Water & Light

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Nestled in the rolling hills of northwestern Arkansas, a stunning museum, a hip boutique hotel, and an emerging food scene create a surprisingly perfect escape.


An afternoon perusing American masterworks. A luxury hotel with edgy art installations. Stylish restaurants devoted to local ingredients and craft cocktails. The description likely conjures up several cities across the South, but you probably wouldn't guess that w're talking about Bentonville, a town known primarily as the birthplace of Walmart. But over the last few years, the little town that Sam Walton put on the map when he opened the original Walton's Five and Dime in 1950 has been enjoying a cultural renaissance. The buzz began when Alice Walton, Sam's daughter, set out to create a museum devoted to American art and commissioned world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie to build it. The spectacular result, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, opened three years ago. Then word got out, and the need to accommodate a growing number of cultural tourists enticed the edgy 21c Museum Hotel to come to town, and also fueled the local food scene.

Even with its new urban offerings, Bentonville has maintained the friendly, small-town charm that makes it welcoming and easy to navigate for weekend visitors. From downtown, it's an easy 10-minute stroll to the Art Trail, which passes the Skyspace sculpture The Way of Color, by James Turrell, and ends at the museum's south entrance. If you want to cover more ground, you can rent wheels at Phat Tire Bike Shop and explore the miles of paved trails that wind all the way to Fayetteville. Design geeks will want to rent a car for scenic drives that lead to significant architectural treasures, revealing a deeper understanding of the region's unique culture and heritage.


The Mecca

Named after the nearby natural springs and the glass-enclosed bridge that's incorporated into the building, Crystal Bridges is a dazzling play of water and light. Which is precisely the point: Safdie's goal was to create an integration of art and nature (read more about his vision in the Q&A on page 92). A deceptively simple facade of an elevator on a broad concrete expanse sets the stage for surprise when the elevator descends to the big reveal of a fantastic view of the structure. A giant suspended golden heart, crated by Jeff Koons, provides a warm welcome when you walk through the doors. The museum comprises a series of pavilions built around two ponds that house galleries, meetings spaces, and a large glass enclosed gathering hall. The abundance of natural light means that a playful dance of shadows and reflections keeps the space constantly fluid and animated, making the space itself as pleasurable as the paintings on the wall. The museum's permanent collection spans five centuries of American masterworks, and the chronological order of the galleries offers a walk through history as they reveal the unfolding story of American art. Begin with evocative early works, such as Asher B. Durand's Kindred Spirits, and end on a punchy technicolor note with Andy Worhol's Dolly Parton.

Whether it's a cappuccino and pastry, a light lunch, or a leisurely dinner to watch the light fade over the water, don't miss a chance to visit Eleven restaurant. Its location in the glass-enclosed bridge overlooking the ponds makes it one of the most beautiful settings in the South for a meal. The menus is a mix of cafe standards (salads and burgers) and interesting items like local shiitake and onion fritters, Gulf shrimp and grits (ground at the nearby War Eagle Mill), and their take on creme brûlée (brown-butter custard served in a Mason jar), all of which speak to the region's culinary heritage.

Give yourself plenty of time to explore the lush, 120-acre museum grounds, and be sure to wear comfortable shoes: you'll discover sculptures by James Turrell, Robert Indiana, and Keith Haring, and a recently acquired Frank Lloyd Wright house. And it's a thrill to view the museum from an entirely different perspective.


The Hotel Art at Every Turn

Like the flagship 21c in Louisville, the 21c Bentonville is a combination boutique hotel, contemporary art museum, and restaurant. Designed by renowned architect Deborah Berke, the hotel features guest rooms and suites that are sleek and spacious, with contemporary custom furnishings, large windows, and in-room video art channel. Stop by the bar for a cocktail (like the Apple Wood, made with Woodford Reserve, fresh apple juice, basil, and honey) before wandering through the site-specific installations like Orange Tree, by Cuban artist Alexandre Arrechea (a large-scale sculpture of an orange metal tree sprouting basketball hoops) and A Sudden Gust of Wind, by Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya, made up of 400 sheets of metal that emulate a scattering of papers frozen in motion. Other rotating exhibitions feature both established and emerging artists, and appear in elevators, lobbies, and public restrooms.

When you're ready for a different kind of substance, head to the Hive, the hotel's casually chic restaurant. Chef and Arkansas native Matthew McClure serves a refined version of country cuisine, including selections like barbecue qual with peach mop, pole beans, and almond butter, and ham-brined pork chop with apples, butternut squash, and fennel puree. His commitment to local ingredients like black walnuts, trout, milked cornmeal, and smoked ham results in meals with a distinctly Arkansas terroir.

Other enticing possibilities await within easy walking distance. Tusk & Trotter serves a porky, charcuterie -driven menu, an array of local brews, and homemade limoncello. You'll see locals lined up at popular food trucks like Crepes Paulette and Big Rub Urban BBQ & Street Taco Lunch Trailer.


The Steeple Chase

Legendary architect and Arkansas native Fay Jones studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, and his influence can be seen around the state (the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture is in Fayetteville). Design buffs shouldn't miss the chance to see his extraordinary chapels. It's a pretty, hour-long drive through oak and hickory forests to Thorncrown Chapel (listed fourth on the AIA's top 10 buildings of the 20th century) in Eureka Springs. Jones claims that Sainte-Chapelle, the light-filled Gothic chapel in Paris, inspired the project. Constructed in 1980, the majestic glass structure soars 48 feet into the sky and features more than 6,000 square feet of glass, Elaborate trusses and a forest frame mean that constantly shifting patterns of light and shadows play a powerful role in the experience. Afterward, check out funky Eureka Springs for lunch at Local Flavor Cafe, then take a gallery stroll (the quaint Victorian town boasts more than 30).

On the way back to Bentonville, detour to Belle Vista. You'll wander down a lush wooded path to find the Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel, another seminal work of Jones's, which earned him the American Institute of Architecture's highest award, the AIA Gold Medal, in 1990. Like Thorncrown, Cooper Chapel was influenced by the Prairie School of Architecture popularized by Jones's mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright. Don't miss the wooded trail that circles the chapel, for a 360-degree view of the space, a symphony of birdsong, and the luxury of quiet reflection.

It's a spectacular amount of history in a couple of days, and it's all there for the taking. As the light starts to fade, chances are you'll be ready to head back to the Hive for a cocktail and a comfy spot to reflect on inspired architecture and the uniquely American spirit of the place.


If You Go

  • Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
  • 600 Museum Way, Bentonville, AR 72712 | (479) 418 5700
  • Upcoming exhibitions include State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now (September 13, 2014 - January 19, 2015) and John James Audubon and the Artist as Naturalist (September 27, 2014 - January 5, 2015)
  • 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville
  • (479) 286 6500, rooms from $199/night, see website for October weekend packages
  • The hotels new exhibition, Dis-semblance: Projecting and Perceiving Identity, examines the evolution of portraiture as a platform for capturing the fractured identities we exchange in our now intertwined analog and digital lives.
  • The Hive
  • (479) 286 6575
  • An array of bourbon and rye cocktails (and pimento cheese with bacon jam and toasted white bread on the bar menu) and refined, Arkansas-inspired fare in a stylish dining room.
  • Tusk & Trotter
  • 110 SE A St. | (479) 268 4494
  • The giant charcuterie and cheese board can make a meal; other hearty items like smoked catfish and trout chowder, or pork and beans (pork belly confit with collard green slaw, corn casserole, white beans, and smoked ham hock) make perfect autumn comfort fare.
  • Crepes Paulette
  • 213 NE A St. | (479) 250 1110
  • Start with La Jardin (fresh baby spinach, mozzarella, pesto, egg) and finish with Violet Beauregarde (fresh blueberries and fresh whipped cream wrapped in a sweet crepe).
  • Big Rub Urban BBQ
  • 213 NE A St. | (479) 372 3802
  • A local favorite for hearty fare like the Jordan Sandwich (barbecued brisket, mozzarella, blue cheese, and bacon on a ciabatta roll).
  • Phat Tire Bike Shop
  • 125 W Central Ave. | (479) 715 6170
  • Bike rentals by the day, including helmets.
  • Thorncrown Chapel
  • 12968 U.S. 62, Eureka Springs
  • See website for hours, closed Saturdays in November.
  • Mildred Cooper Chapel
  • 504 Memorial Dr., Bella Vista | (479) 855 6598
  • It's a popular spot for weddings, so call to verify hours, especially on weekends.
  • Eureka Springs
  • A funky, quaint Victorian town in the Ozark Mountains, packed with over 30 art galleries. See artofeurekasprings.com for gallery events and news. For lunch, grab a seat by the window at Local Flavor Cafe (71 S. Main St., Eureka Springs) for fresh salads, sandwiches, and a long wine list.


Photography by Jody Horton

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