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Restoring Louise Nevelson’s sanctuary of stillness in Midtown

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An urban respite amid the chaos of Midtown East is undergoing an extensive renovation

View of entrance to the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, with Nevelson’s “Cross of the Resurrection” at left and “Grapes and Wheat” lintel over door.
Thomas Magno Photography

Nestled below the cantilevered tower of Manhattan’s Citigroup Center is a sanctuary of stillness. Since its 1977 completion, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd in Saint Peter’s Church, designed by artist Louise Nevelson, has been an urban respite. Its walls are adorned with layered wooden sculptures painted in a flat white, as if old New England churches were salvaged and transmuted into angular modern art. The subdued tones combined with the art’s exuberant energy make for a transporting city oasis.

But the chapel has begun to show its age: Paint has peeled from the dynamic assemblages; misguided restorations disrupted the monochromatic intent of the room. Now the chapel is undergoing a $5.7 million restoration initiative. On a recent morning, Pastor Jared Stahler of Saint Peter’s, and Jane Greenwood, a principal with Kostow Greenwood Architects, which is working on the restoration, discussed this delicate conservation process and its respect to Nevelson’s vision.

“It’s not simply an environment, it’s an experience of sanctuary, of silence, of light,” Stahler says. “The underlying reason for doing this [restoration] is we want people to have this experience 50 years from now.”

When Citicorp planned its headquarters—located between 53rd and 54th streets and Lexington and Park avenues—in the 1970s, New York City was on the edge of bankruptcy, and, amid the oil crisis, there were few major construction projects. On the site of its proposed complex for the Citicorp Center (today’s Citigroup Center), the 1905 Lutheran Church of Saint Peter, at the corner of 54th and Lexington, stood in the way. The bank approached the parish with a large sum of money to acquire the property and tear the church down.

Led by Reverend Ralph Peterson, the congregation of Saint Peter’s, although dwindling, had embraced the arts with jazz vespers and poetry readings. As Laurie Wilson writes in Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow, when the bank offered the demolition money, Peterson “saw it as ‘a fantastic opportunity.’”

“‘Take it all down,’ he urged his congregation, ‘and use the property as a level to build the kind of urban church the times call for.’” Not only would the old structure be destroyed, but, through Peterson’s negotiations, the bank “agreed to set aside $9 million dollars to pay for the construction [of a new church], and the deal was done. And part of the deal was that the church would be a separate free-standing structure.”

Designed by Hugh Stubbins and W. Easley Hamner, both of Stubbins Associates (the architect of record for the complex), the reborn church is an imposing granite-lined structure with a sloped roof echoing that of the adjacent skyscraper. Natural light pours into the main sanctuary, for which Massimo and Lella Vignelli designed the pews, altar, and liturgical objects.

Peterson wanted an interfaith chapel to be part of the new church, and for this he approached one of the country’s leading sculptors, Louise Nevelson. She’d created a 1970 bimah wall for Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, Long Island, and a 1973 exterior sculpture for Temple Israel of Boston, yet this was her first sacred environment, and a Christian one at that. When questioned about choosing the Jewish, Ukrainian-born Nevelson, Peterson reportedly responded: “God is not a Lutheran. I don’t think the background of the artist is as important as the inspiration.”

Nevelson designed and constructed the chapel, funded by industrialist Erol Beker as a separate donation from the rest of the church, between 1976 and 1977. It is a haven of stillness, with subtle spiritual references. From the arrangement of the ash wood pews, to the sanctuary lamp holder—now smoke-stained from years of candles—Nevelson addressed every detail of the 28-by-21 foot space.

Louise Nevelson’s only intact, complete sculptural environment is always open to the public.
Thomas Magno Photography

On each of the five-sided chapel’s walls are her layered sculptures of painted wood, some constructed as friezes. The monumental “Sky Vestment” is a triangular piece that stretches from floor to ceiling with overlapping circles and slender slivers that curve into points, all pulling the eye upward. The east wall’s “Frieze of the Apostles” has a more orderly form, with its grid of 12 frames brimming with wood cutouts, suggesting the 12 disciples’ bountiful ministry. Other sculptures are smaller and three-dimensional. A trio of columns, suspended below a skylight so they just barely move in the air, are near the south wall’s altar, evoking the Holy Trinity in their number. Behind the altar is the only piece to have a non-white color, with the “Cross of the Good Shepherd” involving a luminous rectangle of gold leaf behind a central long line of staggered white abstract shapes.

Nevelson even conceptualized the vestments worn by clergy in the space. With fashion designer Arnold Scaasi, she created a chasuble with a pectoral cross. Nevelson had built two chapel maquettes—one midnight blue, one white—and while Saint Peter’s went with white, they adapted the blue model’s cross for this vestment. “We have found a very old and very grainy photograph of [the chasuble], but neither the vestment nor the maquette exists,” Stahler says.

Nevertheless, aside from one section of an element on the “Frieze of the Apostles” that will be reconstructed, the chapel is intact. The challenge is how to keep it open to the public, with the updated infrastructure that foot traffic requires.

“The vessel that is here to protect it worked in 1977, but 40 years later any building, any interior, would need a renovation,” says Greenwood. “Through the investigation with the conservator it was clear that the humidity level in this room was affecting the paint delaminating from the unprimed wood. So we looked at this as preservation architects, and considered the fact that this space was designed by Nevelson, so how her art was placed, and how it’s seen, was critical.”

The restoration team designed a new system for heating, cooling, and humidity control that will relocate vents currently positioned over the artwork. Light fixtures will be updated with energy-efficient LEDs, equipped with presets for different times of day. The skylight and a window that illuminates the west wall’s towering “Sky Vestment” will be replaced with UV glass, allowing for a rhythm of light that shifts with the weather.

All of the sculptures are being cleaned of restoration paint that covered Nevelson’s original white coloring and obscured her aesthetic decisions, such as leaving visible a joining of two pieces that gives them a found object quality. While Nevelson often used discarded material like shattered furniture, here, shapes were cut from cabinet-grade wood. This wood was never pre-treated, resulting in the alkyd paint’s deterioration within Nevelson’s lifetime. For the all-covering restoration paint, a water-soluble solution was employed, which merged with and discolored the original coloring.

“Once all the restoration paint is removed from all the sculptures, we will fill losses,” explains conservator Sarah Nunberg “We’re finding that there is minimal loss in the original paint. It seems like one reason that they did paint the [chapel’s sculptures] was because the original surfaces were dirty, but it seemed instead of cleaning the surface of paint they just painted right on that, so that merged the dirt onto the restoration paint.”

Nunberg is working with a team of Pratt Institute students, a paintings conservator, and a Pratt chemist. It’s a painstaking process; she noted that it took almost four weeks of full-time work over the summer to clean the south wall’s “Cross of the Resurrection.” After the 1977 paint is exposed to air and light, the restoration team will have a clearer idea of its color. Then they will be able to compare samples to paint the walls in the closest match to this shade of white.

The three small columns by the altar and “Grapes and Wheat Lintel” that hangs over the door have been relocated for conservation, but the other sculptures, built onto the walls, will be left in situ. In mid-October, they will be carefully boxed with protective plywood and wrapped before the installation of the new lighting and HVAC. The chapel is planned to reopen in spring 2019, then will undergo an extensive art restoration.

“Once [the HVAC] work is done, we will take the boxes off, we will clean the other sculptures, and we’ll do the [color] tones together as one piece,” Nunberg said. “You want it to read as a whole.”

Before the boxing, Saint Peter’s is hosting a salon on October 2 about the chapel’s construction and restoration. These programs, as well as the formation of the Nevelson Legacy Council, are part of a greater visibility effort for the chapel and the artist. Nevelson, who died in 1988, stated that she wanted “to break the boundaries of regimented religion, to provide an environment that is evocative of another place ... I want people to have harmony on their lunch hours.”

People who work and live in the neighborhood still visit the Chapel Of The Good Shepherd for this sense of harmony and a moment of pause that’s hard to find in Midtown Manhattan. Each visit to the chapel is different: A bright morning casts stark shadows across the wooden shapes; an overcast afternoon mutes lines and textures into a soft glow. The area around Saint Peter’s Church has grown more crowded and densely developed since the 1970s; its places for rest are scarcer. Yet anyone can walk into the chapel and watch light play over this meditative urban escape.