High Tide

The CapeMay.com blog

The First Lady of Stained Glass

Text by Karen Fox. Photographs by Dottie Rogers. The original article, Jewels of Cape May, first appeared in Cape May Magazine, Winter 2007.

There’s a special glow this holiday season at Cape May’s First Presbyterian Church.

Taking down the Hughes Street windows. The glass is taped to prevent it breaking

The congregation is celebrating the restoration of the church’s 110-year-old stained glass windows. Thirty five windows, including massive 17-by-17 foot Gothic arches, have been painstakingly, lovingly, professionally reworked. The antique art glass was saved, while repainting and releading new pieces in the brilliant colors and fine hand-painted features that make the windows so special. The work is similar to resetting thousands of pieces of rare gems in custom-designed jewelry, but on a massive scale.

It was just two years ago that Dick and Dixie Barab met with 11 church members to discuss the worsening condition of the windows, and what to do about saving them.

Located at Hughes and Decatur streets, just a couple blocks from the sea, and stressed by a century of storms, the windows suffered severe cracking and bowing. The antique paint was flaking, the lead deteriorating and the wooden frames were weakened by invading termites.

Removing the Decatur Street windows.

The concerned church members called their mission Save Our Stained GlassWindows. They learned the windows were created by Wilheim (William) Reith, born in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 1844, arriving in America in 1867 at age 23. His studio was located at 134 North 7th Street in Philadelphia.

The windows he designed for the Cape May church depict scenes from the life Christ and stories from the Bible. The glass was painted with brilliant reds, golds, purples, greens and blues with generous amounts of silver stain. The paint was composed of ground glass, metallic oxide coloring agents and flux to lower the temperature of the glass when melted.

The brilliant art windows struck awe and inspiration among congregants at the first service in the new stone Gothic-style First Presbyterian Church, held May 21st, 1899. And now, almost 110 years later, these same restored windows filter the light of the sun and the reflection of the sea

Cleaned glass pieces assembled and waiting for leading

upon members and visitors at religious services, theatrical and musical events. The church has a cultural mission offering monthly Jazz Vespers and is home to most performances of the East Lynne Theatre Company.

For Dottie Rogers, Cape May’s First Lady of stained glass, the completed restoration is a victory of a lifetime. She is on the committee to save the windows. A retired school teacher and resident of West Cape May, Dottie’s goal is to photograph every stained glass window on Cape Island. In five years, she has organized almost 2,000 photos of stained glass windows, their histories and locations on her computer. And she’s always looking for more.

Lead work artist

Jewels of Cape May

Dottie says a small town like Cape May is unique to have such a variety of stained glass. She explains “the great fire of 1878 destroyed so many structures that in the aftermath, there was a giant building boom in the Victorian era when stained glass was very popular in America.” During this period, Americans developed an appetite and appreciation for this art form. Architects and builders eagerly installed stained glass into homes, churches and public buildings. Dottie’s most recent photos show the process of restoring the stained glass windows at her church.

The window restoration committee chose the J&R Lamb Studio in Clifton, New Jersey, to bring new life to the Reith windows. Lamb is the oldest continuously

Artist William Reith's signature.

operating stained glass studio in the United States.

Don Samick, owner, says that the Reith windows were a challenge because of the great amount of fading paint. First these fragile giants needed to be removed, loaded on a truck and transported to the studio. There each window is cleaned (“just with water,” says Samick), evaluated, disassembled and laid out like pieces of a puzzle. Detailed rubbings are made of each layer of glass. Artists recreate faded and damaged colors and images to their original brilliance and detail. Those new pieces are fired and then laminated in double leading beneath the antique glass so that you see through the original glass into the more brilliant restored glass, all blending seamlessly into one vision.

“When we arrived at Lamb,” says Dottie, “several of our windows were laid out in pieces on tables, lead gone and pinned.” It took a leap of faith that the artists could put these precious antiques back together again. “We had done our homework

The restored Decatur Street windows.

picking a studio,” says Dottie. “We had no fear.”

The restored panels were reassembled and transported back to the church for installation. The windows are trucked at 75-degree angles, between Styrofoam pads, secured with straps. The large mural windows are held in place at the church with steel T-bars anchored in the wood frames.

All of this was accomplished over 13 months and at the cost of $206,000. Meanwhile back at the church, the committee members were busy elves coming up with inventive ways to raise the money.

A special Jazz Vespers was held to benefit the restoration project. Local world-class jazz musicians, pianist George Mesterhazy and singer Lois Smith, contributed their talents. The event raised $15,000. The church members hosted bake and yard sales and Fornight Feasting dinners, card parties, a July 4th barbecue. Christmas bazaar profits went t

The restored Hughes Street windows.

o the windows. The East Lynne Theatre Company donated a production’s proceeds.

The most productive idea came from Bruce Jeffries-Fox and his wife Zan who created a price-per-window list for purchase by a sponsor. ”Whether a person contributed $1 or $1,000,” says Dottie, “every one will be acknowledged.”

Among the contributors is Lamb Studio itself. Don Samick, his artists and craftsmen gifted the church with a window over the Decatur Street entry. “It’s just a small piece of gratitude for a wonderful project,” says Samick. By the way, the Cape May spirit has captured Samick and his wife Donna. They were frequent B&B guests, but recently have purchased a home of their own in Cape May. The Presbyterian congregation couldn’t be happier than to have their stained glass artist in residence. “The windows will be good for another 150 years!” says he.

About Stained Glass

References to stained glass reach back to the 4th and 5th centuries, the art form reaching its peak in the 10th – 13th centuries, especially in cathedrals. Glass was colored by adding metallic salts while in a molten state: copper to produce green, cobalt for blue, gold to create red, silver nitrate to color yellow from pale lemon to deep orange.

The colored glass is crafted into stained glass windows in which small pieces of glass arranged to form patterns or pictures are held together by strips of lead or copper and supported by a rigid frame. The term stained glass also is used to describe windows in which all the colors have been painted onto the glass and then made permanent with heat.

Stained glass creation is both an art and a craft requiring the artistic skill to develop the design and the engineering skills to assemble the decorative piece be it a window, lamp shade, or free hanging art piece. In the case of a window it must be constructed to support its own weight and survive the elements sometimes for hundreds of years.

Religious conflicts and wars destroyed many complex stained glass windows over the centuries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The most prolific stained glass period in America was in the Victorian era from the 1850s to the 1920s.