Church project reveals beauty of stained glass

It was once a work of art. But a century of candle grease, dirt and grime has so thoroughly covered

Categories: Schenectady County

It was once a work of art. But a century of candle grease, dirt and grime has so thoroughly covered the stained glass windows at First Presbyterian Church of Schenectady that some of the colors were completely obscured.

This week, for the first time in 120 years, churchgoers got to see what one of those windows looked like when it was created. The window was completely dismantled, cleaned, repaired and pieced back together to shine in all its original glory.

“It’s beautiful,” said Deborah Emmons-Andarawis, a member of the church, which is located on Union Street in the city’s historic Stockade neighborhood. “There’s colors I never saw before.”

Among the surprises: The window’s geometric patterns include a vibrant blue that had been invisible for decades.

The church raised thousands of dollars for the restoration and hopes to do five more windows that are in desperate need of attention. All five are cracked and covered with a thick layer of dirt. The entire project may cost $300,000.

But it’s worth it, Emmons-Andarawis said.

“It’s just remarkable to look at that side by side with the ones that have not been done,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

Stained glass restorer Nigel Johnson of Cohoes Design Glass Associates said the windows were made with painstaking artistry that unfortunately made them far more vulnerable to age.

“There was a lot of textured glass, which picked up more dirt,” he said. “It sparkles now like it did when it was first built.”

For seven months, his team took apart the window, section by section, cleaning every piece. Missing and broken pieces were replaced. He even found sections that had been previously replaced — and not well. The glass didn’t match the original. All of that was replaced correctly this time, but it wasn’t easy.

“The opalescent glasses come in many varieties. Also in textures and densities,” Johnson said. “There’s many subtleties that need to be taken into account.”

Johnson also discovered that when window ventilators were installed, someone mistakenly put the left-side ventilators in the right-side window. Johnson had to erect scaffolding and switch the ventilators with those in the “sister window” on the other side of the sanctuary.

The ventilators also used to pivot, opening and closing with pressure from a rope that hung to the floor. That rope did serious damage to the glass, Johnson said.

“You can imagine someone yanking that rope — every time, the glass kind of flexed. A lot of the broken glass was in the upper ventilators,” he said.

The biggest change came when he removed the old yellowed polycarbonate glass that sits behind the stained glass to protect it.

Polycarbonate turns yellow as ultraviolet rays hit it, Johnson said. He’s replacing it with laminated safety glass, which will remain clear.

His only disappointment over the course of the project was never finding the artist’s mark or signature on the window.

“The windows last for hundreds and hundreds of years and they get restored very infrequently — once every century or more. So this is the ideal time to add to the body of knowledge about the window, to do the forensic research and architectural investigation,” he said. “It’s just trying to be responsible custodians of the artifacts. Unfortunately, nothing came to light.”

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