Chapel of St. Basil: An Architectural Beauty in Houston

Updated on April 15, 2020
Peggy W profile image

I live in Houston, and I have worked as a nurse. My interests include art, traveling, reading, gardening, cooking, and our wonderful pets.

Chapel of St. Basil on the University of St. Thomas Campus
Chapel of St. Basil on the University of St. Thomas Campus | Source

Chapel of St. Basil

The amazing Chapel of St. Basil is an architectural marvel at the University of St. Thomas campus in Houston, Texas. Designed by the famous architect Philip Johnson in 1997, it capped off his fantastic career in grand fashion.

Mass schedule at Chapel of St. Basil
Mass schedule at Chapel of St. Basil | Source

Architecture

The engineering firm of CJG based in Houston, as well as Austin, carried out the plans of Philip Johnson's design. Black granite contrasts sharply with the white stucco of the building.

A cube, a plane, and a semi-sphere were the main elements used in the creation of this beautiful Chapel of St. Basil. The black granite plane appears to slice right through the cube, and the gold dome crowns the edifice.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Entrance into the chapel Bell Tower feature at St. Basil’s Chapel
Entrance into the chapel
Entrance into the chapel | Source
Bell Tower feature at St. Basil’s Chapel
Bell Tower feature at St. Basil’s Chapel | Source

Design Symbolism

Much symbolism is represented in the construction of the Chapel of St. Basil.

A tent-like flap opening into the narthex or lobby area of the chapel is very distinctive. The largest bell pictured above represents St. Basil. Next to the largest bell is a smaller one, which represents his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa. The smallest bell represents their sister, St. Macrina the Younger who was a nun in the early Christian church.

Chapel of St. Basil view from Academic Mall on the University of St. Thomas
Chapel of St. Basil view from Academic Mall on the University of St. Thomas | Source

Academic Mall

The vast grassy area with the classrooms facing out onto it is called the Academic Mall at the University of St. Thomas. It is a beautiful serene setting!

This Chapel of St. Basil is situated at the north end of the mall. Doherty Library is at the opposite end. A symbolic merging of faith and reason combined with all the interdisciplinary academic studies ranging in between the two anchoring buildings makes a subtle statement.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
View of Academic Mall looking towards Doherty LibraryAcademic Mall View of Academic Mall from St. Basil’s Chapel
View of Academic Mall looking towards Doherty Library
View of Academic Mall looking towards Doherty Library | Source
Academic Mall
Academic Mall | Source
View of Academic Mall from St. Basil’s Chapel
View of Academic Mall from St. Basil’s Chapel | Source

Lighting Inside of the Chapel

One of the fantastic features regarding the architecture of the Chapel of St. Basil is that there is zero use of artificial light inside the structure. The only extra illumination in addition to cleverly designed windows and reflective surfaces plus the glass cross built into the west side of the building is from the use of candles.

Brightness inside of this chapel changes with the time of day and reflects the effects of sunshine. At night the natural, as well as artificial outdoor lighting combined with the candlelight, is enough to keep the chapel illuminated.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Interior view of St. Basil’s ChapelChapel of St. Basil showing natural illumination inside entrance from the ceilingInterior view of St. Basil’s Chapel showing natural illuminationInside St. Basil’s Chapel with sculpture
Interior view of St. Basil’s Chapel
Interior view of St. Basil’s Chapel | Source
Chapel of St. Basil showing natural illumination inside entrance from the ceiling
Chapel of St. Basil showing natural illumination inside entrance from the ceiling | Source
Interior view of St. Basil’s Chapel showing natural illumination
Interior view of St. Basil’s Chapel showing natural illumination | Source
Inside St. Basil’s Chapel with sculpture
Inside St. Basil’s Chapel with sculpture | Source

Stations of the Cross in the Chapel of St. Basil

The Stations of the Cross are amazing and are hollow and not convex, as my photo above might suggest. They are carved and indented into the stucco wall! From many angles, they appear as though they are raised and curving out from the surface.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Interior view of the chapel with glass cross cutout & concave stations of the crossInterior view of the chapel with glass cross cutout & concave stations of the crossInterior view with detail of one station of the cross
Interior view of the chapel with glass cross cutout & concave stations of the cross
Interior view of the chapel with glass cross cutout & concave stations of the cross | Source
Interior view of the chapel with glass cross cutout & concave stations of the cross
Interior view of the chapel with glass cross cutout & concave stations of the cross | Source
Interior view with detail of one station of the cross
Interior view with detail of one station of the cross | Source

Other Features Inside the Chapel

Recessed into the wall is the cross above the altar. The Menil family donated the body of Christ.

A pipe organ is a prominent feature on the wall to the right of the altar.

An icon of St. Basil is over where the Eucharist is kept inside a tabernacle. The tabernacle is left of the altar and is the primary focus when first entering the chapel from doors at the back.

A sculpture of Mary with the Christ child on her lap is titled "Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom." This sculpture is the main feature on the east wall across from the glass cross and stations of the cross.

As you can tell, the inside of this chapel is modern and beautiful in a minimalistic style.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Interior view with a closer look at the altarInterior view of the Chapel of St. Basil with pipe organInterior of St. Basil’s Chapel with icon & tabernacleA closeup of the sculpture
Interior view with a closer look at the altar
Interior view with a closer look at the altar | Source
Interior view of the Chapel of St. Basil with pipe organ
Interior view of the Chapel of St. Basil with pipe organ | Source
Interior of St. Basil’s Chapel with icon & tabernacle
Interior of St. Basil’s Chapel with icon & tabernacle | Source
A closeup of the sculpture
A closeup of the sculpture | Source

Felicie Babin Gucymard Memorial Garden

The beauty continues on the outside. The photo above shows a portion of the Felicie Babin Gucymard Memorial Garden against a backdrop of the Chapel of St. Basil and other university buildings. This garden consists of a labyrinth, three fountains representing the Trinity, and four corner benches. Again symbolism is at work here.

The Chartres Labyrinth was a gift from Ruth Westkaemper in honor of her class at UST in 1955. Those who wander the pattern of the 11 circles leading to the center are supposed to be prayerful and meditative as if on an actual pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

A photographer was taking wedding photos on the day of our visit. I tried to capture my photos while staying out of the line of sight of the professional photographer with the young newlywed couple.

This beautiful prayer garden has a crushed gravel walkway around the central part of the outdoor oasis with the labyrinth and fountains. Colorful roses, crape myrtles, and other trees and bushes add to the beauty of the plot.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Felicie Babin Gucymard Memorial Garden & west side view of St. Basil’s ChapelMemorial Garden with the labyrinthAnother view of the Felicie Babin Bucymard Memorial Garden Pretty roses in the Felicie Babin Gucymard Memorial Garden
Felicie Babin Gucymard Memorial Garden & west side view of St. Basil’s Chapel
Felicie Babin Gucymard Memorial Garden & west side view of St. Basil’s Chapel | Source
Memorial Garden with the labyrinth
Memorial Garden with the labyrinth | Source
Source
Another view of the Felicie Babin Bucymard Memorial Garden
Another view of the Felicie Babin Bucymard Memorial Garden | Source
Pretty roses in the Felicie Babin Gucymard Memorial Garden
Pretty roses in the Felicie Babin Gucymard Memorial Garden | Source

Samfield Memorial Study Garden

Just across from the Felicie Babin Gucymard Memorial Garden is an area of benches surrounding a statue of Jesus Christ by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiglieri. It is called the Samfield Memorial Study Garden.

These are two beautiful areas for the University of St. Thomas students to be able to sit outdoors and pore over their books and take a break from their studies.

Side view of the Chapel of St. Basil from the street
Side view of the Chapel of St. Basil from the street | Source

The University of St. Thomas Campus

Viewing the Chapel of St. Basil from the road on the east side of the chapel shows another perspective of how the granite plane seems to slice through the cube shape.

We had just spent some time walking around the Link-Lee Mansion on the University of St. Thomas campus.

Adjacent to this historic mansion is the Edward P. White Memorial Plaza. The architect Philip Johnson also designed it. If you take a look at the article I wrote about the Link-Lee Mansion, you will see some similarities in that plaza and the chapel. The black granite and slanted cross are notably evident in both places.

University of St. Thomas campus is a beauty in the heart of Houston. I hope you enjoyed this look at the beautiful chapel on the campus.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2020 Peggy Woods

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      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Linda,

        Anyone who likes distinctive architecture should appreciate what went into this chapel design. The use of only natural lighting also sets it apart. Thanks for your visit.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I usually prefer visiting old churches and chapels and exploring their history, but the one that you've shown and described is lovely, Peggy. I'm impressed by the lack of artificial light and the symbolism. The building looks like a lovely place to visit.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Ruby,

        I love the sound of an organ being played. You are fortunate to be able to listen to your husband playing those good old-time gospel songs.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Liz,

        Yes, the natural light was one of the main features of this chapel that makes it unusual, and yet, so beautiful.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Bill,

        It is such a distinctive and beautiful chapel, so far from the ordinary, which makes it exceptional. Glad you liked it.

      • always exploring profile image

        Ruby Jean Richert 

        6 weeks ago from Southern Illinois

        I think, by far, this is the most beautiful of all your offerings. The building captures the spirit of God. My husband, Ray played the pipe organ in church for years, He still plays in our home, and I love to listen to the good old time gospels. Thank you for sharing.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi FlourishAnyway,

        The architecture of this chapel is certainly minimalistic in style, and oh, so beautiful!

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        6 weeks ago from UK

        This looks like an impressive structure, full of symbolism. It's good that natural light is such a feature.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        That's nothing like what I was expecting. I was expecting something stone and Gothic. This place is stunning!

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Pamela,

        This chapel, both inside and out, is a beauty and very distinctive, as are the gardens outside of it.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        6 weeks ago from USA

        The natural lighting and the effect of the cross are simply divine, and the glass cutouts are well done. I like the minimalist, modern effect here.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        6 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        This modern chapel is absolutely beautiful. I like the recessed cross. I can only imagine reading or studying in the Samfield Memorial Study Garden. Everything about this chapel is really lovely, Peggy.

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