In 1964, the French-born art collectors and philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil commissioned the Color Field painter Mark Rothko to create work for a contemplative space in their adopted city of Houston. It was a modern spin on an idea as old as art—a place of worship in which beauty served as a catalyst for spirituality. In 1967, the painter created 14 canvases—seven purple fields and seven black rectangles on maroon backgrounds. He never set foot in Houston and died before the paintings were installed in what would come to be called the Rothko Chapel, a squat brick building specially designed by the architect Philip Johnson.
Since its opening in 1971, the chapel has become a pilgrimage site for people from a wide array of faiths—including for those who believe mainly in the transformative power of art—attracting more than 100,000 visitors a year.
After nearly a half century, it had begun to show its age. Now the Rothko Chapel is getting its first extensive restoration (courtesy of a $30 million capital campaign). It reopens in June after a 15-month closure, with its main space completely renovated and a new welcome center. The landscape firm Nelson Byrd Woltz has added green space and improved the walkways around Barnett Newman’s sculpture Broken Obelisk, which faces the chapel. Next comes phase two, including a program center for the chapel’s frequent social-justice-themed events.
“We’re describing it as a restoration, since we’re taking it as close as we can get to the original intent,” says the artist’s son, Christopher Rothko, who has advised on the project.
New York’s Architecture Research Office (ARO) was charged with what partner Stephen Cassell calls a “de-cluttering” and “de-gunkifying” of the chapel itself. “Over the years, so much stuff was added, its power was undermined,” he says.
Moving the entry desk and gift shop out of the chapel’s vestibule and into a new welcome house, a glass-and-brick structure that fits in with the neighborhood, was one of the most significant changes. “It’s strategic and it enhances the sacredness,” says the chapel’s executive director, David Leslie. ARO darkened the foyer so that once inside the chapel itself, your eyes can adjust more easily to appreciate the artworks.
The skylight at the center of the chapel was a problem from the minute the building opened—too much light for both people and paintings—and so it was largely covered.
ARO has opened it up again, with glass covered in a UV-filtering film and new louvers to regulate the light. The louvers are covered in a scrim, and a whole slew of mechanicals were likewise hidden away to clear the chapel space from visual distractions like speakers. And fans of the original touches, like the simple dark-wood benches, will be happy to see they’ve remained, subtly altered with a less shiny finish.
“Everyone comes to the chapel looking for something different,” says Rothko. “And everyone will find more clarity now.”