – 10 – 10, shit, you know what, from 0 to 10, make it an 11 – BEAUTIFUL,

  31. shullovox June 28, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    damn! i was literally just in eureka springs, arkansas this past weekend, and had no clue this was there! next trip i suppose…amazing.

  32. J June 28, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    what better way to behold the beauty of Gods creation? hope this congregation is full of tree-huggers commited to saving the planet, unlike some other denominations….

  33. Kal June 28, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    “And you’re right, it blends right into the trees.”

    I wonder how often wildlife crashes into it… I probably would

  34. S. Theisen June 28, 2007 at 3:20 pm

    One of my friends recently got married in this church. Being an architecture fanatic, I found it very hard to focus on her and the wedding. In person this church is SO amazing. And you’re right, it blends right into the trees.

  35. Eyebrows McGee June 28, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    “he selection of materials was also an important consideration- all the timber came from local sources (this was before FSC stewardship and the like), the floor is made out of flagstone, and lined with a rock wall, linking it with its surrounding environment.”

    In theory, this is how all churches ought to be built. Liturgical building guidelines for most Christian denominations call for local, natural materials the better to celebrate God, God’s creation, and the local community/church.

  36. diana June 28, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    I’m an atheist, but I’d get married there. If they’d let me. Stunning.

  37. Anees Uddin June 28, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    It seems obvious in hindsight that spiritual places should look like this (i.e let nature in and compliment it), but I suppose that’s the nature of good design. Very nice, my hats off to you.

  38. royalestel June 28, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Absolutely gorgeous. I can imagine chapels in heaven looking something like this.

    I’m afraid I’d be too distracted by the outside world to pay much attention to the speaker!

  39. Todd June 28, 2007 at 11:22 am

    Stunning all around. E. Fay Jones came up with a superb and timeless design. And a big plus is the lack of iconography.

  40. Michael V. June 28, 2007 at 10:41 am

    Even though I am not a religious freak, this probably one church that I would like to visit, simply beautiful!

  41. Michael June 28, 2007 at 9:50 am

    Amazing. What a church should be.

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