February 13, 2020
Houston’s beloved sacred space will once again be available to the public after a comprehensive restoration and campus expansion that ensures the landmark’s future for generations to come.
Houston, TX – The Rothko Chapel, one of the world’s most celebrated sacred spaces, will reopen in June, after undergoing a comprehensive restoration as part of the first phase of Opening Spaces, a $30-million master plan for its campus. The Rothko Chapel closed in March of 2019 to allow for this much-needed restoration project that will more closely align the building with the original vision of Mark Rothko and John and Dominique de Menil, the Chapel’s founders. The restoration is just one part of the holistic Opening Spaces plan that will allow the Chapel to better fulfill its dual mission: to offer a space for ecumenical and interfaith celebration and contemplation, as well as to foster community engagement on critical social issues. The overall project enhances the visitor experience in the Chapel and on its grounds, while expanding the campus provides visitors new experiences, programs and more educational offerings. In undertaking the Opening Spaces campaign, the Rothko Chapel leadership has made an investment in the future and aims to preserve the legacy of the sacred space for future generations.
Since its dedication in 1971, the Rothko Chapel has served as a spiritual space, a forum for world leaders, and a space for solitude and gathering. Founded on a platform of radical inclusiveness far ahead of its time, the Chapel has long operated at the vanguard of social justice, hosting colloquia for scholars and religious leaders from around the globe to engage in discussions on issues affecting human rights, and to work towards a culture of mutual understanding. The founding principles of the Chapel have guided the Opening Spaces project, with a view toward increased opportunities for spiritual growth and dialogue.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Rothko Chapel is defined by its 14 monumental Mark Rothko canvases that invite spiritual contemplation and engagement regardless of faith, spiritual or religious background. During the renovation of the Chapel, the skylight, lighting design and entryway were reconfigured in concert with the original concept for the space, allowing for heightened illumination and an unimpeded interaction with the artwork. The Opening Spaces plan was designed and led by New York-based firm, Architecture Research Office, which is overseeing both the restoration of the Chapel – with lighting design firm George Sexton Associates – and the expansion of the campus. The two firms worked together to implement critical preservation initiatives inside the Chapel, including the removal of the overhead baffle and replacement of the central skylight to allow daylight to permeate the interior, ensuring that the space is experienced as Rothko originally intended.
Envisioned as the gateway to the expanded campus, a new Visitor Welcome House immediately to the North of the Chapel opens in March. The building serves as a new gathering point for groups and guided tours, and offers interactive educational opportunities as well as an expanded gift shop and bookstore. The Welcome House’s design reflects the values of hospitality and inclusiveness integral to the founding vision of the Chapel. The relocation of visitor services from the Chapel vestibule to the new Welcome House relieves pressure on the Chapel and allows it to function purely as a place of spiritual renewal and reflection.
David Leslie, Executive Director of the Rothko Chapel, explains: “The expanded campus gives us the space we need to welcome the tens of thousands of people of all faiths and backgrounds
who visit each year from all parts of the world, and allows us to convene community leaders and members of the public to wrestle with the questions of social justice and human rights.”
Central to the Opening Spaces project are sustainability plans and efforts to ensure the landmark’s future for generations to come. Houston-based structural engineering firm Cardno and construction firm Linbeck worked to devise a method of augmenting existing structural walls with steel reinforcement in order to increase the building’s resiliency and eliminate future risk associated with weather-related incidents. A new Energy House relocates the Chapel’s mechanical and control systems from below ground to a second-story facility with a backup chiller and generator to help ensure environmental stability. The redesigned landscape, by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, increases the amount of green space for visitors to enjoy, while reducing susceptibility to flooding and other weather events.
The landscape design extends the tranquility of the Chapel into the landscape and fosters a sense of sanctuary. The plan removed all non-essential structures from the site and park’s boundary, reaffirming the powerful relationship between the Chapel and Barnett Newman’s sculpture, Broken Obelisk, that rises above the reflecting pool on the Plaza. The sculpture was dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1971 – the same year as the Chapel’s founding – and represents the Rothko Chapel’s commitment to human rights and social justice. Broken Obelisk is inextricably linked to the Chapel; together the two structures represent the binary of contemplation and action that lies at the heart of the Rothko Chapel’s mission.
A new arrival sequence guides the visitor to the sacred core through a series of calm, shaded landscaped areas that allow the eye to adjust by providing increasing shade in anticipation of the transition from the bright Texas sunlight to the Chapel’s interior. The path out of the Chapel brings visitors through a range of tree-filtered spaces in preparation for re-engaging with the city. Two balanced landscape blocks provide space for gathering and other group activities to the south and on the new campus to the north.
Christopher Rothko, Opening Spaces Chairman reflects: “As we approach the reopening of the restored Chapel in the months leading up to our 50th anniversary, we have a truly momentous opportunity to celebrate all who contributed to the building, design and stewardship of the Rothko Chapel, while ensuring their legacy for the next 50 years and beyond. The Chapel was built with a vision that brought together modern art and a sacred space to promote human unity, solidarity, justice and peace. The universality of this vision is very relevant for us today and I believe will remain so for generations to come.”
The Chapel’s reopening in June anticipates one of its signature events, the Óscar Romero Award, a biennial award that recognizes courageous, grassroots, human rights advocacy. The 2020 award focuses on climate justice, and the Chapel’s honorees exemplify a commitment to engage in climate advocacy in the face of enormous economic and political pressures. The Óscar Romero Award serves as the launch for a series of programming that celebrates and reflects upon the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Chapel’s dedication.
Additional construction during the second phase of Opening Spaces includes the development of an Administration and Archives Building, a relocated and renovated Guest House, a Meditation Garden, and a Program Center with outdoor plaza. The Program Center will become the primary home for the Chapel’s broad range of educational programs, including lectures, symposia, and concerts, and will provide space for new partnerships and expanded community outreach.
About Rothko Chapel
The Rothko Chapel is a contemplative space that successfully interconnects art, spirituality and compassionate action through a broad array of public programs and community initiatives. It is open to the public every day of the year at no charge. Founded by Houston philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil, the Chapel was dedicated in 1971 as an interfaith, nonsectarian sanctuary, and invites visitors from around the world to experience the power and sanctity of Mark Rothko’s monumental paintings. The Rothko Chapel is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to create opportunities for spiritual growth and dialogue that illuminate our shared humanity and inspire action leading to a world in which all are treated with dignity and respect.