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UST's Iconic Chapel of St. Basil Turns 20 in 2017: Legendary Architect Philip Johnson's Final Houston Project Being Celebrated for its Intrepid Legacy

HOUSTON — The Chapel of St. Basil, designed by architect Philip Johnson and named for St. Basil the Great, a fourth century bishop in what is today Turkey, celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2017 in conjunction with the University of St. Thomas’ 70th anniversary as a private Catholic institution of higher learning in the City of Houston.

Dating back to its inception and early years, the University of St. Thomas had an interest in a chapel to complete its Academic Mall, which was also designed by Philip Johnson in the 1950s at the behest of arts patrons John and Dominique de Menil. The de Menils, who had arrived in Houston in the early 1940s, were instrumental in establishing and cultivating the relationship between Johnson and the University of St. Thomas. Johnson had included plans for a chapel in his original campus design, but the vision was not executed until much later in both Johnson’s and the University’s lives. Johnson saw the chapel, his final Houston project, completed in 1997. He died in 2002.
The Chapel of St. Basil at night
Under the leadership of former UST President Joseph McFadden, the first lay president in its history, the University embarked upon a capital campaign from 1993 to 1995 that helped make the Chapel of St. Basil a reality. The chapel’s cost, roughly $6 million, was financed through a capital campaign, which included a $250,000 donation from the Basilian Fathers, the congregation of priests who founded UST. Groundbreaking on the chapel was held on March 18, 1996, and the project was completed and dedicated by Bishop The Most Reverend Joseph A. Fiorenza, now Archbishop Emeritus of Galveston-Houston, on June 7, 1997, during the University’s 50th anniversary year.

From a design perspective, the Chapel of St. Basil consists of, as Philip Johnson himself put it, three basic geometric shapes: a cube for the body of the church, a sphere for the dome, and a granite plane connecting these shapes by intersecting both the dome and the cube.

With its striking appearance and indomitable height, achieved through a cross culminating the building’s golden dome, the Chapel of St. Basil looms over the entire campus, establishing the University’s Catholic character for all to behold no matter where they are situated.

The Chapel of St. Basil completes the University’s Academic Mall and stands in stark contrast to the design and aesthetic of the other campus buildings in order to emphasize the singular and sacred relationship the chapel has with the University community. It is composed of white stucco and black granite while the other buildings on the mall consist of rose-colored brick. The Chapel of St. Basil and the Doherty Library, which anchors the other end of the Academic Mall, stand on opposite sides of the campus in order to evoke the perpetual relationship between faith and reason.

Inside the Chapel of St. Basil, light is one of the dominant characteristics. The building is effused exclusively with natural light, and the interplay of this light with the stark white walls from the dome, skylight over the altar and over the statue of Our Lady, and from the tilted glass cross in the west wall, makes an immediate impression upon any visitor to the chapel.

Three artists contributed to the interior elements of the Chapel of St. Basil to enhance the heritage of Philip Johnson’s architectural marvel. David Cargill of Beaumont, TX designed the chapel’s altar, Stations of the Cross, statue of Our Lady, tabernacle, candlesticks, holy water fonts, stand for the paschal candle, processional cross, and incense burner. Houston native Michael Dobbins created the wooden furniture, and Michael Ploski of Poland painted the icon of St. Basil.

The Chapel of St. Basil has a unique and storied legacy on the campus of the University of St. Thomas, in the City of Houston, and on a global level given the way in which it links UST to Philip Johnson, the de Menils, the Basilian fathers, and the Catholic community in Houston. As it celebrates twenty years, Johnson’s final project completed in Houston remains an inspirational landmark as it continues to serve as a beacon of Catholic faith.

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The University of St. Thomas was founded in 1947 by the Basilian Fathers as an independent, Catholic, coeducational university in Houston, TX. Situated in the city’s Museum District, the University enrolls 3,312 total students with an undergraduate population of 1,602. Set against the backdrop of the Texas Medical Center, of which it is a member, UST has seen a 75% growth rate among students pursuing degrees in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), and over half of the undergraduate student body pursues a degree in one of the STEM fields. The University of St. Thomas was ranked 29th in the 2017 edition of the U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” list of universities in the western region of the United States and was additionally ranked one of the best colleges in the West according to The Princeton Review. For more information, please visit