Chapel of Glass

The renowned Thorncrown Chapel, which soars 48 feet into the trees and is made from 6,000 panes of glass, has won honors from architectural organizations and has been visited by 5 million people in the past quarter-century.

But if not for an answered prayer, Thorncrown could be standing half-built on the side of an Ozark mountain. But Jim Reed, a teacher from California who grew up in Arkansas, had a vision for the 25 acres in this vacation town next to his retirement cabin and he wasn't going to give up. "It became evident to us that the tourists liked our driveway," Jim's widow Dell Reed said."They would come into our driveway and have picnics. One afternoon [Jim] said wouldn't it be great if somehow way back in the woods we could build those folks a glass chapel? They all seem to want to get off highway and into the woods."

Dell said the couple sold a piece of property in California for $80,000, knowing that building the chapel would cost more but hoping God would provide.

"Folks would tell him to his face he was a fool," she said. "Everyone told him he was absolutely crazy."

The Reeds had no idea how to start their venture, until breakfast one morning at a local haunt in Eureka Springs. "There were three people in there, my husband, the owner and a stranger," Dell Reed said. "My husband told the owner of his dream and he said, 'Someday I'm going to build that chapel, but who will be the architect?' This stranger told him to get in touch with Fay Jones."

Jones is a famed architect from nearby Fayetteville, winner of the American Institute of Architects prestigious gold medal and noted for his designs that have subtle intricacies between buildings and nature. Jim Reed's Arkansas roots won Jones over and he designed Thorncrown, but money troubles plagued the Reeds.

"He was a schoolteacher. What did he know about chapels? The bill was for over $200,000," more than double their original investment, Reed said. "So my husband went to some banks in California and they said, 'People don't build glass chapels for tourists in their backyards in Arkansas. So the Reeds wrote letters and asked for loans while Thorncrown sat half-finished.

"He flew back here early one morning," Dell said. "He came to close it down. He went up to the altar area in this half-finished chapel and thought he would just take one final look and chalk this up as the worst and most expensive mistake in his life. "But instead he dropped to his knees and just began to pour out his heart to his heavenly father, just telling God that he really did want to finish the building but no one would lend him the money."

Jim Reed, always self-sufficient, returned to his wife and family in California. Within a few days he received a letter from an Illinois woman who wrote that she would loan him the money. "We borrowed it from her, and in June 1980 the little laughed-at chapel opened," Dell said. "He lived five years to see his dream come true."

Dell Reed still lives in their cabin and maintains the chapel. She sweeps the floors, waters the plants, does whatever needs doing. Their son is the minister. For the architect, though, a man of 83 who suffers from Parkinson's disease, the chapel remains his most endearing and popular work. The American Institute of Architects named it fourth on the list of architectural achievements for the century -- and the top event in the 1980s.

When he was in better health, Jones, would visit, sitting anonymously in the back row, watching reactions to his work. "It's the apple of his eye," said Jo Rainey, who answers the phones for the chapel. "He would just watch their faces."

The chapel soars 48 feet into the trees, yet seemingly leaves them undisturbed. Made of 6,000 panes of glass that form 425 windows, visitors walk through the door wondering if they're still outside. They sit in the quiet space, reflecting on the intricate detailing in the ceiling and the view into the hills.

Jones tells stories of his visits, for weddings, services or just people-watching. Once, he said, a young boy ran up the path flailing about with two stones. His mother made him put the stones down in the dirt outside before the family entered the chapel.

The boy went in and, quiet as could be, sat a front row, frozen with awe. Jones said he sat in the back listening as the parents talked about how they've never seen the boy so calm for so long.

After a while the family left, and as they walked the boy bent down and picked up the same two rocks and walked away quietly. "They weren't the same two stones," Jones said, tears in his eyes. "They came as instruments of destruction and left as natural beauty."

Dell Reed said couples have come from Germany, Italy, Japan, the Korean Peninsula and Russia to be married. Any Christian minister is welcome. She's had visitors from 60 foreign countries and all 50 states and for her it's a living memory of her husband. "He was guided by God to do this," she said.

600450 Chapel of Glass
Date: 26 April 2004

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