In 1979, a former school teacher had the idea to build a chapel in the woods and share it with the world. It seemed like a crazy plan to everyone else, but Jim Reed acted on his vision. Little did he know that over 30 years later this little chapel would host millions of visitors and be called “one of the finest religious spaces of modern times.”
Reed and his wife, Dell, retired to the Ozark Mountain resort of Eureka Springs, Arkansas and built a house on a wooded hillside on the west side of the town. Tourists often pulled off the highway into their driveway to take in the view. One day while walking through the woods surrounding his home Reed decided he needed to build a glass chapel in the forest to give both tourists and locals alike an inspirational place to reflect and relax.
Soon after, Jim contacted architect E. Fay Jones, a one-time apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, and professor at the nearby University of Arkansas, who quickly agreed. Jones worked on the plans for a month but Reed wasn’t pleased with the initial design saying it didn’t look like a chapel. Fortunately the rest of the family—and even complete strangers he would show the plans to—disagreed, so they moved along with the construction and on March 23rd, 1979 broke ground.
But the estimated cost to complete the chapel was more than double the original investment and construction halted. Reed went to banks in California to try to secure the remaining funds, but banks kept telling him, “People don’t build glass chapels for tourists in their back yards in Arkansas.” After all efforts failed, Reed took what he thought would be his last visit to the half-completed chapel. He got down on his knees and prayed, as he later said, “more seriously than I have before.” A few days later, a woman from Illinois provided a loan that allowed Jim to complete his dream and in the summer of 1980, the chapel opened.
Thorncrown chapel stands 48 feet tall with over 6,000 square feet of glass and a total of 425 windows. The foundation is over 100 tons of native stone & colored flagstone, making it blend in with the rocky surroundings. It is topped with a ridged skylight to filter woodland light and let the outside in, which is what Jones called the design’s single most important element. The chapel is made with all organic materials and the only steel in the structure forms a diamond shaped pattern in its wooden trusses.
E. Fay Jones never dreamed his little glass chapel would become an award winning phenomenon, but the chapel has received an innumerable amount of national, regional and local media coverage and prestigious accolades including the 2006 AIA Twenty-five Year Award for architectural design that has stood the test of time for 25 years, 1990 AIA Gold Medalist, national AIA Honor Award in 1981, and chosen fourth on the AIA’s Top 10 list of 20th-century structures.
Jim Reed passed away in 1985 and didn’t get to see the full success of his little dream. But his widow, Dell, still lives in the house they built on the hillside and you will still see her serving at the chapel, taking care of and greeting its visitors. Jim and Dell’s son, Doug is a pastor and has been serving the chapel for the past 29 years. Doug has performed almost 3,000 Thorncrown weddings and has had the pleasure of getting to speak to people from all over the world.
An estimated 6 million people have visited the chapel over the last 32 years and over 300 wedding ceremonies take place in the chapel each year. Even non-religious visitors to the chapel agree that there is a sense of peace and calm just stepping inside which brings people back time after time to pray, mediate or just quietly reflect on the natural surroundings. Jim Reed’s dream was a gift to not only Eureka Springs, but to a much larger community.