May 23, 2012 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
Skaneateles residents passing down East Genesee Street soon will notice boarded-up window frames have replaced the beautiful stained-glass windows in the top story, front façade of the First Presbyterian Church. Don’t worry — the church is not moving, or going defunct, but rather nearing the completion of a 20-year project to restore all the stained glass windows to a structurally sound state.
The windows, as beautiful and as priceless as they are, are more than just decoration, however. They also convey messages, honor families, share church history and imbue the physical structure with the harmony and philosophy of the religious congregation.
“The beauty of these stained glass windows is that they preserve the ecumenical diversity of this congregation in this community. Not only in the names [memorialized on the windows], but in the desire to find a way to work together building on the core beliefs of each denomination and individual,” said Rev. Dr. Craig Lindsey, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. “The abstract design of the windows at First Presbyterian Church emphasizes that faith is not always rational, or explicit, but requires that the witness interpret and apply what they have seen.”
The First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles is the oldest congregation in the village. It was organized July 20, 1801, as the Skaneateles Religious Society, with dedication of the first building on March 1, 1809. Due to a growing congregation, the Presbyterians built a new church in 1831 at the present church site on East Genesee Street. The previous church at 21 State St. now houses the Skaneateles First Baptist Church.
In 1891, the church was discovered to be structurally unsound and subsequently demolished. The reconstructed church — what is the current building — was built in 1892.
A major part of the funding for the new building was given by Thomas Hall, a wealthy New York City man who had grown up in Skaneateles, in memory of his mother. His financial contributions were given on condition that the money would be used to “give to the glory of God,” and not be used for either music or artwork — such as stained glass windows.
This was a major reason that as church construction neared completion in summer 1892, no money had been set aside for windows. The pastor at that time, Rev. O.L. White, contacted the families of all the original Skaneateles Religious Society members and asked them to sponsor the cost of a window as a memorial to their ancestors.
Many of these original Religious Society families moved on to other Christian denominations such as Episcopal, Lutheran, Baptist Methodist and Roman Catholic — yet their names are on the windows in the Presbyterian Church.
“This is a very ecumenical space represented in the windows for the family members of the organizing members,” Lindsey said.
This incorporative spirit also was concomitant with Hall’s other financial condition: that one pew in the church be designated for “strangers” to the congregation.
“On any given Sunday, probably one-third of the congregation is from other churches,” Lindsey said. “We are not here to force membership or to proselytize, just to come and worship God.”
The 35 stained glass windows in the church Sanctuary offer a kaleidoscope of color and artistry, all designed before the turn of the 20th century. What may not be noticed at first glance is that there are no people depicted in any of the designs.
This style, called “patterned windows,” was intentional. It was part of the “iconoclast controversy” in the years before 1920, when the depiction of human images in Protestant church windows was considered a violation of the Biblical commandment against fashioning a graven image. As the Presbyterian Church history states, “The 1892 windows were intentionally designed to be abstract patterns designed to avoid any direct images and instead represent patterns found in all creation.”
Then in the 1920s, the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany in Syracuse began putting pictures of Jesus in its windows and glasswork. Tiffany was such an innovator and trend-setter, that other companies began including human images in their stained glass windows.
The windows in the Presbyterian Sanctuary are not meaningless designs but full of symbolism and imagery. All the windows, in fact, represent aspects of the Book of Revelation from the Bible, Lindsey said.
One of Lindsey’s favorites is above the pulpit, where there are five small windows. Two of these represent Dogwood in bloom and two represent Persimmons. The window in the center depicts a cross and crown together, which is an ancient symbol of Christianity.
“The fun part for me is that this originally depicted the idea that Christianity will take over the world. Of course we don’t believe that anymore, so since the 1960s the question has been, ‘What do we do with that?’ It’s wrong. It’s not about conquering the world, but ministering to it,” Lindsey said.
The cross and crown has now come to be viewed in the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr’s question of Christ and culture, basically, what role does a church have in its community? What is a church’s identity? Lindsey said.
Another “fun” and interesting window for Lindsey is on the east side of the Sanctuary, and depicts grapevine and clusters, and in the center of the window is a blue square. The original intention and meaning of this box is unknown, and is not listed in church records.
“My interpretation,” Lindsey said, “is that in the midst of the vine of life is the unknown. The box is where the future will be. It allows each of us to put ourselves in it — there is no name on it.”
Perhaps the most fascinating set of windows for Lindsey are the five large ones in the Narthex wall, on the south side, directly above the main doors of the church. Each of these were donated by, and engraved with the names of, some of the oldest families in the village: Kelley, Thompson, Austin, Adams and Cuddeback.
Inside the center window, donated by the Adams family, is a script letter C, a script letter A and an ampersand “&” sign all interwoven. “In the 1890s this was a hot political issue: Calvinism versus Armenianism,” Lindsey said. It was a difference of religious belief of Calvinist predestination versus Armenian free will — does God have a plan for us or do we make our own way in the world?
The significance of the window image is in the ampersand symbol added to the image. This means, Yes, God has a plan for us but as individuals we also have free will. When we exercise that free will, God’s plan evolves for us and opens something new in our lives, Lindsey said. Ultimately, this means people of different faiths and beliefs can worship together and embrace each other.
This imagery of acceptance and brotherhood at the doors to the church, coupled with the cross and crown image above the pulpit, which originally signified Christian dominance of the world, shows, “a wonderful tension of who the church is,” Lindsey said.
Church records indicate that the windows were originally manufactured in the 1890s by the Baird Company of Boston. What the records do not indicate, however, is why these specific windows and patterns were chosen in general, or why certain families chose certain patterns for their family memorial windows. Stained glass windows were sold by traveling salesmen during the end of the 19th century, selling patterned windows out of a catalogue or offering specially-ordered and designed windows for higher prices.
What is known is that the windows were brought to the village by steamship across the lake, and, when it was determined the windows were the wrong size, the openings in the walls were “literally” built around the windows in order to accommodate their size, as it was too far and too expensive to send them back, Lindsey said.
All of the 19th century stained glass windows of the church are original, but time has taken its toll. The windows have lead bars throughout them, separating the glass pieces and acting as a bulwark for the window as a whole. Lead is a soft metal, however, and through the years has begun to bend, which leads the glass to warp, break and ultimately, if left unaided, shatter. Such destruction would be “irreplaceable today,” Lindsey said. In general, because of their origins and uniqueness, the Presbyterian Church windows have a monetary value of more than $1 million each.
To protect and preserve the windows, the church began a restoration process nearly 25 years ago. They have been working with Brennan Stained Glass Studio, of Syracuse, which is not only a world-class glass studio, but owner Scott Brennan actually learned stained glass painting and restoration from a man who studied under Henry Keck, one of Louis C. Tiffany’s original apprentices. Brennan’s studio has built, installed and restored windows in churches, schools, temples, hospitals and numerous other structures. They also made the stained glass dome inside Boldt Castle, in the Thousand Islands.
“Some churches have very religious windows, some don’t. I find those windows at the Presbyterian church to be some of the most beautiful Victorian spiritual windows we’ve ever seen,” Brennan said. “They’ve done a remarkable job keeping that place original. That’s a tribute. That’s something hard to do today.”
In Europe, a church’s stained glass windows are restored about every 100 years, Brennan said, and the Presbyterian Church’s windows are no different. They all were built with the finest materials available at the time, but after more than 100 years, they have stretched to the point where they need to be replaced, resoldered or upgraded, he said.
“There’s very limited damage to these actually, mostly just structural issues,” Brennan said. His studio will replace the lead bars with new ones, maybe add some additional bars and if necessary retouch some of the paint. “Every window has been different,” he said. Only one window had what Brennan called “major trauma,” in which there were so many cracks they needed to replace some of the glass. This they did with glass from the period to keep it as original as possible. If period replacements are not possible, they epoxy the original glass.
The stained glass of these windows, and even some of the colors in the glass, are no longer possible to make or replicate because they were made using arsenic and lead, components no longer legal for such use. “Arsenic created some of finest colors in the world [in 1890],” Brennan said. “You cannot get those colors today.”
For the restoration work, Brennan uses mostly hand tools like glass cutters and lead knives. The most electronic tool they use is a soldering iron.
Removing the windows from the church is a delicate task. They will install scaffolding inside the church and have men remove the windows by hand. While still on the scaffolding, they then create “stretchers” out of wood, with a softener on the bottom, and remove each window individually, “like a patient going to the hospital,” Brennan said. “We really have to baby them until we get them to the studio.”
In place of the windows, Brennan’s will install either plywood or paper in the frames, whatever best filters the light shining into the Sanctuary.
The restoration process for each window is about three months, but each piece should last another 100 years or so, Brennan said.
The five large windows in the Narthex wall are the next to be restored, and will be taken out sometime within the next month. The restoration work is anticipated to be completed and the windows returned prior to the Skaneateles Festival Concert series this August. At that point, there will only be four windows remaining to be restored, with completion of these anticipated before the end of the year.
“The stained glass windows are a reflection of this congregation. Every window has gems and jewels, a myriad of colors, working for the whole of the window, but even more in continuity with the whole church. The wonder is that everything in this church is this integral. There is music in education, there are children in the sacraments, and every element while spectacularly executed, work in communion with all the others,” Lindsey said. “We have lovingly restored this Sanctuary, correcting the problems of time, to be the vital, practical, mystical, and real House of God in the center of the Village, as central to life in Skaneateles as our homes, schools and businesses.”
For more history of the Skaneateles First Presbyterian Church, including the stained glass windows, visit skaneatelespresbyterian.org and click on the “Church history” tab.
For more information on the Brannan Stained Glass Studio, visit brennanstainedglassstudio.com.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Skaneateles Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.