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Northwest Arkansas: A frontier frame of mind

Thorncrown Chapel, courtesy Eureka Springs CVB

A Forest Chapel and a Haunted Hotel

Just a few miles east, in Eureka Springs, another Arkansan decided to build a retirement home in the early 1970s. Jim Reed, a Pine Bluff native, bought a piece of land high in the hills outside the city and built his house. He noticed that passersby often stopped on his property to enjoy the view. So Reed told his wife they should build a chapel for anyone who chanced to stop to offer them a quiet place to pray.

Through years of hard work, prayer and perseverance, Reed was able to fund the building of Thorncrown Chapel, a wood-and-glass sanctuary that was named one of the top buildings of the 20th century by the American Institute of Architecture. Since its completion in 1980, more than 6 million visitors have entered Thorncrown. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the chapel was designed by world-class architect E. Fay Jones, also a native of Pine Bluff.

“We can help set up a 30-minute program given by a Reed family member at the chapel,” said Karen Pryor, director of sales for the Eureka Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. “Or groups can come and enjoy the chapel on their own. We recommend they contact us either way so we can assist if needed.”

Our group spent the afternoon walking the steep hills and streets of Eureka Springs. This was my first visit to this Ozark Mountain enclave that draws artists, musicians, freethinkers and lots of travelers to its bohemian atmosphere. Eureka Springs would be equally at home in the mountains of Oregon or Colorado. I got the same great feeling there that I get in Asheville, North Carolina.

“Groups should allow two hours to enjoy downtown,” said Pryor. “They may want to do the historic tram tour, get off at the courthouse and have lunch on their own. There are 100 businesses downtown offering art, clothing and home decor, and the vast majority are independently owned.”

That evening, we had dinner in one of the city’s most famous institutions: The 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa sits high above the town and has a history that would make Vincent Price smile. When it wasn’t being run as a hotel, one of its incarnations was as a cancer hospital in the 1930s run by Norman Baker, a half-crazed charlatan. If this article began with that storied hotel, I’d have to lead with “On a dark and stormy night… .”

The hotel does a good job of playing up its colorful past. Ghost tours are offered most nights, and there’s plenty of reading material available on its favorite fiend: Baker. To describe Baker as misguided is an understatement. He bought the hotel in disrepair in 1937, and for several years, he proclaimed it a hospital, There he tried various unscientific remedies for patients before they died. As a result, ghost stories abound there about sightings of nurses pushing gurneys down the corridors.

That being said, the hotel has lovely views from its balconies and decks, and it features a state-of-the-art spa as well. Groups overnight there and often dine in the hotel’s restored Crystal Ballroom. So you have choices: You can come for the spa or the spirits; you can enjoy the views or the visitations.

Better yet, just bring your imagination and enjoy it all. You wouldn’t be the first person to live large in northwest Arkansas.

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism