A Tiny Architectural Masterpiece

Built twenty-five years ago, Thorncrown Chapel remains a jewel in the woods

Thorncrown Chapel, the diminutive masterpiece built in 1980 by the late AIA 1990 Gold Medalist E. Fay Jones, FAIA, shows how severe constraints can provoke greatness. Built on a miniscule budget of $180,000 in woodland beside an active highway near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, this tiny (24 feet wide, 60 feet deep, 48 feet tall) structure has beckoned legions of visitors with irresistible force.

Constructed of southern pine two-by-fours, two-by sixes, and two-by-twelves, the simple, gabled shed rises from a stone base into the tree canopy. Early in the design process, the architect determined that no trees should be cut; trusses, assembled in situ, were simply lifted into place. From the interior, the visitor is both bound within nature and set apart. While the architect mentioned the influence of the Gothic Sainte Chapelle, in Paris, the Wrightian influence on Jones's work seems clear, with a nod to Bernard Maybeck and the Japanese tradition. Jones's own hand produced a distinct essay in organic architecture that emphasizes clarity of structure while concurrently achieving a sense of the infinite through repetition and detail. Particularly noteworthy is the steel oculus that links high cross-braced members, substituting void for mass, light for substance.

The tiny building with a single room has brought Jones international recognition. The 1981 AIA Honor Award jury singled out Thorncrown, as did Newsweek, which called it "metaphysical." In 2000, members of the American Institute of Architects voted the chapel one of the top 10 buildings of the 20th century. So successful in attracting weddings and worship services was the entire site that in 1989 the owner commissioned a second Jones structure down the hillside, the Thorncrown Worship Center, to accommodate larger crowds.

In accepting the award during ceremonies at the 2006 Accent on Architecture event, Jones's widow, nicknamed Gus, recalled her husband's modest exclamation on returning from the beautiful natural setting of the future chapel: "Gus," he said, "I just hope that I don't mess it up."