Renewal of a Manhattan Retreat

Volume 52, Issue 1 :: Judith Dupré

Nevelson sculptures before restoration

Nevelson sculptures, seen here before restoration, are mounted on the walls. The chapel is the artist’s only remaining, fully intact sculptural environment.
Photo: @Thomas Magno Photography

Louise Nevelson’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd at Saint Peter’s Church is a singular treasure by many measures—as a work of art, as part of a private-public partnership, and as a retreat in the heart of Manhattan that is open to all. It was the fruit of a series of unlikely alliances between a larger-than-life artist, an entrepreneurial pastor, a global financial giant, and New York City itself. Today, more than four decades after it opened in 1977, the chapel is undergoing a major restoration and renewal.

The Cross of the Good Shepherd and three suspended columns

The Cross of the Good Shepherd and a grouping of three suspended columns adorn the altar wall. On the far left, a floor-to-ceiling window opens to East 54 Street.
Photo: @Thomas Magno Photography

Nevelson (1899-1988) was a Jewish émigré who grew up in Maine and came into her own in New York City. She was undaunted by the demands of a Christian commission, having long rejected sectarianism and all “forms of so-called reality,” believing instead in art’s power to return us to the “livingness of our lives.”1 Nevelson designed the chapel in its entirety—its plan and nine sculptural assemblages, including a dramatic white and gold cross. She worked with Lella and Massimo Vignelli to create the chapel’s furnishings. Works of pure abstraction, untethered from time, place, or creed, the sculptural assemblages release the spiritual imagination and allow visitors to read into them what they will. Monochromatic, they have a quiet presence that slips in and out of one’s awareness. A particular grace is the chapel’s accessibility: open daily and centrally located on a major subway line, it encourages mini, impromptu retreats to refresh one’s “livingness.”

Saint Peter’s then-pastor since 1966, Dr. Ralph Peterson, had a faith in people and in the arts. He invigorated the old-line, Germanic church, dropping “Lutheran” from its name in the spirit of inclusivity and, notably, creating an arts ministry that hosted such luminaries as Duke Ellington, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Edward Albee, Elaine de Kooning, and Willem de Kooning. Still, Saint Peter’s and urban churches everywhere were losing their congregants to the suburbs. In 1972 the First National City Bank (then Citicorp, now Citigroup) and the church entered into a financial arrangement that allowed both to have ownership of the land that the church’s 1903 neo-Gothic structure at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 54th Street stood upon, and where the tower would rise. Hugh Stubbins & Associates, in association with Emery Roth & Sons, designed Citicorp Center (now 601 Lexington Avenue), which includes the church, the Citicorp tower, a six-story mixed-use building, and generous public amenities. The Vignellis designed Saint Peter’s interiors and furnishings.

The chapel’s double doors

The chapel’s double doors lead to multiple communal areas and to the main sanctuary, which were planned for maximum flexibility and versatility.
Photo: @Thomas Magno Photography

Pastor Peterson envisioned a new kind of urban church, one as welcoming as a “living room,” an oasis in midtown for people of any faith or none at all.2 That sense of spiritual and civic hospitality is affirmed throughout the church. Its large baptismal font, for instance, is placed by glass doors leading to an outdoor plaza, from where it can be seen by passersby (many of whom venture inside). Similarly welcoming is the chapel’s floor-to-ceiling window that fronts the sidewalk at street level.

From the start, Saint Peter’s was planned as a “Theater of Grace,” where religion and art, estranged in the modern world, would come together again.3 A 1965 New York City order earmarked a percentage of new construction costs for art, and the chapel was the logical recipient for it. Easley Hamner, Stubbins’ supervising architect, introduced Peterson to Nevelson. The unlikely pair—a cherubic man of God and a septuagenarian artist with a taste for exotic headdresses, floor-length furs, and sets of mink eyelashes applied in triplicate—hit it off immediately.

Beneath Manhattan’s legendary grit and chaos is its true wonder: a populace of 8.5 million, speaking more than 200 languages, that co-exists and shares, consciously or not, an understanding of the interdependence of all people and things. In this regard, Nevelson’s art and working methods tell a quintessentially New York story: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That resonated with Peterson, who once described his vision of heaven as “the streets of New York City.”4

For much of her career, Nevelson worked in wood, typically scraps scavenged from the city’s streets and assembled into sculptural reliefs. Her biographer, Laurie Wilson, draws a parallel between the artist’s penchant for cast-offs and her experience of being disenfranchised—as a refugee, a Jew, and a female artist. She harmonized their myriad parts and varied topographies with an overall coating of black, white, or (occasionally) gold paint, transforming discards into works of surpassing grace and mystery. Her command of light and deep shadow offered “something not easily found in North America: the impact of carved wood and stone in a twilit Gothic cathedral,” as art critic John Russell wrote in her 1988 New York Times obituary. Nevelson built the chapel’s largest pieces in her cabinetry shop and placed smaller elements in situ. She painted them with white alkyd paint, unfortunately, on unprepared surfaces. Over the decades, well-intentioned restorations covered the original surfaces in thick, uneven layers of paint that continued to chip, bubble, and flake.

State-of-the-art restoration technique

State-of-the-art restoration techniques will reverse decades of deterioration and preserve the artist’s original vision and working methods.
Photo: © Leslie dela Vega

A multiphase restoration, begun in 2017, called for the removal of those added paint layers. Antiquated ductwork that blew hot and cold air directly on the artworks, the lighting system, a window, and a skylight will be replaced or modified. For educational purposes, the restoration process is being recorded and closely documented. Post-restoration, Saint Peter’s will create a technologically enhanced experience of the chapel that will provide virtual access to those who might never physically enter the space.

Open during the first stage of the restoration, the chapel closed briefly while new HVAC was installed. It is scheduled to reopen to the public this spring and will remain open until the restoration is completed this fall. A re-dedication ceremony is planned for December 2019.

The chapel’s conservation, maintenance, and future programming are part of an ongoing $5.7 million campaign, which thus far has received support from foundations and individual donors, as well as major grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Nearly a third of the budget is earmarked for renewing the public’s awareness of the chapel as a place of both refuge and inspiration. New cultural and educational initiatives will resonate with Nevelson’s expansive vision and build on Saint Peter’s rich history of jazz, theater, dance, literary, and visual arts programming.

Beyond structures or places designated as “sacred,” there exists a more vital theophany that occurs whenever and wherever people encounter the living God. Nevelson Chapel’s bold premise is that the fusion of art and religion is transformative and can open new paths into that living communion. “Every man prays in his own language,” as Duke Ellington said, “and there is no language that God does not understand.”

The chapel is housed inside Saint Peter’s Church

The chapel is housed inside Saint Peter’s Church, finished in granite, giving it a rocklike appearance that befits its namesake. Its sloping structure breaks with the street grid beneath the aluminum-clad tower—more subtle signals of its unique identity.
Photo: © Leslie dela Vega

NOTES

  1. Louise Nevelson, Dawns + Dusks: Taped Conversations with Diana MacKown, Diana MacKown, ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), p. 153.
  2. Laurie Wilson, Louise Nevelson: Light & Shadow (New York: Thames + Hudson, 2016), p. 362.
  3. Mark Sumner Harvey, “Jazz Ministry in Manhattan: The Shepherd, the Night Flock, and the First Church of Jazz,” Religion and Art in the Heart of Modern Manhattan: Saint Peter’s Church and the Louise Nevelson Chapel, Aaron Rosen, ed. (London: Ashgate, 2016), p. 162.
  4. Grace Glueck, “White on White: Louise Nevelson’s ‘Gift to the Universe,’” New York Times, Oct. 22, 1976, p. 29.

Nevelson Chapel’s multidisciplinary restoration team includes Objects Conservation Studio, Kostow Greenwood Architects, ADS Engineers, Watson & Henry Associates, Loop Lighting, Sustainable Museums, Vandersall Collective, and Works-In-Progress. Visit nevelsonchapel.org for updates and invitations to events open to the public.

The author serves on the Nevelson Chapel Legacy Council and on Faith & Form’s editorial advisory board.