Sometimes even holy places suffer from Acts of God. Then mere mortals must pick up the pieces and try to make them whole again.
On Dec. 12, San Francisco was ransacked by a windstorm of epic proportions. The exquisite stained glass windows of Grace Cathedral were among the casualties. Just past midnight, 17 plate glass windows blew out of a nearby high-rise apartment building and crashed down into them.
The richly colored shards of the shattered cathedral windows fell more than 40 feet to the floor of the apse. Exactly 189 panes of glass were damaged that night. The brilliant dust of the broken glass was discovered the next morning just before the Cathedral’s School for Boys was scheduled to meet in the apse for morning classes. Kathy Kirkpatrick, Grace’s sachrist, was horrified to think that the accident might have happened when the children were gathered in the choir.
Kirkpatrick immediately called Allen Dragge, director of Reflections Studio in Emeryville, one of the foremost stained-glass restoration studios in the country, to assess the damage and secure the windows before any further storms created more havoc. The repair job would require six months and nearly $140,000.
“I was amazed at the amount of damage,” says Dragge.
“There was glass all over the street and large shards of plate glass jammed into the roofs of cars.” Elaborate scaffolding was quickly erected and a swing stage was hung from the cathedral’s parapet.
Members of Dragge’s team of artists worked 70 feet above the ground to secure the damaged panels with masking tape”bandages” before breaking out the thin border of glass surrounding each panel in order to remove it from its setting.
The panels were then lowered to the ground, crated and transported to the studio, and the “discovery phase” of the restoration process began. Detailed rubbings of each panel in conjunction with archival photos from the cathedral were used to guide the reassembly of these immense glass puzzles.
In each case, the damaged panel was laid on a table and covered with a sheet of acid-free vellum. Then a rubbing stone, much like a hard wax crayon, was rubbed over the surface to bring up the raised image.
“Because of the scale of the overall window, this is much more like the work of a muralist,” says Dragge, “where you are working on a small component of a much larger work. You’re adjusting scale like a muralist but working with leaded glass materials.”
Acquiring the appropriate materials and treating them like the original artist did is the goal of the restorer.
“We respect not only the era but the context of the piece,” says Dragge. “First, we fundamentally respect and conserve the original artist’s work and, second, we reconstruct the piece to be a viable part of the building fabric. Along the way, by emulating the original artist, we expand our own repertoire of technique.”
With the Grace Cathedral project, Dragge and his staff not only learned from but also shed new light on the original designer, renowned liturgical artist Charles Connick Jr. Designed in 1931 and 1946, the Grace Cathedral windows are brilliant examples of the neo-gothic stained glass that Connick and his Boston studio produced with such passion.
“I want to make beautiful interiors for both churches and the soul. I want men to hear my windows singing,” Connick is qouted as saying.
In order to produce the “musical eloquence” he encouraged all glass artists to seek, Connick used the medieval techniques he’d studied at the great French cathedrals atCharte and Saint Chapelle.
An opponent of the use of pictorial, opalescent glass such as that used by Tiffany or LaFarge, Connick used brilliantly colored transparent glass. Blue was his favorite color because it was “the most active, the most magical, the most mysterious of all colors in light.”
A deep, dark blue glass was used frequently in Connick windows and became known as Connick Blue. Blue was specifically used at Grace Cathedral because the ”emphasis on the cooler equalities” would create “a quiet place of meditation and prayer,” wrote Orin Skinner, Connick’s assistant, right after the first window was installed.
Of course, the windows also had a good deal of red in them to create an active vibrancy. Dragge explains that the medievalists realized that by putting red and blue together, you could achieve a three dimensional quality. Because red and blue are on opposite ends of the color spectrum, they are hard for the brain to see simultaneously when they are intensely broadcast. The mind goes back and forth between the two colors, creating a stereoscopic image.
Some striking oranges, greens and purples – occasionally produced by double glazing, layering one colored glass over another – were also visible in the damaged windows. The neon yellow was found by Connick at Charte in a dusty old crate. Connick was charmed by it and brought it back from France with him to create the Grace Cathedral windows.
Matching the glass colors was not particularly hard for the artists at Reflections Studios. More glass is available today than during either the Great Depression or World War II, when the windows were originally created.
However, duplicating the painting style was more challenging. Medieval stained glass is painted with a stencil black paint to create a matte surface. Various tools such as brushes, sticks, feathers – even fingertips – are then used to scrape away the paint and expose the colored glass. Think of finger painting on a much more refined level.
“The work at Grace Cathedral was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” says Dragge. “With these windows, virtually every technique stained glass artists are aware of was used and more were discovered. They were a real tour de force.”
How did the Reflections artists duplicate this masterful work? Initially, by trial and error. Not only did they have to match the color and design, but also the “hand” of the original glass artist. They were constantly deciding how long the brush strokes were, how much paint was deposited and how much was removed on each original piece of glass.
“Every panel was unique and interesting,” Arnelle LeRoux, one of the painters explained. “Everyone was so into it. I might come to work one day and say, “I feel like doing a face, I’m in the mood to try something complicated.’ It was great fun.”
Irmi Steding, another artist who painted the glass, echoed this sentiment. “Many times our work is somewhat tedious and mechanical, but this felt like art. It was inspiring.”
After they were painted, each piece of glass was fired and then discussed by the six artists working on the project. Many attempts were rejected before the artists became proficient at painting in a manner identical to Connick and his studio artists. “We looked over each other’s shoulders and offered constructive criticism. It was a real group effort,” says Dragge.
After the new glass was painted and fired and the old glass cleaned, the panels were reassembled using a variety of lead widths. The scaffolding was erected again and the windows were returned to the cathedral in June.
Dragge was please with the process as well as the end result. “You don’t get a lot of opportunities to work at such a high level of apprenticeship with great artists. This was an exciting project to work on because even if the artist is no longer available, his work was there to learn from. You can visit the cathedral now and see the restored windows in their beautiful, resplendent color. As you enter on Taylor Street, they will be at the far end of the cathedral behind the altar. They are to the left of the two center windows which depict Christ as the Light of the World and Christ as the Good Shepherd.
The first window to the left, known as “Cherubim” (1931), is composed of a pair of lancets beneath a pentefoil and two trifoils. In the lancets, two early English saints are depicted.
On the left is St. Hilda, who, amongst other noble deeds, turned snakes into stone. The three coiled snakes are in the trifoil above her. On her right is the purple-robed St. Bede, the great scholar and historian known as the Venerable Bede.
The next window to the left, “Virtues” (1946), depicts two French saints, St. Louis on the left and St. Genevieve on the right. Note the depiction of St. Chapelle, one of Connick’s inspirations, in the trifoil above St. Louis. You can best see the detailing if you bring a pair of opera glasses or binoculars with you to view the windows.
While you’re at the cathedral, look at the before and after version of the top panel from the trifoil over St. Bede on display in the middle of the cathedral.