Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Tale of Two Chapels

On our recent road trip to visit my great-aunt and see a Frank Lloyd Wright tower, Frink and I also toured two spectacular chapels designed by architect E. Fay Jones. Jones was an apprentice of Wright's who worked primarily in the Ozarks. I wasn't surprised to learn that when he was a high school student, Jones designed tree houses. Tall and narrow, his chapels soar among the trees, bringing the forest inside through walls of windows. With their dramatic, exposed trusses crisscrossing across their ceilings, these light and airy chapels look like they were designed by wood elves. At any moment I expected Galadriel or Legolas to come gliding in.

The more famous of the two is Thorncrown Chapel, near Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The members of the American Institute of Architects voted it their 4th favorite building in America. From a structural standpoint, Thorncrown is probably the more spectacular of the two chapels. And yet, we enjoyed our visit to The Mildred B. Memorial Cooper Chapel in Bella Vista, Arkansas more.

Even though the chapel is a mere quarter of a mile from a shopping center, the town feels far away. We parked in the little lot in the woods and walked down a tree-lined path to the chapel. We were the only people there, and it was utterly quiet. When we opened the heavy door and entered, we were enveloped by the serenity and simple beauty of the chapel, a gothic cathedral with all its walls replaced by glass. We sat in the pews and admired the soaring arches and the light flowing through the windows (although it was a cloudy, winter day). Even though we were there to admire the architecture, it was an extremely spiritual experience. The architecture itself inspired awe and quiet contemplation.

Our subjective experience of Thorncrown was different, and I've spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint exactly why. The building itself is stunning. And yet, from the moment we approached the chapel, the experience felt less satisfying. First, there was the tall blue sign right near the door telling us to be seated in the chapel. It felt more like an order than an invitation. What's more, the sign stuck out jarringly in our pictures of the building. (We turned it sideways so we snap a couple of sign-free photos.)

When we entered, there was a staff member sitting near the door in a folding chair. Although she was friendly and welcoming, the mere presence of a monitor felt a little oppressive. I completely understand the desire to protect this architectural masterpiece, and to encourage respect for a place of worship. As someone who loves to visit cathedrals, I am often appalled at how rude and disrepectful other tourists can be, taking photos when explicitly told not to, imposing on people's prayers and contemplation by talking loudly, and wearing inappropriate clothing.

But the fact is, the entire time we were in the Cooper chapel, we whispered and were respectful, even though we were entirely alone, and even though there are no regular religious services conducted there to our knowledge. The building itself inspired our awe and respect. At Thorncrown, it was as if our "best behavoir" was not demanded by the spirituality of the space itself, but by the presence of the hostess, who seemed not so much guarding the chapel or welcoming guests, but maintaining a certain sanctity. It didn't help that she was one of those ostentatiously serene people who make you wonder exactly where the line is between sanctity and sanctimonius. She stressed that the chapel was an active place of worship and that "we don't want to be known as a wedding chapel" (a statement belied by their website, which prominently promotes Thorncrown as a wedding chapel.) The didactic impression was reinforced by the chapel's brochure. I didn't save it, but as I recall it was a bit insistent in its Christianity and its stressing of how spiritual the chapel is. It was ironic: When we were left alone to experience the chapel on our own terms, the feeling was one of incredbile spirituality. When we were told how spiritual the place was, the experience was precisely the opposite.

No doubt, devout Christians would probably have a different perspective on this. But for us, appreciation of a beautiful building is itself a kind of sanctity. Jones certainly knew this. Writing about Thorncrown, he wrote that “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.”

Cooper acknowledges the "special way" the architect and his building touch you by inviting you to visit it as a structure. There is a path the winds through the forest so you can admire the chapel from every angle. Cooper seems to be saying, "I don't care what brought you here. Enjoy it." Thorncrown seemed to say, "I'm glad you're here. Now be spiritual." Even though Thorncrown's website touts the awards and accolades the building has earned, we felt a little guilty being there for the architecture, almost like our mere presence defiled the place.

Perhaps if we hadn't just visited Cooper a few hours before, we wouldn't have noticed a thing uninviting about Thorncrown. And in seeking to explore and explain the source of our different feelings in visiting these two chapels, I have probably exaggerated and overstated the case a bit. Thorncrown Chapel is an astonishingly lovely place, and we plan to return often to experience it in different seasons. If you're ever in Arkansas, I hope you'll get the chance to visit both of these amazing works of art.

Here's a Wikipedia Commons photo of Thorncrown in the flush green of summer (and without the attendant sitting in the entryway).

Mildred B. Coooper Memorial Chapel
Thorncrown Chapel
E. Fay Jones on Wikipedia


  1. Incredably beautiful chapels! I do understand the different feeling you had in one as apposed to the other. Interesting how some people's presence detracts from the very thing they're trying to promote. Gorgeous shots!

  2. That is great. Very classic, yet modern. Glad you shared these with me. Sorry that I have been gone, I hope I still have your blog friendship!

  3. Beautiful structures! Great architectural monuments!
    I can completely relate to what you were trying to convey about your different feelings in those two chapels. I feel the same when i visit my religious places of worship. Some offer solace and others not what i would expect out of a spiritual center. I'm sure this is experienced by many of us who are sensitive to the vibes given off of buildings and structures.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing them.

  4. Beautiful chapels! I love the summer shot of the Thorncrown chapel.
    I have to second Lak about the vibes. I am one of those sensitive to vibes and find it astonishing how different places of worship emit different vibes. I think the surroundings and the presence of people, or their absence, influence our experiences.

    - Bijita

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone. Glad to see you're well James! I wish my photos were better--we had such flat light, but the places were gorgeous...despite the different vibes. It is so interesting to hear your experiences with the vibes of buildings.

  6. Wow. If you think you're photos could have been better, it must have been breathtaking to see in person.

  7. Chrissy--they really are spectacular buildings. I'm looking forward to seeing them when the trees are green. It must be a lovely place for a wedding, all filled with music and flowers.

  8. Howdy Frankie,

    10 days and no post yet. Hope all is well?

    - Bijita

  9. I tend to gravitate to the historical looking chapel, as I love history and antiques. I like the one with the red carpet and the architect of it.

  10. Hi Bijita! Good to hear from you. All is well. I've been writing other things this past two weeks. I finished an essay for a contest and a children's picture book. Hold a good thought as I send them on their way.

    Jennifer...thanks for your comment. You're right, the red one is more historical looking. I could almost picture Guinevere there....