Old Stone Church - Saving a Stained-Glass Treasure

Published in "Traditional Building" magazine

After 115 years, the forces of gravity, heat, cold and moisture has taken their toll on a precious, 18-ft. triple lancet window designed and executed by the renowned American stained-glass artist John LaFarge. “Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth” was commissioned in 1885 for Old Stone Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and by the year 2000, the window had become brittle blackened with dirt, weakened by stretched and brittle lead, and marred by previous attempts at repair and conservation. La Farge’s window was in very poor condition when Conrad Schmitt Studios began a painstaking restoration process.

The beautiful and unusually intricate window contains very colorful, highly unique textured glass and truly distinctive design work. La Farge was known for his experimental approach to stained glass, and his technique was admired by his contemporary and rival, Louis Comfort Tiffany. “Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth” uses a great variety of unusually manufactured glass pioneered by the artist, including confetti glass, created by throwing different-colored bits of glass onto a molten sheet of glass, and drapery glass, a textured glass created by “combing” or folding while the glass sheet is in a molten stage. La Farge further added depth and richness to his pieces by layering several plates of glass in selected areas. Of La Farge’s relatively small body of work in the United States, this window is one of only 16 of this size, and is valued at $1.5 million. 

The center subject of the window is the biblical “Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth,” and the tow smaller, flanking windows memorialize the tragic life of Cleveland industrialist Amasa Stone, whose widow commissioned the piece after his suicide. His daughters are depicted in the cherubic portraits at the top of the left and right windows. The tow lower portraits are of his wife and drowned son. The tools of Stone’s trade as a mechanical engineer are represented in the lowest panels.

Window Removal
Nationally recognized for outstanding craftsmanship in the creation, conservation, and restoration of stained glass, Conrad Schmitt Studios (CSS) was awarded the commission to conserve the Old Stone Church window – a job spanning 2,000 hours of painstaking work. (Coincidentally, CSS, founded in 1889, is almost old enough to have originally fabricated the La Farge window.)

Experienced CSS glaziers traveled to Cleveland for the delicate process of window removal and transportation. Once on site, scaffolding was erected, the surrounding area was protected, and the windows were documented in place. Each window and panel was assigned a number and labeled. Then, the windows were inspected for fragility. Because they were at risk for damage during removal, they were first secured with conservation tape, then removed from the framing and loaded onto a CSS truck.

Paper and Photo Documentation
All window panels were documented by way of crayon rubbings on acid-free vellum, with one documentary rubbing per laye3r of glass.  Additional working rubbings were made for each panel to guide the conservation and re-leading. The rubbings of the panels document the existing conditions, including lead sizes and lead flanges used to hide glass breakage; glass that was replaced or removed in previous repair campaigns; all front and back glass plating; and all broken glass. The condition of the paint and stain, as well as the cement and reinforcing bars, was also documented.  Throughout the project all work continued to be meticulously recorded. The La Farge window presented a unique challenge for photo documentation because in some areas, the heavy, layered glass was not penetrated by a standard light table. Requiring a stronger light source, CSS built a balanced light easel about the length of a door, which allowed different strengths of light be employed where needed. The panels were then photographed with print, slide, and black-&-white photographs were taken in reflected light to show all lead dimensions, previous repairs, and plating situations. 

De-Leading & Glass Repair
The de-leading of the window was carried out by experience glass artisans, who first cut away the old lead and then cleaned the pieces of glass, using only deionized water. The unbroken pieces of glass were then placed, puzzle-like, on a working rubbing to indicate their original position.

The glass of La Farge’s “Visitation” has historical value, and so damaged p[pieces were repaired or “conserved” rather than replicated. Cracked glass, broken glass, and glass with significant blemishes were repaired with conservator’s epoxy that was individually tinted to match the original color. The tint in the glue also prevents daylight from showing through the cracks when the window is reinstalled. 

Re-leading & Reinstallation
Re-leading the La Farge window presented a true challenge because of the thick layering of glass and the small size of many pieces – some even smaller than a dime. As in the original, several different lead sizes were used to accommodate the small, single pieces as well as the larger, layered sections. 

Glaziers from CSS rehabilitated the window frame on-site at Old Stone Church and installed new storm glass. The air chamber between the windows was vented to protect the stained glass from heat and moisture build-up. The “Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth” is now ready to be enjoyed and appreciated for another 100 years.

Old Stone Church - Saving a Stained-Glass Treasure (PDF 3.74 Mb)

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