Houston’s Rothko Chapel, freshly restored, offers a welcome sanctuary of contemplation

From Click2Houston News: 9-24-20

The chapel’s executive director explains what visitors can expect when the museum reopens Thursday

This article first appeared on Texas Highways. Click here to view the article in its original format.

Since 1971, the nondenominational Rothko Chapel has served as a quiet oasis for contemplation amid Houston’s bustling Montrose neighborhood. The octagonal brick building, commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil and designed by architects Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry, contains 14 large, dark paintings by Mark Rothko that at first glance appear nearly monochromatic, but upon closer inspection reveal a variety of subtle hues.

For much of its existence, however, the chapel has struggled to capture the artist’s original intent. That has changed with the completion of the first phase of a $30 million comprehensive restoration and campus expansion project, which has enlivened the somber interior, enlarged the campus, added a new welcoming center and shop, and improved the grounds. (A second phase will include the addition of the Administration and Archives Building, a relocated guest house, a meditation garden, and a program center.)

Visitors can witness the new transformations when the chapel reopens to the public on Sept. 24. We talked with Executive Director David Leslie about what visitors can expect.

How has the chapel changed through the restoration project? Part of Mark Rothko’s goal was to engage with the elements—the sun, clouds, seasons. When the chapel opened in 1971, it had a skylight, but the light was too intense and washed out the paintings. That led to a series of interventions, like baffles and scrims, to cover the skylight and mute the light. In 2000, glass partitions were added in the entryway foyer to reduce humidity levels inside. During the restoration, overseen by Architecture Research Office with lighting design firm George Sexton Associates, we restored the chapel architecturally and existentially back to what Rothko had intended. The partitions have been removed from the foyer, and there’s a skylight with louvres and a very light scrim. There’s really not much distance between you and the sky and the clouds. Through this process, light transforms the interior space of the sanctuary and gives a new appreciation for Rothko’s art. You can see the brushstrokes.

What are some of the changes to the grounds? Visitors will see a lot of changes to the grounds, which have been redesigned by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. There used to be bamboo around the reflecting pool, and now there’s Savannah holly. Trees for Houston donated 13 oak trees that are being planted along the perimeter. There is a grove of river birches, benches scattered across the lawn, and places for meditation and picnics.

What are the new protocols for visiting the chapel? We’re going to a timed-ticketed system, with a limited number of people per 30-minute session. It will still be free, but you’ll have to make an online reservation. Normally, the chapel is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but we’re going to have a shorter week and shorter hours [Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.]. We’ll have safety protocols, and you’ll have to wear a mask.