Inside Thorncrown Chapel, the Ozarks' glass masterpiece

Conceived by an alcoholic schoolteacher and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright student Fay Jones, it won the highest honors in architecture. CNET Road Trip 2014 stopped in for a visit.

thorncrown-4.jpg
Frank Lloyd Wright's most accomplished student, Fay Jones, designed Thorncrown Chapel, which opened in 1980. Since then, more than 7 million people have visited the chapel, hidden in Arkansas' Ozarks. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. -- When a lifelong alcoholic schoolteacher in Southern California has the idea of building a glass chapel in the hills of Arkansas' Ozarks, it's only fair to think he's crazy.

But in the late 1970s, John Reed was consumed by the idea. Inspired by the beautiful, glass-enclosed Wayfarer's Chapel in Palos Verdes, Calif., Reed couldn't let go of his wild hair, despite every family member and friend telling him to do just that. He wasn't even a churchgoer, recalled his son, Doug Reed.

Today, more than 7 million people are thankful John Reed stuck with it. If he'd been persuaded to go back to teaching, we wouldn't have the Thorncrown Chapel, one of America's greatest architectural achievements, a masterpiece of materials, setting, and concept tucked in the woods of this small, hilly resort town.

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've traveled to this hamlet of 2,000 people in the northwest corner of Arkansas, not far from Bentonville, where Wal-Mart is headquartered, to see Thorncrown. Known to many simply as the "glass chapel," it's a building that has won honors including the American Institute of Architects' 25-year Award, and that came in fourth on the AIA's list of the top 10 buildings of the 20th century. Personally, I'm very glad Reed persisted.

Fay Jones, gold medal winner

Though Reed then lived in California, it wasn't all that odd that he wanted to manifest his dream chapel in the Ozarks. He was from Pine Bluff, Ark., and knew how pretty Eureka Springs is. So he went back to Arkansas to make it happen.

The problem was this, according to Doug Reed, now the pastor at Thorncrown: Eureka Springs is "out in the sticks," and there weren't many architects in the area. One day, John Reed was at a restaurant with a couple of friends, lamenting his inability to find a suitable architect. It was fate. Overhearing the conversation from the next table, a man introduced himself and said he knew the perfect man for the job -- Fay Jones.

At the time, Jones was little known. But he was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of Wright's top students in fact. Conservative to his core, he agreed to meet with John Reed, but had no intention of working for this weird man from California. "My dad went to see him," Doug Reed recalled. "He always wore a suit and tie, and that impressed" Jones.

Even better, it turned out Jones was also from Pine Bluff, and the two men were taught by the same second-grade teacher. With this new bond as a spark, the two became buddies, and the project was on.

'More of a success than anyone dreamed'

Now friends, the two men began their collaboration. When Jones delivered his first design, though, Reed hated it. It was hard, on paper, to understand what the architect was envisioning -- a strange narrow, tall building that seemed to invoke the notion of Jesus' crown of thorns.

Reed felt he couldn't live with the concept, and Jones was crestfallen. The retired schoolteacher returned to California and began going everywhere with the blueprints. "He would stop strangers and roll out the plans," the younger Reed said, "and ask what they thought. And people liked it."

texas-roadtrip-2014-daniel3-220x134-4.jpg

More adventures from Road Trip 2014

Check out the latest from Daniel's trip to the best tech spots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and more.

    Finally convinced, the schoolteacher returned to Arkansas and told Jones to proceed. But there was a problem: money. The design cost doubled the budget and Reed was broke. He went to various banks and acquaintances, hat in hand, but "when a schoolteacher asks for a big loan, you don't get a very good response," Doug Reed said.

    Ready to give up, the elder Reed visited the construction site and for the first time in his life, according to his son, got down on his knees. The son believes his father encountered God. Whatever happened, just days later, he got a letter from a woman in Illinois offering all the money needed to finish the building, and on very favorable terms, no less. Thorncrown Chapel would be a reality.

    Even so, Jones, quite aware the chapel had been built in the woods, invisible from even the nearest road, in a tiny town in the Ozarks of Arkansas, would say that "'This is a cool little project; too bad nobody will ever see it.'"

    But when Thorncrown Chapel opened to the public in 1980, it was an instant hit, generating so much attention and acclaim that it was put up against Crystal Cathedral, a church in Garden Grove, Calif., for the AIA's Design of the Year award.

    The chapel is a 48-foot-tall, 24-feet wide building with more than 6,000 square feet of glass and 425 windows. Made of organic materials, the structure's only use of steel forms a pattern shaped like a diamond amid its wooden trusses. The chapel also has a native flagstone floor, helping to make it fit into the Ozark hillside.

    For the most part, the building is made from pressure-treated pine boards, and Jones insisted that structural elements be limited to what two men could carry into the woods. Most of the building's largest elements, especially its trusses, were assembled on its floor and then raised into place.

    And because of the location, and the flood of light into the building, shadows and reflections are a big part of what makes Thorncrown special. During the day, its countless trusses and the nearby trees result in constantly-changing patterns of shadow and light. At night, reflections from the light inside surround the chapel.

    thorncrown-chapel-vertical.jpg
    Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel at night. Thorncrown Chapel

    Jones, until then known only in local architecture circles, became an instant star, at home and abroad, eventually becoming the only Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice to win the AIA's Gold Medal, that institution's highest individual honor. Since the opening, more than 7 million people have visited Thorncrown, and the chapel won the AIA's 25 Year Award the first year it was eligible, an extremely rare honor. It "became more of a success than anybody ever dreamed," Doug Reed said. "No one knew [or even] had an inkling that it would become known the way it did."

    And maybe, just maybe, it's all because of the chapel's humble origin story -- "that it was a simple schoolteacher that did it," Reed offered.

    For John Reed, long a stern, distant man, Thorncrown was a life-changer. He died not long after the building opened, but his son is quite clear that it had a "profound" effect on his father. "He only lived five more years," he said, "but it was his best five years."

    Hells Angels and Amish and everyone in between

    Unlike many places of worship, the non-denominational Thorncrown Chapel doesn't have a congregation, according to the 54-year-old Doug Reed. "It's [a little] lonely," he said. "It's always been for the visitors."

    Added Reed, "We don't really encourage locals [to come worship] because we don't want to be a church. They need a community and we can't really provide that."

    That means that Thorncrown is open to anyone who wants to come and worship inside its tall, narrow, glass walls. And come they, do, from Hells Angels to Amish, and everyone in between, Reed said, all taken in by the majestic setting, the building surrounded on all sides by a peaceful forest and rocky hillside, all of it visible through the endless windows.

    But perhaps this best sums up the spiritual power of Thorncrown Chapel. Reed smiled as he remembered what one atheist visitor told him: "'I don't really believe in God unless I'm in Thorncrown Chapel.'"

    Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.

     

    Join the discussion

    Conversation powered by Livefyre

    Show Comments Hide Comments