The Awesome Ozarks: Art, Entertainment … and Ghosts!
By Ruth J. Katz
If the stunning, take-your-breath-away Thorncrown Chapel, snugly tucked into a leafy, woodland setting in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, embraced a particular religious denomination, I would have converted. That is how serenely transported I felt, sitting in the glass-enclosed (425 panes, measuring a total of 6,000 square feet) shrine to contemplation and tranquility. Designed by E. Fay Jones and opened in 1980, the majestic building garnered the American Institute of Architects’ Design of the Year Award for 1981 (deservedly so), as well as the AIA’s Design of the Decade Award for the 1980s, among the many plaudits it has been awarded.
This extraordinary building is but one marvel in this pocket of the Ozarks—Northwest Arkansas and Southwest Missouri. And my recent trip serves only to underscore to me and I hope to others, that some of the very best is right here in our own backyard. Clearly, visitors have discovered this jewel: Over six million people have come to see this sanctuary—which soars nearly 50 feet into the air—and offers solitude and unfettered communion with the towering oak and cedar trees.
After a visit to the chapel, tootle around the charming, idiosyncratic town of Eureka Springs itself, population: 2,000, give or take. There are no traffic lights, no stop signs, no cross streets, no byways at right angles to one another. (It leaves me to wonder—does the local constable ever give out traffic tickets?) Ripley alleged that this is where the “misfits fit.” The roads gently zigzag and meander along hillsides (take the Eureka Springs Trolley) that are dotted—in the historic district—with what you could consider an open-air, living, architectural museum (with, I might add, 55 miles’ worth of stone walls). The entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places as is the Eureka Springs Historic District; and, the village was chosen as one of America’s Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
There are classic Victorians, carpenter Gothics, and what-nots, almost all of which have been painstakingly and lovingly restored by their owners—awash in vibrant persimmon, come-hither burnt umber, gentle aquamarine, muted mustard, and a panoply of paint hues that would make the Pantone people envious. Wooden, front-porch lacework and the occasional gazebo punctuate the vista, with homes bearing names like “Daffodil Cottage.” In the more commercial part of town, shops bear monikers such as “Two Dumb Dames” Fudge Factory; Myrtie Mae’s eatery boasts signage advising, “It’s love at first bite.”
Most homes were built between 1880 (population at that time was a friendly 300!) and 1900 or so. It was the discovery of the cold, grotto springs—maybe 75 of them—that brought even more visitors to take the “cure” and settle here. Today’s population is “arty” and interesting. One of the more attention-grabbing local spots is the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, on 15 acres of manicured gardens, with forested nature trails, the New Moon Spa & Salon…and ghosts. Yes, really. As the hotel says, “Some guests check out, but never leave.” Let’s just say I slept with my light on.
The building was bought in the late 1930s by one Norman Baker, a quack who established the Cancer Curable Baker Hospital. Nobody really knows what he injected into his patients, but when the hotel was bulldozing the grounds for a new parking lot, the workers discovered jars and jars of medical specimens. This past April, teams from the Arkansas Archeology Survey arrived in their excavating gear to meticulously unearth whatever else lay beneath…and Lord only knows what they found in hundreds of glass containers among the gruesome surgical tools and other “artifacts”… all this makes for wonderfully engaging tours by the hotel’s cadre of ghost whisperers. Be sure to take the circuit. But, on a brighter note: Know that there is a delicious, appetizing meal awaiting you in the Crystal Dining Room, where the signature dish, Crab Lorenzo, has been delighting guests since 1886.
From here, skip on over to Bentonville, home to Clan Walton. In fact, Sam’s first shop—Walton’s 5-10—is still here, a must-see on your itinerary. The big draw, for my money, though, is daughter Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, spanning five centuries of American masterworks, from the Colonial era to today…and in between are Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, and on and on.
Designed by storied architect Moshe Safdie, the buildings are smartly ensconced into the surrounding, 120-acre wooded site, replete with walking trails; the Museum takes its name from the nearby natural springs and there are bridge connections within the ingeniously structured buildings.
Also on the grounds is a New Jersey Frank Lloyd Wright private residence, the Bachman-Wilson House, in his signature USONIAN (United States of North America) style; it was judiciously disassembled and reassembled, with a few minor, non-intrusive alterations, like heating under the floors to temperature-control the environment.
The museum is simply spectacular and you could easily spend a day here. And speaking of spending: One has no idea what Ms. Walton ponied up for this extraordinary gift to us all (admission is always free), but I am reminded of the well-known anecdote, reported in The New York Times, among other places, in 1991, when Edward Bennett Williams passed away. Williams, an owner of the Washington Redskins, had a sometimes-fractious relationship with the legendary coach George Allen. After firing Allen in 1977, Williams is known to have explained, “I gave him an unlimited budget and he exceeded it.”
While in town, grab a bite at the 21c Museum Hotel, part of the group bearing the same name, referring to the twenty-first century. The owners, art collectors Laura Lee Brown (think Brown-Forman) and Steve Wilson, wanted to establish a museum with a hotel, much as there are, mostly in Europe, restaurants with rooms. Of course, 21c is a lovely hotel, but the revolving art exhibitions are even more wonderful and worth noting. (I recently stayed, also, in the 21c Hotel in Lexington, KY, and spent more time looking at the exhibits than I did in my room.)
Across the state line, of course, into Missouri, is Branson, a huge draw for locals and destination-seeking tourists alike. There is a staggeringly large number of entertainment venues here—forty, to be precise. And some theaters hold as many as two thousand seats (and note that ticket prices do not reflect New York City tariffs—expect to pay on average between $30 to $60). Naturally, summer and Christmas time are the busiest seasons, but there is entertainment all year long.
There is everything here, from the country-and western performers you’d expect (Lee Greenwood, Crystal Gale, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Bellamy Brothers) to other kinds of unexpected entertainment, including tribute bands; Shoji Tabuchi, a Japanese American country music fiddler and singer; comedian Howie Mandel; illusionist Rick Thomas; 60s hit rock-and-rollers Tommy James & the Shondells; Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-woman Show; and on and on. There is truly something for all tastes. Among other outings, I went to the Caravelle Theater to see “Liverpool Legends,” a tribute to the Beatles and it did not disappoint. I even felt the four performers looked like their namesakes. It was a night of pure nostalgia and solid entertainment.
There are countless other attractions in Branson, or right nearby. I had time for Silver Dollar City, a 100-acre theme park that brings the Wild West alive. Of course, there are rides, like the daunting Time Traveler (think roller coaster on steroids), as well as countless eateries and snack kiosks (the best cinnamon buns are here!), but I liked, above all, the authentic glassblowing workshop, the pottery atelier, the coppersmith and blacksmithing facilities, and the other artisans’ studios. This fall there will be a Harvest Festival, with Pumpkin Nights, when over 1,000 pumpkins will be lit all around the grounds.
There is something for couples, families, and large groups in and around Branson, including the Ozarks National Golf Course for the duffers. I did not get to try the Aerodium, a vertical wind tunnel that lets you, well, fly. For go-karters, there is Thunder Alley; for curious kids (of all ages) there is WonderWorks, a science-focused indoor amusement park, featuring more than 100 hands-on educational and entertaining activities, including exhibits where you can experience zero-gravity, or hurricane-force winds, or lie on a bed of nails. In other words, there is so much more to experience and explore, I will simply have to go back.
The author of five books, Ruth J. Katz was the style/travel editor of Promenade magazine for eight years. She has written extensively for both The New York Times and New York magazine and has served as an editor or contributing editor at numerous magazines, including Redbook, Classic Home, Golf Connoisseur, and The Modern Estate. She has visited over 80 countries (and counting).