Art for Everyone

Across the Finger Lakes region, stained glass windows are ubiquitous. Numerous examples from two of the 19th century’s most renowned glass artisans, Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge, can be found here. Not confined to museum walls, this art can be viewed for free in urban neighborhoods filled with blight or blessed with wealth, glimpsed when driving past a faded church in a rural hamlet, or admired while strolling around a village on a balmy afternoon.

Referred to as the poor man’s Bible, stained glass windows are more closely associated with Christian tradition than any other architectural detail, though the decoration is found in the sacred spaces of many faiths. These windows can endure for centuries, but every hundred years (give or take a decade) they require attention from a skilled craftsperson. It’s a remarkable and costly process.

One window’s story
Newark First United Methodist Church is an imposing brown brick structure. A large square bell tower rising 75 feet into the air gives the Tudor Gothic edifice a castle-like appearance. Anyone who visits the high-ceiling sanctuary inside immediately notices the huge, arched, stained glass window on the east wall. Consisting of three panels, it depicts the visitation of the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph, by shepherds and angels. It is stunning.

Sixteen feet wide and 28 feet high, the Victorian-style window was designed and produced by the William B. Chapman Studio of Albany. It was installed during a church renovation sometime between 1922 and ’24. By the spring of 2010, church trustees knew the window needed serious maintenance. Flaking lead and loosened panes were ominous signs of deterioration.

The church’s trustees knew a full-scale restoration would be pricey. They were right. Yet once the initial sticker shock of the $75,000 price tag subsided, the overwhelming sentiment was to move forward with the project. J Joslyn, a member of the fundraising team, had no doubt it was the right decision. “Those windows have memory and meaning for people in this church and in the larger community,” he said. “Sure, everyone could live without them but another piece of our history would be gone.”

Mastery in the creation and preservation of stained glass requires creativity and talent, plus a broad knowledge base that includes art history, architecture, math, engineering, chemistry, and materials science. Valerie O’Hara, who was awarded the Newark project, has all those qualifications plus an impressive list of successful restoration endeavors.

Valerie is the third generation artisan/leader of the 100-year-old family business Pike Stained Glass Studio in Rochester. At age 12, she started working there after school and during vacations. She received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Rochester Institute of Technology, and became an award-winning painter and glass artist whose work has been exhibited in galleries throughout North America.

In the beginning
Stained glass windows are durable, and often remain intact even when other parts of a building like gutters, roofs, brick and stonework fall down. When a window needs restoration it’s usually because the lead has become brittle. Once that beading corrodes, other aspects of the complex glass, metal and wood fusion eventually falters. In the case of Newark, both the lead and frame became dangerously weak. It would not be long before glass segments loosened and fell out.

Renovation begins by creating a pattern of the window based upon precise measurements of all the glass pieces, the openings and the lead. Then the dismantling can begin.

Even the largest windows can be taken apart in sections measuring about 2 feet by 3 feet, and packaged and transported. For the Newark project, Valerie worked with Dave Young, a master carpenter with a reputation for impeccable work. Dave handled the removal and reinstallation of the glass, as well as the repair of the window’s frame. Undoing the panels from their frame was accomplished by working from high scaffolding inside the sanctuary, and outside by standing on a flat roof adjacent to the window.

When the window segments arrive at the studio, the most delicate and hazardous part of the restoration begins – undoing each piece of glass in a section and removing the old lead. If the bead is still too firm, long, thin panes may end up cracked or shattered during the separation process.

A tender touch
To make the process faster and safer, the glass is soaked in warm water. This helps loosen the dirt and reduce the amount of lead dust that appears as the material is scraped away using small, handheld blades. Valerie and her assistants also wear masks and surgical gloves to avoid direct contact with the lead. Aprons, towels and shoes used only in the studio setting are added safeguards to lessen exposure to harmful lead particles.

It was during this cleaning phase that Valerie discovered an odd detail about the Newark panels. At some point after the window was installed, flat paint was applied to the back of the glass. It appears this was an attempt to “darken” the window. Since the paint had not been fired onto the glass, it was evidently a makeshift solution.

Here’s a more curious issue: The flat paint cannot be undone. The role of a preservationist is to put things back together with as little disturbance as possible. Though it seems counterintuitive, the panels were reassembled with the flat paint still intact, an exhaustive photo record of the front and back of the glass attesting to the integrity of the preservation.

Holding it together
The paint discovery was not the only complication. Dave and his crew noticed two serious flaws in the arched window frame: water damage and poorly constructed joints linking the wood pieces together. Like a cake, the frame was made by adhering six layers of molding together, one over the other. Serious rot could be traced through the top three layers, while the joints, rather than being staggered and overlapped, were all in the same place. This combination meant the frame’s stability was precarious at best.

Point person for the church trustees, Marty Morris, credits Dave Young’s woodworking skills and engineering savvy for finding solutions to the frame problems. The top three layers of molding were replaced and the joints were overlapped and reinforced by metal plates, not a difficult job on the straight lines of the woodwork. But when it came to replacing a curved surface, the job got much more complicated. A labor-intensive, time-consuming procedure requiring 17 to 18 laminations of thin strips of wood was necessary to correctly complete the frame.

End in sight
Fourteen weeks after the work began the restored windows were reinstalled. The project is almost complete. A final step is placement of a clear pane storm window. According to Valerie, this isn’t necessary for the protection of the stained glass but for the comfort of the congregation. “These windows need to breathe so moisture doesn’t accumulate, which means the storm can’t be tightly sealed,” she explained. “It’s a tough trade-off – lasting beauty or soaring utility bills.”

The Newark window project is expected to top out at $90,000, a daunting amount of money for any congregation to raise. Many will not support it, and slices of art and heritage will be quietly lost.

J Joselyn didn’t grow up in the Newark church. He had no particular connection to the congregation before he started attending the church with his wife and young children, yet J was an enthusiastic supporter of the window restoration. “If I help to replace and repair the windows then I’ve made a memory. I will have helped pass along a treasure to future generations,” he said. He’s right, and the community of Newark is the richer for it.


by Jan Bridgeford Smith