One of the greatest questions in design and art history has been mulled over since the early 20th century: what makes a building, interior or piece of art worth saving?
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For the most part, the answer unfortunately comes down to personal preference and lobbying. However, with hindsight being 20/20 and a broader understanding of the importance of art and design flourishing through internet communication, today there is far more consideration and action put into preserving art and architecture.
For the Nevelson Chapel at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan, NY, this renewed appreciation and support for art and interiors has been a boon.
Louise Nevelson, “Chapel of the Good Shepherd” (1977). The artist’s only intact complete sculptural environment always open to the public.
The small chapel on the upper level of the midtown church and public facility—originally called the Citigroup Center, completed in 1977 and landmarked in 2017—houses the last installation by modernist artist Louise Nevelson that remains in its original location. Named Chapel of the Good Shepherd, the work has received two remarkable grants – a $250,000 gift from the Henry Luce Foundation, and $350,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections.
Together, the grants will go toward the $5.7 million restoration initiative, which has also received support from foundations and individual donors.
The restoration is being done by a multidisciplinary team, including Jane Greenwood of Kostow Greenwood Architects, Michael Ambrosino of ADS Engineers, Michael Henry of Watson & Henry Associates, Ryoko Nakamura of Loop Lighting and Sarah Sutton of Sustainable Museums.
Louise Nevelson’s Life and Legacy
Born in what is present-day Ukraine in 1899, Louise Nevelson (born Leah Berliawsky) emigrated to Rockland, Maine, in 1905 as a child with her family. At the age of nine, Nevelson saw a plaster cast of Joan of Arc in the Rockland Public Library, which inspired her to pursue art. By the 1930s, Nevelson was working as a muralist and had worked as an assistant for Mexican painter Diego Rivera.
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Throughout her career as an artist, Nevelson utilized found objects in her works. While using unconventional materials gained her acclaim, her monochromatic wooden sculptures are her most recognizable works, being housed in parts in museums around the world.
The Chapel of the Good Shepherd is her last remaining full instillation still viewable in its original setting. Nevelson died on April 17, 1988 at the age of 88.
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History of the Nevelson Chapel
Installed in 1977, Nevelson’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd is a series of three-dimensional wood sculptures depicting cornerstones of Christian ideologies in abstract forms, including the Crucifixion of Christ and the Last Supper.
Originally funded by Citibank as a public and faith-based community center, Saint Peter’s sits in Midtown Manhattan with the Nevelson Chapel on the ground floor. As a Jewish woman, Nevelson’s participation in the project is particularly notable in that the purpose was to create a welcoming environment no matter the occupant’s faith.
In creating the chapel’s work, Nevelson wanted the space to become an “oasis of silence,” explained Pastor Jared Stahler, reverend of the Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church. “Originally, she wanted it to be called The Chapel of Transfiguration because she wanted people to be transformed by the space.”
View of entrance to "Chapel of the Good Shepherd" with Nevelson's “Cross of the Resurrection” at left and Nevelson's “Grapes and Wheat” lintel over door.
Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and Martin Friedman Senior Curator of Madison Square Art at the Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York City, has said of the chapel, “As a place of worship, the site became known for its spiritual humanism, a deep sanctity that abstract art can achieve by pervading a space.”
The work in the small chapel has received acclaim since its opening. Christopher Rothko called it “Marvelously dynamic, mesmerically placid. A womb for the soul.” Willie Cole said, “Nevelson’s work is like 1940’s bebop jazz; built on the notes of familiar melodies but totally new to the ear. Her use of recycled materials, repetition and monochrome finishes blazed a trail that I walk along to this day.”
While the work itself was futuristic in form, the building technology of 1977 has left the work under corrosive stressors.
During the renovations, LED lights will be installed along the same footprint of the original bulbs, allowing the work to be viewed as it was originally, but decreasing the heat and amount of light damage on the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. The HVAC system was originally installed so that the registers were around the perimeter of the room, pushing air directly onto the work. Restoration will allow the system to be moved away from the works.
The result of the environment has primarily caused peeling of the white paint used on the work. However, as restoration began, conservator Sarah Sutton found additional issues that are common amongst old works – previous conservation efforts were done in ways that are no longer considered best practices. As Sutton began to clean the dust off of the work, she found earlier conservation efforts included painting over the work (without cleaning it first) to make it look renewed. The conservation and original paints have since fused together so that she and her team of students from Pratt Institute are not entirely sure where the original work ends and the new begins.
“We have done analysis and found that the two paints have merged somewhat,” said Sutton, “so we can’t remove the first layer of restoration paint. That’s been a real difficulty in knowing when to stop.”
Although current conservation efforts sometimes include painting a work in the assumed original color, Sutton’s restoration proposal in 2012 suggested a more holistic approach using research on the paint, wood and methods Nevelson would have used.
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“I was lucky that I could have time to research and see how other Louise Nevelson instillations had been treated and Louise’s approach to the painted surface,” explained Sutton. Unlike other restoration projects, Sutton ultimately decided to leave the Chapel of the Good Shepherd and work on it in the space rather than have it dissembled and brought to a laboratory.
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Stewards of History
For Saint Peter’s and Pastor Stahler, the importance of maintaining Nevelson’s artwork is paramount. “We can’t do this [artwork] today,” Stahler said. “There are so many elements—these important moments in history—that have to come together to make this happen, many of which you don’t wish on anyone.”
Pastor Stahler reiterated the importance of not only technology, but social and political realities that have to come together to create the inspiration and technique behind pieces of artwork. Those influences change as time passes so while artwork can be copied, it cannot be replicated in the same manner.
Therefore, the restoration of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd is more than bringing a work of art back to its original form; it’s about maintaining the cultural and historical relevance of how the piece came to be.
The chapel will be open to the public in Spring 2019 while conservation is underway. More information can be found at NevelsonChapel.org.
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