A brief history and lessons on maintenance
Almost any New Orleans home of a certain age has a stained-glass window punctuating the interior. It might be a transom above a traditional, clear glass window or part of a series of windows tracing the route of a stairwell. Most likely, the stained glass has been there since the house was built, or it may have been added later when owners wanted to pay homage to the past.
Stained glass, or colored glass, dates back to the time of the Egyptians and Phoenicians, but flourished during the Medieval age. Its roots began in churches.
“During this time, the money and power were tied up in the Catholic Church, and churches were designed to let the architecture fade away and let the art form of these glorious windows shine through,” says Mel Buchanan, RosaMary Foundation curator of decorative arts and design at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
“Biblical stories were communicated in windows to illiterate church members of the time. They were a symbol of beauty and power in the name of religion.”
With the Reformation came a change in ornamentation and a byproduct was a judgment against riches displayed in churches. Stained glass ceased to flourish as an art form.
“But during the 19th century the Victorians began to look to the past with a romantic lens and reignited stained glass as an art form and architectural embellishment,” says Buchanan. British architect and designer A.W. Pugin is credited with popularizing stained glass in homes.
At the same time, New Orleanians who were building homes enthusiastically embraced the fashion. Grand homes in the Garden District and Uptown adopted a “high Victorian” look that was ornamental and often depicted pastoral scenes. Later built Arts and Crafts homes in Mid-City, Black Pearl and elsewhere used geometric and abstract figures in their stained glass designs and nature references.
“It seems as if the more money there was, the more embellishments there were in the glass,” says Cynthia Courage, a glass restoration artist at Attenhofer’s Stained Glass Studio in Metairie. “Some of the designs were peculiar to a certain area or the personality and taste of the owner.”
Courage is finding that today’s homeowners are very interested in preserving these antique art works, if they already exist in a home. Some are adding stained glass embellishments to new and restored homes. But these works of art require care, as human error can do irreparable damage to the glass and the casings.
Courage says an owner should never put epoxy on lead or rebar, a common mistake. Acidic silicon can degrade and even destroy the lead. If you notice a loose bevel, or one falls out, get it fixed immediately by a professional. If a piece falls out and breaks, it is gone forever.
Never use an ammonia-based cleanser on stained glass. If you want to clean the glass yourself, test a small, discreet place with a non-ionic water diluted with a pH-balanced soap, such as Dawn. Put the solution on a rag, and never directly on the glass. If you notice the window is leaking, bowing or flexing, call in an expert.
The most damaging thing an owner can do to a stained-glass window is to completely seal it, which causes a greenhouse effect in our humid climate, says Courage. The degradation that ensues can destroy a window or worse, form a powdery, toxic substance when airborne.
Both Courage and NOMA’s Buchanan recommend that when adding a stained-glass window to a house, you should do some research to match the window to the architectural style of the house. “Be true to the period of your house. If the house is late Victorian, use the bold colored windows of the time. If the home is of the Arts and Crafts period, use the more muted look,” says Buchanan.
These timeless art forms are treasures that represent an earlier time and give a home character. They change the quality of light and offer a privacy screen in some parts of the home. They are a link to the past and hint of the aesthetics of their time.
“Most of all, if the window is original to the house, it’s a tangible example of the love and care of the first owners of the home and shows a specialness,” says Buchanan. “They are truly a window to the taste of the original owners.”