Get Your Zen On in a Secret Manhattan Sculpture Haven - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Get Your Zen On in a Secret Manhattan Sculpture Haven

The "Cross of the Good Shepherd" is on the facing wall as you enter the chapel.
SourcePhotographs by Leslie dela Vega/OZY

Get Your Zen On in a Secret Manhattan Sculpture Haven

By Thia Reggio


This is what happens when a badass sculptor builds a chapel. And it gets revitalized.

By Thia Reggio

Louise Nevelson claimed a permanent place in the sculptors’ pantheon with bold reimaginings of discarded, everyday objects. Her mid-20th century sculptures — often on a grand scale (70 to 90 feet high) — were designed to make you look, and look again. To see something new, even as you recognize something familiar, something a lesser artist might pass over or throw away. A clothespin, a spindle, a broken cabinet door, transformed into shapes and contours, unlikely partnerships and surreal conversations — so like life. 

In 1977, Nevelson, a Jewish refugee who had re-created herself as an American icon, was approached to create a chapel in Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan. This construction of “a place for people to find peace” in the heart of the city was a logical extension of the artist’s decades-long work of everyday transformation, according to Light and Shadow, Nevelson’s biography written by Laurie Wilson.

Scroll around on the video below to explore the chapel in 360 degrees.

First conceived as an almost defiant act of reclaiming the dying neighborhood that was 1970s Midtown East, the chapel remains Nevelson’s only intact, comprehensive, sculptural environment open to the public — a tranquil place amid the frantic pace of urban life that has grown up around it. 


But 40 years of use and some well-meaning but misguided “restoration” attempts have taken their toll on this masterwork. In 2013, Saint Peter’s embarked on an extensive art conservation effort to resurrect the artist’s original intentions and preserve the chapel as the oasis amid busy urban life that Nevelson intended. 

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Immediately to the right upon entering the Nevelson Chapel are two pieces of the sculptural environment: “Frieze of the Apostles,” left, and “Cross of the Resurrection.”

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On the left wall after entering is the sculpture “Sky Vestment — Trinity.” Above the doorway is where “Grapes and Wheat Lintel” will be replaced (at the time of this photograph, it was being conserved at Sarah Nunberg’s studio).

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Project manager Sarah Nunberg, left, and Soraya Alcala carefully conserve “Grapes and Wheat Lintel,” which is located above the entrance doors inside the chapel.

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This small part of the scultptural environment is situated to the left of the “Cross of the Good Shepherd.” It has no name but serves a particular function. Similar to a light kept near the Torah ark in a synagogue, a candle in Christian churches often is kept lit to mark the presence of the life of the resurrected Christ. A candle is placed here to evoke fire, light and life.

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On the west wall of the chapel is the very large “Sky Vestment – Trinity.”

Conservator Sarah Nunberg and her all-female team have been researching, documenting and cleaning the work, in efforts to return it to as near its original condition as possible — down to Nevelson’s paint drips and brush strokes as applied by the artist herself in situ. Guests are welcome to watch these efforts when possible. Their work itself lends something of a meditative quality that Nevelson would likely approve. They are currently in phase 3 of the project, which will mean a fully renewed, intact chapel. Fundraising efforts are underway for phase 4, which will include opportunities for artists, visitors and the community to interact with the chapel in new and inventive ways. The project is set for completion in 2019.

Enter this environment of nine white and gilt sculptural elements, with its muted skylights creating plays of light and shadow, so central to Nevelson’s work, and you will leave transformed. It is utterly unique. It is quintessential New York. It is what happens when a total badass builds a chapel and leaves it as, what Wilson calls a “gift to the universe.”

Nevelson Chapel is open to the public 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Donations and quiet appreciated)

Thia Reggio is the pastor at Astoria First Presbyterian Church and a senior consultant with the Vandersall Collective.

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