It’s not unusual for visitors setting foot inside the Rothko Chapel for the first time to have a strong reaction to the space. The nondenominational sanctuary, now 41 years old, is a simple but powerful place. So powerful, that Executive Director Emilee Dawn Whitehurst remembers when its peaceful interior almost derailed a planned lecture.
“We brought a speaker who was a lawyer for detainees in Guantanamo, and he was going to talk about conditions there,” Whitehurst said. “He walked into the chapel and his face lost all color. He said ‘I can’t give a lecture here. The things I’m going to talk about are so hard, and this is such a peaceful place.’ I said that part of what makes this place so holy is that it enables people to hear hard truths, and cultivate the fortitude to respond with compassion…fortunately he did do the lecture.”
When Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil commissioned the chapel, they hoped it would both make an impression on visitors and act as a tranquil environment for people of all beliefs. Abstract painter Mark Rothko created 14 custom paintings that hang in the chapel and draw visitors and art admirers—roughly 70,000 visitors from 85 different countries come to see the chapel annually.
Rothko also helped design the interior space and when visitors enter they walk into an entire sensory experience. Rothko’s dark-hued canvases are lit by natural light coming in from a skylight. Once your eyes adjust to the light the subtleties of the paintings emerge. Dark stone floors and simple wooden benches give the space an almost other-worldly feel.
Outside the chapel Barnett Newman’s sculpture Broken Obelisk is a powerful tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King. These elements haven’t gone unrecognized; in 2001 the chapel officially made it into National Register of Historic Places, a feat for a destination not yet 50 years old.
The chapel is about both contemplation and action, Whitehurst said. While the peacefulness of physical space and the art inside allow contemplation, the programming activates the space and hopefully inspires people to make change in their communities.
“The convictions of the founders were very much that reverence of the holy is connected to our capacity to care for fellow human beings,” Whitehurst said. “Commitment to human rights comes out of reverence, and the feeling that spirituality that’s not engaged in the world is meaningless.”
To that end, the chapel’s history has been intertwined with LGBT rights in the Houston area. During the beginning of the AIDS crisis, it acted as a place where people could hold memorial services and feel welcomed when other faith communities had rejected them. While the chapel doesn’t conduct services, people are welcome to use it as a place to hold private services. It also plays a happier role in the LGBT community, hosting weddings for couples of all sexual orientations.
The Rothko Chapel also holds an ongoing series of programs and lectures, many focused on human rights issues locally and abroad. January and February will bring, among others, a New Year’s Day meditation, a Bach concerto, and a lecture on the Second Vatican Council’s positive legacies.
“The Menils were so important to the history of Houston, and this chapel was a major piece of their work,” Whitehurst said. “In some ways the chapel represents Houston coming to an awareness of itself as a diverse city that has a cosmopolitan outlook and embraces tolerance.”