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AIA National and AIA Arkansas Help Defeat Proposed Power Line Project Near Thorncrown Chapel Site

By Kim O'Connell

A proposal to run electrical power transmission lines with 150-foot towers near the site of the acclaimed Thorncrown Chapel in northwest Arkansas has been defeated—at least for now. A diverse group of citizens and organizations, including AIA Arkansas and AIA National, opposed the power-line project, which could have compromised the natural setting so integral to the Thorncrown experience.

Designed by the late Arkansas architect and AIA Gold Medalist E. Fay Jones, FAIA, and completed in 1980, Thorncrown Chapel is a striking glass-enclosed worship space nestled into the Ozark Mountains. Jones was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, but the chapel's design, with its geometric cross-braced timbers, advances Wright's ideas into Fay Jones’ own language. The building has garnered notable acclaim, including the AIA's coveted Twenty-five Year Award in 2006 and inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, one of the few buildings so designated before reaching 50 years of age.

“Thorncrown Chapel stands among the preeminent examples of spiritual architecture in the 20th century,” says Robert Ivy, FAIA, AIA CEO, and author of a book on Jones.

This past spring, the Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) announced plans to build a 50-mile high-voltage (345 kV) system of power lines across portions of northwest Arkansas. One of several routes under consideration would have entailed construction of 150-foot-tall transmission towers in a 150-foot-wide right of way less than 1,000 feet from Thorncrown Chapel.

The company filed its plans with the Arkansas Public Service Commission, which has collected public comments on the possible impacts of various routes. To date, the commission has received nearly 5,000 public comments as well as input from state agencies and other interested parties. The vast majority of the comments, according to the commission, involved concerns about the chapel.

“Fay Jones’ buildings are one with their environment,” says Doug Reed, Thorncrown's longtime pastor and son of its founder, Jim Reed. “Therefore to harm the setting is to harm the building. We felt [the towers] would do immeasurable damage to Thorncrown Chapel and its philosophy.”   

Architect David McKee, AIA, president of the AIA Arkansas chapter, worked with Jones on the Thorncrown project in the early 1980s and represented the chapter in his testimony to the commission. “As architects, we are well aware of the demands of our growing population on infrastructure improvements and planning for future growth,” he wrote. “It’s always the complaint, ‘Not in my backyard.’ The difference here is that we are talking about everyone’s ‘front yard.’ The popularity of Thorncrown, and the tourism it generates, would be negatively impacted.”

The towers would also have been visible from the Thorncrown Worship Center, an enclosed building on the campus also designed by Jones and completed in 1989. To bolster the chapter's case, Fayetteville, Ark.–based deMX Architecture produced several graphics illustrating the likely visual impacts of the towers.

In response to these and other concerns, SWEPCO has dropped the route that would have most affected the Thorncrown Chapel campus, but the overall project is still under consideration. Reed says his group is looking into what legal avenues might exist to further protect the chapel, and the chapter and AIA National are staying abreast of the developments as well, McKee says.


“Thorncrown Chapel has become a cultural icon for not just northwest Arkansas, but the nation,” McKee says. “It's a huge source of pride.”


E. Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel. Credit: Carol M. Highsmith, This is America! Collection at Library of Congress.

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View of proposed power transmission lines from Thorncrown Worship Center. Image courtesy of deMX architecture.

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Aerial diagram of Thorncrown site and proposed power lines. Image courtesy of deMX architecture.

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Back to AIArchitect October 25, 2013

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