Renovations Continue at Houston’s Rothko Chapel

Phase two of the $42 million restoration and expansion project will add new buildings and enhance public access.

Apr 23, 2024By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies
Rothko Chapel interior in Houston, Texas, via Architecture Research Office


Phase two of the Opening Spaces restoration project has officially begun at the Rothko Chapel campus in Houston, Texas. Built in the late 1960s and early 70s, the site functions both as a non-denominational chapel and an important work of modern art, housing fourteen site-specific paintings by Mark Rothko. The $42 million expansion and renovation plan will improve accessibility and add new buildings for programming, gathering, and contemplation. Construction is projected to last until 2026.


Restoration Will Facilitate “More Enriching Experiences” at the Chapel

Rendering of the Phase 2 renovation plan of the Rothko Chapel campus, via Architecture Research Office


For phase two of the Opening Spaces project, the New York-based Architecture Research Office (ARO) and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW) joined forces to design several new indoor and outdoor spaces across the North Campus of the Rothko Chapel site. These include an administrative and archives building, program center, guest bungalow, outdoor plaza, and meditation garden. For the first time, the expansion will facilitate public access into the library and archives of the Rothko Chapel, complete with a professional support staff.


“The Chapel has never had the room that we need to fulfill our dual mission,” said David Leslie, executive director of the Rothko Chapel. “The Opening Spaces project is not only about creating spaces that enable us to welcome more visitors, but also facilitating more enriching experiences of the art, deeper contemplation, and the social justice-focused community engagement embedded in our founders’ vision, which brings people together in dialogue and reflection across the many boundaries that separate us.”


Phase One Already Restored the Chapel Building

Chapel exterior by Elizabeth Felicella, via Architectural Digest


Each year, the Rothko Chapel welcomes over 100,000 visitors from over 100 countries. In 2016, the institution announced plans to meet growing demand in the form of a two-phase, multi-year restoration and expansion project. Phase one of the project, which focused on the Rothko Chapel building, began in 2019. The renovated chapel building reopened to the public in 2021.

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ARO partner Stephen Cassell said the chapel renovation “was about strengthening the original intent of the experience.” It involved the installation of a new louvered skylight with 280 reflective aluminum blades, each individually positioned to distribute natural light evenly onto the paintings hung on the perimeter walls. Phase one also added new A/V systems, lighting, and structural reinforcements to the Rothko Chapel building.


50 Years of Rothko Chapel History

Chapel interior, via Architecture Research Office


In 1964, art collectors John and Dominique de Menil, along with a rotating team of architects, commissioned Mark Rothko to create a meditative space filled with his paintings in Houston. The unusual shape of the building—which underwent several redesigns thanks to Rothko’s persistence—is an octagon inscribed in a Greek cross. Inside the chapel, fourteen site-specific Abstract Expressionist paintings by Rothko in varying shades of black dominate the neutral walls, surrounded by moveable benches to facilitate meditation. According to Dominique de Menil, “In a world cluttered with images, only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.”


Mark Rothko died in 1970 before the completion of the chapel building in 1971. Since it first opened, the Rothko Chapel has served as a popular place for individual contemplation, community gathering, and art appreciation.

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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.