Arkansas' Thorncrown Chapel under threat from energy company

thorncrown chapel interior
© Thorncrown Chapel

David Koon at The Arkansas Times writes that Thorncrown Chapel, an iconic piece of organic architecture is under threat and uniting an unusual coalition of supporters, including "more than 50 individuals, organizations, corporations, and cities — including the American Institute of Architects and the Walmart Real Estate Business Trust."

Koon writes:

An odd set of corporate, municipal and grassroots bedfellows has coalesced in Northwest Arkansas around opposition to a proposed Southwestern Electric Power Co. power-line project that critics say could encroach on some of the most scenic places in the Ozarks. The proposed project would push through a 150-foot-wide cleared right-of-way studded with 150-foot-tall electrical transmission towers. One route for the project would bring the power lines within 1,000 feet of the iconic Thorncrown Chapel in the woods near Eureka Springs.

Thorncrown Chapel was designed by E. Fay Jones, an Arkansan architect that was mentored by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Allison Meier at Hyperallergic describes what makes Thorncrown special:

Taking inspiration from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, as well as Wright’s Prairie School of architecture emphasizing bringing the outdoors inside, its 425 windows and 48-foot-height pull in the light through 6,000 square feet of glass. All the materials are organic, from the treated pine to its flagstone floor, in harmony with its surroundings (though the structure is reinforced by steel).

Doug Reed, a pastor at Thorncrown Chapel whose father, a retired school teacher named Jim Reed, commissioned the chapel, explained over email: ”In order to preserve Thorncrown’s natural setting, Fay decided that no structural element could be larger than what two men could carry through the woods.”

The state motto of Arkansas is "The Natural State" and it is the remarkable beauty of the Ozarks with its dense, lush forest, caves, streams and waterfalls that helped earn this moniker. It will be a true shame if SWEPCO is able to win this fight and taint the views from Thorncrown Chapel and the surrounding hills.

That Thorncrown Chapel and the Ozarks are under threat has been picked up by a number of architecture and art publications, including Inhabitat, Hyperallergic, This is Colossal among others. This is a testament to the beauty of area and widespread appreciation of Jones' architecture.

Locally, however, a challenge facing the coalition is getting people to understand the scale of the proposed project. Back in The Arkansas Times, Koons quotes Jeff Danos with the group Save the Ozarks.

Part of getting out the word about the project, Danos said, is helping people understand the impact it would have on the area. "Everybody's trying to wrap their minds around this, and it's very difficult to do because we have no power lines of that size anywhere in this area," Danos said. "We're talking power lines that are the height of cell towers. It's definitely something new. Personally, I'm seeing this as the single largest act of utility-driven destruction that we've seen in this region."

Save the Ozarks has put together some mock-ups showing what the transmission lines may look like passing through the area. As you can see, these are not the normal power lines you see around town. These are major towers carrying 375,000 volts. A huge amount of trees and underbrush would have to be permanently cleared to keep the electricity from arching off the towers. This manmade scar cutting through the forest would be maintained by powerful herbicides, which will certainly spread into the streams and valleys.

I think Doug Reed, the pastor at Thorncrown Chapel, sums up what is really at stake here. It isn't just about losing pretty views.

"Fay Jones' architecture is organic," Reed said. "His buildings were designed to be part of their environment, almost like someone dropped a seed there and they just grew with everything else. When you harm the environment around a Fay Jones building, you harm the building. There's just no way around it."

This reminds me of something I heard Deepak Chopra say at a recent event about natural gas drilling in New York. I'm paraphrasing because I don't have the exact phrasing, but Chopra said, "There is no such thing as the environment. The environment is us and we are it. When you harm the environment, you harm yourself."

When are we going to stop harming ourselves?

Visit Save the Ozarks to help and learn more.

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