Spiritual Spaces

Welcome Back to the Rothko

The faith-inclusive chapel reopened to the public at the end of September after a 19-month restoration.

By Rebekah Kibodeaux October 2, 2020

Revered as a place of connectivity and community, the Rothko Chapel has offered visitors from near and far a quiet, peaceful place to reflect and renew for almost 50 years. Yet, during this time of global panic, visitors couldn’t seek solace in the dark depths of the chapel’s Mark Rothko paintings or its meditative grounds as the faith-inclusive space entered the last phase of its massive, $30-million restoration.

Since the pandemic hit the Houston area, staff at the Rothko Chapel have felt enormous urgency to reopen as soon as they could safely do so, says Executive Director David Leslie. That moment finally arrived at the end of last month when the chapel reopened its doors to the public after a 1.5-year-long wait. And it was not a moment too soon. “The chapel is always relevant,” says Leslie. “The human need for reflection and introspection is universal, but never so important as in a moment like the one we’re living through.”

The new chapel skylight. 

Those feelings of comfort and serenity that have always encompassed a visit to the de Menil-commissioned chapel will still be there when visitors return, as will Rothko’s 14 mammoth canvases. The only difference? They might actually see the abstract painter’s works of art better. One of the biggest adjustments to the octagonal sanctum has been a change in the way Rothko’s paintings are illuminated.

The new system from George Sexton Associates, which replaces the old tent-like baffle, better matches the lighting Rothko used when he painted the canvases back in the early ’70s. The changes “greatly enhance the visitor experience and meditative quality of the chapel,” says Leslie. “I think people seeing the paintings today will be struck by them anew.”

Visitors will also notice an enhanced spiritual environment in the gardens before entering and after exiting the chapel. Thomas Woltz, the landscape architect for the project, created a landscape that would act as a transition to help adjust the eye and the mind to the experience of the chapel. “Making a place where people could sit, embraced by a garden, to reflect on what they had seen and what they were feeling would complete the experience,” adds Leslie.

Among those new details are walls of greenery, which create a layer of privacy between the reflecting pool and the bustling traffic in the surrounding Montrose neighborhood. Of course, there’s also a variety of new buildings on the chapel’s campus, including the Suzanne Deal Booth Welcome House.

Image: Paul Hester

The biggest difference from visits of old is that a timed-entry schedule has been set to ensure guests stay socially distanced. Because of the space’s size, only 15 people are allowed on the campus at once. But hey, tickets are still free. Changes have also been made to the chapel’s programming, thanks to both the construction and the ongoing pandemic. With virtual events, they’ve been able to connect with, educate, and collaborate with the same community that once attended the chapel’s programs in person. Says Leslie, “To cancel these events at a time when our global community needs connection and support more than ever would have been unthinkable."

This year has seen many transformations, but at the Rothko Chapel, each change has invigorated an already cherished institution, making it ready for greater things in both the city of Houston and beyond.

Rothko Chapel, 3900 Yupon St. More info and tickets at rothkochapel.org.

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