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Window into the past

Post Time:Jul 23,2008Classify:Glass QuotationView:399

IN THE YELLOW welcome leaflet that tells visitors a bit about Suffolk Christian Church, nearly half of the information is devoted to two of its stained glass windows.

The large, Gothic revival-style window above the altar, a confection of mostly cobalt blue glass, mouth-blown and hand-painted, was installed in 1952 - fairly recent for a church that's 114 years old.

A smaller interior window, an artificially lit Gothic revival-style Nativity scene, is even newer. It was added in 1995.

What the visitors' flier leaves out is the really interesting story unfolding around 65 windows at the rear of the sanctuary and elsewhere around the church. The Victorian ornamental stained glass, featuring a stylized flower surrounded by a colored band, has cast a glow upon generations of worshippers.

Like stained glass windows in old churches everywhere in the United States, these have begun to show their age; the lead between the pieces of glass is fatigued by nature and gravity. Frames are deteriorating, lead is oxidizing, windows are beginning to bulge.

Preserving the beauty is a point of pride for a congregation like Suffolk Christian's, and an enormous responsibility that soon will require a whole lot more than prayer.

A version of Suffolk Christian Church has stood on North Main since 1861. The first building, said Robert Wojtowicz, professor of art history at Old Dominion University after examining a rendering of the original church, was a simple Greek revival structure with a pointed steeple.

Church history notes that it was used during the Civil War by federal Army chaplains and as a military hospital.

Then in 1892 it was torn down and a new building, a portion that still includes the sanctuary today, was constructed. According to church documents, the congregation waited out the building process while holding services in Suffolk's City Hall. Dedicated in January 1894, its second church cost $40,000.

From the front, this Romanesque-revival building, designed by architect Charles E. Cassell, a Virginia native established in Baltimore, appeared symmetrical. Two stunted polygonal towers framed three arched entrance doors. The towers and the sanctuary were lined with long, slender arched windows that all had the same motif - a central floral design in blue, gold, green and purple, punctuated by orange glass jewels.

The church seated 600 and was only the second public building in Suffolk to be wired for electricity, according to church history reports.

In 1912, the facade was rebuilt in the manner seen today, retaining Romanesque revival characteristics such as its rounded window tops. The two short towers were squared and heightened, one of them taller than the other to house a carillon.

Sunday school rooms were added in 1928, a point of pride for the congregation since the money was raised despite a faltering economy.

A period of quiet followed, unbroken by more construction until the 1990s. By then, according to church records, the building had begun to show its age.

So in 1997 the congregation launched another two-phase project, a makeover that took three years and cost $2.2 million but did not change the appearance of the sanctuary.

"I have always maintained that if someone from 1895 would walk in this church today, they would know where they are," said Suffolk Christian's pastor, the Rev. Michael D. Halley.

The sanctuary is backed by a series of the matching, original Victorian stained glass windows. Curved pews bring congregants close to the minister and make the wide space intimate. Under a coffered ceiling, a lofty and curved gallery is supported by narrow pillars.

Here and there, on the bottom edge of the gallery, is a hook.

Some things, not preserved in the architecture, are treasures of memory. Like the birds on Easter.

Mary Rawles Stephenson, now 99 and a regular here since she married in 1938, taught Sunday school for 15 years. One of her favorite things to do during the annual Easter pageant was help the children dress up as flowers and then wrap them in enormous paper bags.

During the performance, each child was supposed to burst out and emerge as a daffodil, a tulip, a pansy.

That was the plan, anyway.

"We used to hang canaries in cages all the way around the edge of the balcony for those hooks there," she said, pointing, "and during the service, they'd go tweet, tweet, tweet. And the children would be so distracted and forget what they were doing because of those birds."

It has been years since caged birds sang in the sanctuary. Instead, rounded arches repeat in a quiet visual rhythm around the room and behind the altar.

A joyful noise is heralded by two sets of decorative organ pipes. One set is original, installed in 1893 by Jardine & Son, New York. At the time, each pipe was embellished with a painted design, and the organ was powered by a pump into which city water flowed to operate the wind chest.

One decorated organ pipe, restored to what they all once looked like, has been placed in a glass case and hangs on the wall near the altar. At $25,000, renovating and repainting them all, Halley said, even for the aesthetic pleasure, would be far too costly.

The congregation has already spent thousands of dollars over the years just to keep the organ functioning, and to renovate, electrify and repair it.

Another expense looms. Last August, the church received a report that laid out in great detail the condition of its stained glass windows.

At least once before, the original Victorian windows have been removed from their sashes and stabilized to extend their lives, wrote Jim Miller after examining the glass. Miller is a studio representative from Willet Hauser, an architectural glass firm in Minnesota with studios in Philadelphia.

In the United States, many church windows were neglected in the World War II years, according to the glass company, because glass and metal used to repair stained glass were rationed.

Miller estimated from the condition of the repair work at Suffolk Christian that it was done 20 to 25 years ago.

The church has maintained a relationship with the firm since the two recently added windows were made by Willet. Neither needs repair.

Three of the Victorian windows, though, showed bulges last fall, and some glass pieces are broken or shattered. The leading - also called lead came - between the colored glass pieces is fatigued by years of wind pressure, expansion and contraction in extreme temperatures and the pull of gravity on the glass, Miller reported. Restoration of the 65 windows will eventually be necessary.

True historic restoration, Miller explained, is a painstaking process in which an entire window is removed from the church, shipped to a studio, mapped and taken apart, cleaned, repaired and fitted back together. All original glass is reused; everything else on the window is made new.

Since this failure is just beginning at Suffolk Christian and the windows will still hold up for some years to come, Miller said, "the good position of the church is that it has the luxury of some limited time to plan and fundraise for this project."

Other local congregations are already familiar with this lengthy, expensive process. At St. Paul's Catholic Church in Portsmouth, a Gothic revival building dedicated in 1905, the first elaborate stained glass windows were removed for restoration in 2004. The project, costing $7,000 for each of the smallest windows and $17,000 for each of the largest, will be finished this fall.

"It never ends with an old church," said Jim Resolute, St. Paul's capital campaign co-chair and restoration committee chair. To keep a building in good shape, he said, pacing is everything. "You can only put so much on a congregation at once."

On Miller's recommendation, the Suffolk congregation has already removed some storm windows that were over the stained glass and has painted those exterior window frames, another suggestion he made last fall.

Windows like these may be protected by some type of clear cover - clear glass, plastic sheeting, clear acrylic or polycarbonate - so they can still be appreciated but are protected from the elements and from other damage. But since protective coverings without vents can lead to damage from condensation, Miller said, the solution isn't simple.

Halley's congregation is thoughtfully approaching their window project.

"We're right now trying to get the will to do it," Halley said, "We have the way, now we need the will."

Some stained glass windows in European churches have already reached the 1,000-year mark.

It was a comfort, then, that in Miller's report his concluding thoughts to this congregation were that any pending work can be done "over many years time."

Source: The Virginian-PilotAuthor: admin

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