The Rothko Chapel was the last and one of the most important endeavors that Dominique and John de Menil, its founders, worked on together. This modern work of religious art commissioned for Houston is comparable in importance to the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence by Henri Matisse or le Corbusier's Chapel in Ronchamp, France.
Mark Rothko, one of the most influential American artists of the mid twentieth century, was commissioned by the de Menils in 1964 and given the opportunity to shape and control a total environment to encompass his work, resulting in a group of fourteen paintings created specially for the meditative space. He worked closely with the original architect, Philip Johnson, on the plans, and then with Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry who completed the building.
Since its dedication in 1971, the Rothko Chapel and Barnett Newman’s sculpture Broken Obelisk, which faces the Chapel and is dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have achieved world recognition as examples of the greatest artistic achievements of the second half of the twentieth century.
As an institution, the Rothko Chapel functions as chapel, a museum and a forum. It is a place where religion, art, and architecture intermingle. The Rothko Chapel is free, open to the public, and accessible to the physically challenged every day of the year. It has become a pilgrimage stop for thousands of visitors who are drawn by its importance both as an artistic masterpiece and as an ecumenical gathering place for people of all religious beliefs. Students, art lovers, and scholars from all over the world visit the Chapel for research and inspiration. Modern art books and catalogues worldwide feature the Chapel.
In 2001 the Chapel was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Chapel regularly makes top ten lists of places to visit, and is a featured entry in National Geographic’s Sacred Places of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Peaceful and Powerful Destinations, published in 2009. Locally, the Chapel has received numerous awards, including the Peace Award from The Houston Baha’í Community (1998), a Community Award from the Museum District Business Alliance (2000), The James L. Tucker Interfaith Award from Interfaith Ministries (2004), an Urban Greenery Award from The Park People (2005), and recognitions from the Houston Peace and Justice Center (2008).
For the last 43 years, the Chapel has provided diverse programs to engage audiences intellectually, artistically, and spiritually. The institution has distinguished itself by addressing issues and concerns before they were generally recognized and popularized. The Chapel has stressed the importance of human rights by issuing awards to exceptional individuals or groups of people not generally well known, who have distinguished themselves by their courage and integrity. Events at the Rothko Chapel have brought leaders, heroes, artists, musicians, scientists, and scholars from all over the world such as Jonas Salk, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Steve Reich, and Huston Smith to share their knowledge, experience, talents, and stories with the Houston community. Recent speakers have included Rigoberta Menchu, Amiri Baraka, Nelofer Pazira, Mustafa Bargouthi, and Brice Marden.
The Rothko Chapel is a sanctuary for all and is respectful of the integrity of each religion or denomination. It has served the community by providing a temporary place for major religious holy days and celebrations for communities who have not yet established a place of their own. Those who are not affiliated with any particular religious institution find the Chapel appropriate for memorial services for their loved ones or for wedding ceremonies. The Chapel is a popular setting for interfaith vigils and services. It has become a spiritual landmark, central to the lives of many members of Houston's large urban community.