Historic Church Restores Stained Glass

By John DeSantis
Published in The Citizen - Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen

Historic church restores stained glass Wisconsin glassworks replicates 123-year-old panes BY JOHN DeSANTIS Citizen Staff

For all of the 13 years that have passed since Hurricane Georges strafed Key West, members of the Newman United Methodist Church on Truman Avenue have attended services with one of the sanctuary's most prized features missing.

Well before Christmas rolls around, they shall once again worship in light gently filtered by prized stained glass windows, which before the storm were a hallmark of the sanctuary's identity.

Rebuilt windows matching the antique glass Georges wiped out have been installed, partially covered by plywood until a protective cover of special glass is in place.

The Rev. Beverly Green, pastor of the church, said the long-awaited restoration of the church is analogous to the restoration of human spirit that is a touchstone of her congregation's faith.

"God is in the process of building his physical building and the building in our hearts," Green said. "Now, after over 15 years, these stained glass windows are being rebuilt; it is sending chills through me. We stayed with this eyesore, this plywood, for so long, and now God is moving so radically at Newman it's like he's on fire."

The windows likely would not have been replaced if not for tax increment financing (TIF) . The program allows a portion of property taxes collected within a designated neighborhood -- deemed blighted or in need of development -- to remain there to pay for improvements rather than being added to the city's general fund. Bahama Village, where the church is located, is part of such a TIF district. Replacing the windows was deemed an appropriate expenditure because of the church's historical significance.

The project cost -- for carpentry, painting and stained glass -- was $101,363, of which the church contributed $13,222. The glass portion was $67,136.

Civic leaders said the stained glass project at Newman, like a similar restoration at Cornish A.M.E. Zion Church, is a good example of how the TIF program can help strengthen a community and keep it viable.

"It is tremendously important due to the history of the church and its contribution to the community," said Key West City Commissioner Clayton Lopez. "The strength, the viability of Bahama Village is rooted in its churches. With them being such a small congregation, with the cost of replacing that particular stained glass, they could never have done this on their own."

Both the Newman church and the Kokomo Opalescent Glass Works in Indiana, which manufactured the original windows, were born in 1888. That same company manufactured glass for the famed lamp designer Louis Tiffany and for historic churches nationwide.

The actual work on the restoration project was done by Conrad Schmitt Studios in New Berlin, Wis., considered one of the nation's finest stained glass operations. Michael Miller, a Key West architect chosen to oversee the project, worked closely with the glassworks to ensure a faithful reproduction of the missing pieces.

"It's a bit of a tedious process to go through," said Kevin Grabowski of the Schmitt studios. "We would submit glass and it didn't quite match, so we had to tweak the glass. The glass we used has a real amber glow to it. In trying to be faithful to the original, if you are doing replication, that is often more difficult than if you are doing something new."

While the restoration work is tedious and time-consuming for the artisans involved, the more difficult part of the project overall has been manufacture of the glass that will protect the windows in the future.

That part of the project has been delayed, Miller said, because the company doing the work has already broken panes in the process of being made, due to their size and unusual hardness.

"The big ones are Gothic arches and are within an inch of the largest size glass you can buy," Miller said. "They broke three big expensive pieces of glass trying to make them, so we had to go to a tempered glass."

Miller said the city, beyond the confines of Bahama Village, will benefit from the stained glass project.

"It restores the church almost to its original design, how it was in the past, but the main thing is how it enhances Key West," Miller said. "This was some of the best stained glass to be found anywhere in the United States and they were able to match it just about perfectly. It is a tremendous thing and everybody in Key West can go there and look at it, and see how the windows were in the 20th century."


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