Fay Jones and Jim Reed

The story and meaning of Thorncrown Chapel Read time 20 minutes

By Doug Reed

Fay Jones and my dad, Jim Reed, were an unlikely pair. During his career, Fay had clients such as Former Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, Sam Walton, and Domino’s Pizza founder, Tom Monaghan. Yet, a schoolteacher became his most iconic. For much of his career Fay wanted to design a church or chapel. Over the years he drew doodles of what a sacred space in the Ozarks might look like. Perhaps he assumed his opportunity would come from a university, some large institution, or a wealthy individual. He never imagined a retired schoolteacher would walk into his office with a dream of a glass chapel in the woods.

I had been waiting to do a church for about 30 years. Fay Jones

Jim Reed purchased 26 acres to build his retirement home just outside of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. His property had the rare luxury of a wide driveway with a view of the rolling Ozark hills. People stopped often to enjoy the setting, have picnics, and take pictures. Jim had conversations with his guests when we walked down to get his mail. Those visits birthed a dream that would define him and turn the world’s attention to one of the great architects of our time. One day he came back from his daily walk and told his wife, Dell, they should build a small glass chapel on their property. Maybe they could give their visitors some inspiration.

It was the kind of dream that never comes true. Everyone, including his wife, thought it was unrealistic, and Jim was the wrong guy for such a project, but my dad persisted. In his own words, “the idea stayed with him, and it was never far from his thoughts.” His tenacity won out, and my mom agreed they should explore the possibilities.

The first challenge was to find an architect who would take on such an endeavor. Locating such an individual in the Ozarks seemed close to impossible. However, the story of Thorncrown is full of surprises, and my dad was about to encounter the first of many. He was having an early breakfast with a friend. They were the only ones in the restaurant except for one lone individual sitting nearby. Dad was talking about his dilemma when the fellow at the next table interrupted, “I know the perfect architect for the job!” The stranger was Mr. Freeman Latsos of Fort Smith, Arkansas. In an act of incredible kindness, Mr. Latsos flew his private jet to Fayetteville, Arkansas, met Jim there and took him to meet Fay Jones.  

After Thorncrown opened, Fay confided he had no intention of taking my dad as a client. A retired schoolteacher wants to build a glass chapel? He was skeptical. Yet, as the two exchanged small talk, they discovered they were both from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Since they were about the same age, they reminisced about a favorite second grade teacher. This bond cemented their relationship. Fay accepted the project, saying, “It might be fun!”

Dad did not give Fay much direction other than he wanted his chapel to seat about 100 people and have as much glass as possible. Fay found inspiration from touring gothic cathedrals in Europe. One especially caught his eye, Sainte Chappelle, Paris’ light filled chapel. Because of this influence, Fay affectionately labeled Thorncrown’s style “Ozark Gothic.” His design would rise 48 feet into the sky with over 6,000 square feet of glass and 425 windows. The building, made of all-natural materials, would be half as wide as it was tall and 60 feet long.

I saw opportunity here to create architecture. The distinction I am making is that all building isn’t architecture, just as all writing isn’t literature or poetry, even though the spelling, grammar, and syntax might be correct. There is something in architecture that touches people in a special way, and I hoped to do that with this chapel. Fay Jones

Six weeks later, Fay presented the first draft of his design. The building was hard for a layperson to visualize. Jim said it didn’t look like a chapel, at least one he had ever seen. For two hours, Fay argued for his vision, but dad was unconvinced. Disappointed and a little hurt, Fay said he would tear up the whole thing and start again. One of the best designs of the 20th century was moments from ending up in the trash. On the way to his car, my dad had second thoughts and decided to have another look.

He took Fay’s blueprints back to California, where he still lived part time. He carried them under his arm everywhere he went and showed them to friends and strangers. Once he was checking out at his local grocery store and unveiled the plans to the lady at the cash register. He wanted to know what she thought. She loved the design, and so did many others. The force of public opinion changed his mind. Soon he was back in Fay Jones’s office to give the project a green light.

As I boarded the California bound plane at the Dallas airport, I felt content. We had an architect, a design, and a site. We even had someone to supervise construction, an excellent contractor named Jerry La Bounty. I now had to have the courage to say “Let’s go.” Jim Reed

Fay knew he had an exceptional design, but he had doubts about the endeavor. Often, he came home after visiting the construction site and told his wife Gus, “This is a pretty good little project. Too bad no one will ever see it!” Jim had limited resources and a very small voice. The Ozarks at that time were relatively unknown. Even northwest Arkansas’ great catalyst for growth, the mighty Walmart, was just coming into its own, and nearby Fayetteville was still a sleepy city with few notable attractions. 

Some years after Fay died, his daughters explained Fay knew he had something special in Thorncrown, but he feared this gem would go undiscovered. So great was his concern, he decided to build the chapel next to the highway below, so passersby could see it. His plans changed one evening just before the construction crew poured the foundation. My dad was surveying the site. It was cold and getting late, but as he turned to walk back to his house, he felt compelled to turn a different way. He stumbled upon the place where Thorncrown now sits. Before him was a natural stone altar. To the right were beautiful Ozark rock formations, and to his left was a spectacular wooded setting. It appeared the location was waiting for Thorncrown. 

I turned not toward my home but away from it and starting to beat my way through the thick underbrush across what is now our parking lot and deep into the woods. Exhausted, I stopped and looked around me. There was two limestone and rock arms reaching out from the mountainside. In- between was a space perfect for a chapel the size we had planned. The rock arms seemed to announce that this was where the building should be. I stood there about one minute, and that was enough. Jim Reed

Dad called Fay and insisted he come see his discovery. Jones was reluctant since it was getting late, but finally agreed. When Fay surveyed the site, he told my dad the next time he found something like this, he could call him at 3:00 AM. Even though Fay and my dad wanted people to notice the chapel from a distance, this location was too remarkable to ignore. Visitors would drive up to a modest parking lot and walk down a trail. Only at the last moment would the chapel appear. It was perfect, but with people’s hunger for the sensational, would they take the time to visit a chapel hidden in the woods? 

Doubts haunted both Fay and Jim, and they got little encouragement. After the project was complete dad said, “You are not a hero when you are building a chapel in the woods. People think you are nuts, and they are glad to tell you that.” More than once people told him, “Only a fool as big as you would do something like this.”

I began to doubt myself. Was I alright? Had my sanity quietly left me? Maybe I was just a fool. That seemed to be the best alternative at the time – just to be a fool. I think I settled for that. Jim Reed

Self-doubt plagued my dad during the entire project, and there came a time when he believed he had made the biggest mistake of his life. When the chapel was a little over half-finished, he ran out of funds. He went to banks in Arkansas and California to get a loan, but no bank would take a risk on such a thing. He wrote letters to all his friends asking for help. Few wrote back and the ones who did repeated familiar lines about him having lost his senses. Fay was stunned when dad told him he couldn’t go on. It looked like Fay’s dream was dying, too. One lonely night dad took a walk down to his half-finished dream for what he reckoned would be a last visit. He came to say goodbye and planned never to return to the site. Instead, he saw afresh the splendor of what could be, and found courage to persevere. The little chapel had already touched one life, and it was his own.

Jim’s despair turned to joy a few weeks later. He made one last attempt at a loan. He knew a woman in Illinois with whom he had done business. Jim laughed as he penned a letter to her and put it in the mailbox. “This will never work,” he thought. She was a very sensible businesswoman, and to most people, his project made no sense. Ten days later, his hands trembled as he opened her reply. She offered him a loan at 1/3 the going rate. His chapel had life once again.

Soon construction resumed. Glaziers installed the chapel’s 425 windows. I remember piles of broken glass around the building. Installing windows in such a structure was no easy task, and they broke countless panes before they finished. Finally, woodworkers did the meticulous work of crafting the fixtures that adorn Thorncrown, the lights, the kiosks, the pews, and the chapel doors. Each one was a work of art.

When the craftspeople brought the chapel doors to hang, it looked like they had made a terrible mistake. They cut the doors wrong, which left a diamond shaped hole at the top. Rather than remake the doors at considerable expense, Fay added a small pane of glass to fill the opening. It matched the pane above and together they form an infinity symbol. Considering the chapel’s calling, it seemed like a fortuitous mistake, and Fay loved it so much that he included the same design in his future buildings.

Last to go in were the pews. Fay was deliberate about their placement. Every slotted screw had to be perfectly aligned. After Jerry La Bounty, the contractor, installed them, Fay asked if everything was in order. Jokingly, La Bounty said, “Every screw but one!” Fay pondered it for a moment and decided he liked the idea of leaving one screw misaligned, because only God is perfect.   

Fay and his wife Gus worked together to find a name for the chapel. They made two lists of religious words and spent hours connecting a word from list to a word in the other. When the words thorn and crown came together, it seemed perfect. Yet, just like Fay’s design, my dad did not like it at first. He assumed people would associate it with pain and suffering. Fay believed the name was about glory and humility together, which was a prefect description of his creation. My dad rejected the name but kept coming back to it and soon saw its wisdom. The glass chapel had a name, Thorncrown Chapel.

At first it read crownthorn I thought hmm that sounds catchy, but what if I switched the two around to make them come out Thorncrown. Fay Jones

I came home from college for summer break just before the chapel opened to the public. Most of the building process happened while I was away, so I did not know what the finished structure looked like. I asked dad how it came together. He looked at me with a wry smile and said, “Go have a look!” I walked down to the site alone, and what I saw overwhelmed me. Tears came to my eyes, and I sensed something extraordinary had been accomplished.

By this time funds were almost exhausted, and the chapel was still far from presentable. Construction debris was piled high, and mounds of dirt, stone, and litter were everywhere. The trail into the site was a muddy mess. Yet, my dad decided the building would open June 15th, 1980, ready or not.

The construction crew moved on to another project, leaving dad, my brother, and me to clear the site. I called two friends from California to help. We hauled away countless loads of debris with our cars and started staining the unfinished fixtures. Each of the cross shaped lights took four of us an hour to stain. Next came the detailed kiosks at the back of the chapel and the intricate housing for the sound system at the front. Fay’s love for details exhausted our small crew. Finally, Arlie Weems, an artist who uses heavy equipment for his brush, came out to restore the site as much as possible. He leveled, smoothed, and pampered the soil and rocks. Late in the evening on June 14th, we stood and marveled that the little chapel was ready for the public.   

The day Thorncrown opened, my dad’s excitement quickly turned to disappointment. He was an early riser, so he sat down in the greeter’s chair at 8:00 AM, and he remained there for twelve hours. Even though there was a busy highway a few hundred feet from the chapel, almost no one came. At the end of the day, the offering box contained $2.34. Undeterred, dad did the same thing the next day and the day after that with similar results. He was heartbroken. A familiar feeling of dread returned.

One day a fellow in cutoff shorts wandered down the chapel trail and asked to photograph the Thorncrown. My dad said, “Why not?” He did not know this young man was renowned architectural photographer, Greg Hursely. In a matter of months, the chapel appeared on the cover of every major architecture magazine in the country, and overnight everything changed. People came first by the hundreds and then by the thousands. This is the power of a photograph. In 1981 the chapel appeared on the cover of more architectural, design, and construction magazines than any building in the world.

Soon the acclaim and awards for Fay Jones’s masterpiece began to roll in. Charles Moore, Dean of Architecture UCLA, called it “One of the finest religious spaces of modern times.” Architectural critic Wolf Von Eckardt proclaimed, “It stands out like a jewel of exquisite simplicity and inspiring beauty.” In 1981 the American Institute of Architects awarded Thorncrown Chapel the Design of the Year Award. Twenty-five years later the chapel received AIA’s prestigious 25 Year Award. Additionally, members of the American Institute of Architects placed Thorncrown Chapel fourth on its list of the top buildings of the twentieth century.

Fay’s cathedral wasn’t just admired. It was loved. Someone from the American Institute of Architects told us how they chose Thorncrown to receive their 25 Year Award. That year it came down between a few designs, but they could only choose one. They were at an impasse until someone asked which building they would least like to leave. Without hesitation they all said Thorncrown, and they had their winner.

In 2012 a large utility company wanted to put 150-foot-tall power lines across the valley from the chapel. It would have severely damaged the chapel’s setting, and few buildings are tied to their setting like Thorncrown. Thousands of people from all over the world wrote in protest. For a while TV crews from all over the Ozarks showed up every day to sound the alarm. The love people showed astonished and humbled me, and their love prevailed. David beat Goliath, saving Thorncrown’s delicate environment.

On its busiest days Thorncrown has received as many as 50 buses, and sometimes people have lined up all the way to its parking lot waiting to get in. Couples have flown in from all over the world to hold their wedding ceremony in the little chapel in the woods. Others treat their journey to Thorncrown like a pilgrimage traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles. 

I think Fay was astonished at what his creation became. The honor he received through the chapel humbled him. Acclaim makes some people proud and others it humbles. Fay was definitely of the second sort. This made the man even more endearing.

Thorncrown has a profound effect on its visitors. It brings some people to tears. Others experience awe or astonishment. The word we hear most to describe what people encounter is peace.

Thorncrown has a universality that tugs at the heart of most everyone. Even people of no faith feel something at the chapel. Fay said, “We’d like for someone to come in-whether he’s one denomination or another, whether he’s an atheist-we’d like to feel that something here will make him think his best thoughts.” (Fay Jones, Arkansas Times October 1983.) Fay believed his design would not only please the eye, but also lift us higher. Thorncrown is more than just beauty. It is also wisdom.  

Reed intended the chapel to be a place for passersby, a non-denominational chapel for people with a wide variety of religious experiences, not a group following one belief. I felt simplicity would ring this universal bell and that repetition and symmetry of form would appeal to more people and put the in the right frame of mind for religious contemplation. Fay Jones

The building has something to say, and in humility it reveals its secrets. Thorncrown reflects the union between nature and humanity. Fay Jones taught and practiced organic architecture. He wanted to chapel to look like someone dropped a seed and it grew up along with the flora of the Ozarks. 

Natural materials make it appear that nature conceived it. Thorncrown’s colorful flagstone floor and surrounding fieldstone wall ground it to its rocky terrain. It is made of pressure treated pine which is stained gray to match the color of the bark on the trees outside. Its skylight connects the chapel with the sky above.

In the end, you hope it will look like man and nature planned the building together to the mutual benefit of both. Fay Jones

Thorncrown has its everyday moments, the ones most people see, but there are times that are otherworldly when the glory of the chapel and of nature become one.In the Spring, Thorncrown’s environment comes to life with endless shades of green as new leaves mature. Wildflowers, Dogwoods, and Redbuds show off their splendor with splashes of pink, white, and purple. Summer days are beautiful at Thorncrown, but on rare occasions the sun hits the tree branches at exactly the right angle, creating a kaleidoscope of light and shadows. The wind sets everything in motion. Add to that the hue of a pink or orange sunset, and it almost too much for the eye to take in. In the fall, the green of summer gives away to hues of red, yellow, and orange. At dusk, as the sun disappears behind the Ozark hills, the autumn leaves glow almost like they are emitting their own light. Winter days can be just as stunning, but there are rare moments when ice and snow cover the Ozarks, turning it into a crystalline forest. Ice cycles adorn the chapel and the surrounding rock bluffs. You wonder if it is real or a dream. 

Thorncrown becomes a different building at night. Reflections and shadows take over, further blurring the distinction between inside and outside. Symbol is an important part of the chapel’s spirituality. A cross graces every light in the building. In the daytime, they are humble and unassuming. At dusk reflections emerge, and when it is darkest, three rows of crosses appear on either side of the chapel. No one knows why the reflections stop at three. Any light shining up into the trusses forms a myriad of shadows.

There is a glory the eyes see, but Thorncrown speaks equally of the glory only the heart perceives. It uses from to express that which is formless. Fay Jones was a very private man, especially with spiritual things. It was hard to get him to talk about the divine. This baffled me for many years. Only after he was gone, I realized I had been sitting in his spirituality for over half my life. The transcendent found expression in Fay through design. He described himself as a “cathedral builder born 500 years too late.” Thorncrown was perhaps his best celebration of the infinite.

Fay understood that church buildings are just as much a part of worship as music and sermons, an idea most places of worship forsake focusing on utility instead. When people talk about Fay Jones’s work, they speak of the union of architecture and its environment, and that is beautifully evident at Thorncrown. Yet, the chapel has more to say. It speaks of the union of the finite and the infinite. It is not just about design and its setting but transcendence, and you don’t have to be a theologian to hear its voice. 

Thorncrown’s millions of visitors have attested to Jones’s success. Some use familiar words to describe what they feel, such as God or Spirit, but many have no words, as if none can describe what they encounter. Perhaps one small chapel visitor said it best. He looked his momma in the eye and said, “Is this heaven?” She assured him it wasn’t, but I am not so sure. Thirty-five years of being in Thorncrown Chapel have taught me sharp distinctions between heaven and earth are of our own creation. 

Jones expressed the otherworldly through design like few have. Usually, church buildings broadcast which denomination inhabits them. Not Thorncrown. It transcends denomination and creed. Everyone from the Amish to the Hells Angels has visited the little chapel in the woods, and every one of them believes Thorncrown belongs to them. Perhaps this is because it does not demand attention. It beckons with a quiet humility that most find irresistible.

I have heard countless architects call Thorncrown a humble design. It makes sense that a humble man like Fay would express humility in his creations. Thorncrown’s glory is its simplicity, and its spirituality is its openness. Nothing is hidden and everything is essential. I remember Fay saying if any element in Thorncrown’s design was removed, theoretically, the whole structure would fail. Repetition imparts a sense of mystery to the building. Because the trusses repeat the same pattern both inside and out, it is hard to tell where the inside ends and the outside begins. We have had countless guests ask if the far end of the chapel is open, and we have stopped counting how many people have tried to walk through the large window in the back. Fay finally had to design a small barrier to keep people from hurting themselves.

Light and shadow lend spirituality to the building. Their interplay makes Thorncrown a place of unveiling. Shifting patterns of light reveal glory that only moments before was hidden. The shadow patterns constantly recreate the space, making it new every hour of the day and every season of the year.

Thorncrown’s unveiling is not just for the eyes but also for the soul. It is a place where it is easier to see higher things. Perhaps this is what Fay dreamed when he envisioned a space where we can think our best thoughts. He hoped his little chapel would inspire its visitors to see their best selves and enjoy their highest view of the divine. Innumerable visitors testify to Fay’s astonishing accomplishment. They come to see beauty but encounter something much more. Peace is the word people use to describe their visit most, but the second is surprise.

C. Page Highfill, AIA Emeritus called Thorncrown a Thin Place. The expression comes from ancient Celtic Christianity, and it means a location where the line between heaven and earth is thin. His words have stayed with me for years. Thorncrown tears down distinctions not only between humanity and nature but also between the finite and the infinite. 

Fay often spoke of operative opposites. They are part of what made his designs so compelling. To him the term meant walking into a space and encountering the opposite of what you expect. Most church buildings imply separateness. There are few, if any, windows, and if there are, they are often stained glass which obscures the outside world. Our sanctuaries are places we retreat to a holy place and set apart a holy time to be with the divine. When we finish, we go back out into the world we assume isn’t so sacred. 

Yet, when you enter Thorncrown, there is nothing but windows. There is little distinction between the outside and the inside. It is the opposite of what we expect from a church building, and it communicates something surprising. It softly proclaims all of creation is a cathedral, and every moment of our lives is holy. Nothing is ordinary or forsaken. There is no need to retreat to find sacredness. Those who understand Thorncrown’s glory best know that it does not speak of itself but of transcendence, and that is the building’s humility and glory. It is a place where the crown and the thorns are one.

Fay’s masterpiece whispers in your ear that there is splendor all around us and that all of life is an experience of the divine. We rarely hear such good news in a world filled with distractions and distressing images. Thorncrown is a place where we retreat to truth and open the eyes of our heart. We see the glory and realize we are a part.