SINCE THE ROTHKO CHAPEL'S opening in 1971, Houstonians have entered the tomblike Montrose sanctuary seeking serenity in the stillness of its gray walls and the depths of Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings. But for the past year we’ve had to do without the beloved space that has seen us through moments of both joy and sorrow.
The chapel—located next to The Menil Collection and itself commissioned by the de Menils—has been closed while its Rothko-designed octagonal structure and grounds undergo a $30 million, multiphase restoration slated for completion around 2023. The project, aptly named Opening Spaces and being overseen by Architecture Research Office, is not the first time the chapel has undergone reconstructive surgery. In the 1990s the sanctuary underwent some renovations, which included treatment of the artist’s 14 mammoth canvases for damage and discoloration, as well as repairs done to the grounds’ Barnett Newman sculpture, “Broken Obelisk,” in 2016.
The first phase of Opening Spaces wraps this June, when the chapel and its plaza reopen. In the meantime, as of this month, the new Visitor Welcome House, one of several structures being built across the street from the chapel, will make its debut.
What other changes have been made or are on the horizon? Here are six things to know:
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Ever feel like the Rothko was just a bit too dark? You weren’t imagining it. The building has long struggled with lighting. Rothko painted the chapel’s canvases in his New York studio under a skylight and insisted a similar feature be incorporated into the sanctuary’s design. But he’d never visited Texas—or experienced Houston’s scorching sun. Immediately after the chapel opened in 1971, “it was very clear that there was just too much light flooding into the space,” explains Ashley Clemmer, director of programs and community engagement.
So over the years a series of devices, including umbrella-like baffles, have been employed to protect Rothko’s artwork. But those same structures have often cast the paintings in shadow, making them appear darker and the chapel itself smaller. “With today’s technology we’re able to go back to the original concept and design of the chapel and fully realize it in a way that we couldn’t in 1971,” says Clemmer. Lighting designer George Sexton of George Sexton Associates has devised a skylight that uses UV-reducing glass and louvers to filter light, as well as a system of projectors to illuminate the paintings in darker hours.
In keeping up with regulations put in place following Hurricane Harvey, the Rothko Chapel now has an underground water-detention system that will manage runoff and prevent flooding. There’s also a backup generator, stored in the new energy facility behind the visitors’ center, that will keep the chapel at the ideal temperature for the paintings even if the city loses power.
HERE’S A BRICK, THERE’S A BRICK
The Rothko's design features a continuous brick façade, but after five decades of wear and tear, some of those bricks need replacing; others had to be removed last year when the restoration team added steel reinforcements to shore up the structure’s stability. To keep its seamless look, the original brick manufacturer, St. Joe Brick Works, Inc. in Louisiana, has been commissioned to make more.
As every good Montrosian knows, the streets surrounding the Menil, and the Rothko, are lined with sweet little gray bungalows. The five such structures on the Rothko campus must be removed to make space for new buildings, including a program center and administrative and archives building, complete with an archive and a library research space, to be implemented during the latter stages of the restoration. While it’s a shame to see the bungalows go, there is a silver lining: One will be moved and used as a guest house, and staff hope to either sell or upcycle the others.
FULL STREAM AHEAD
The Rothko typically attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, but since the chapel itself can accommodate only about 200, guests occasionally have been turned away at events. The new program center will be able to stream events taking place inside the chapel, effectively doubling its capacity. The idea is to create “that sense of space where people are not feeling like they are on top of each other,” says Executive Director David Leslie. “Because the whole point of the campus is to get you feeling away from that.”
IT IS EASY BEING GREEN
The bamboo next to the plaza's reflecting pool will be replaced with savannah hollies; some 300 birch trees will be planted in groves on the grounds, creating spaces for privacy; and a new meditation garden will eventually take root between the Rothko and the Menil Park. These landscaping elements, designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, are “a way to be a good steward within the neighborhood that we’re in,” says Leslie. “It’s a way to enhance the livability of the neighborhood and contribute to its well-being.”