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Stained-glass renovation offers transparent glimpse at past

September 29, 2018

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — It’s funny how light catches a piece of stained glass. On bright, sunny days, it can send a prism full of rainbows dancing around a room. Under cloudy skies, it’s more subtle, offering soft waves of crimson and amber, cobalt, teal and goldenrod.

Chances are, anyone who’s passed by the old stone church on Myrtle Road in recent days has already noticed this. Unity of Kanawha Valley bought the building back in 2010 and quickly began some needed renovations — but the windows were put on hold until this year. Now, for the first time in more than half a century or so, you need a pretty sophisticated vocabulary of colors, tones and shades just to describe the place.

“When I walked into the sanctuary and I saw the damage done to the stained glass, my first impression was, ‘Gee, they need the windows cleaned,’” said long-time member Ruth Davis.

She paused, then shook her head with a rueful laugh.

“I just had no idea.”

As she and others would soon learn, this job was going to require a lot more than some old rags and a few bottles of Windex.

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From the very beginning, nothing about the church was simple. It was erected using stones quarried from Davis Creek and hauled to the site in horse-drawn wagons around 1902. The land was donated by Robert Stuart Carr, a prominent businessman at the time, who named the Elizabeth Memorial United Methodist Church in honor of his wife’s mother. As the story goes, she once saved him from the sure — and arguably, well-deserved — wrath of a visiting bishop, and thus was memorialized in gratitude.The stained-glass windows were installed in the early 1950s.

All these years later, the windows were still lovely from the inside, even as they bore the evidence of time: the precise little holes made by carefully aimed rifles, the tiny cracks that spidered and grew, the microscopic bits of dust that gathered and clung to the panels no matter how many times someone ran a cloth over them.

But from the outside? Over time, the very efforts meant to protect them eventually obscured the vivid hues from passersby.

“Apparently, the congregation recognized they could not leave beautiful stained-glass windows uncovered because they’re a target for BB guns, and so they had covered them with probably the best material at the time, which was plexiglass,” said Gerie Ann Selbe, another longtime Unity member and a designer by trade.

“Over the years, it discolors, and it had become very, very yellowish-orange, and so you could not see the colors of the windows,” she added.

Plexiglass has a shelf life of about 10 years. The puckered, weathered sheets that covered the windows of Unity had been in place about 50 years too long.

They tried special lighting, to no avail. Even the candlelit ceremonies at Christmastime were barely visible outside the church — and letting that beauty shine for the community to see was an important part of the Unity mission.

“When we were working outside, the neighbors would always stop us. ‘You’ve got to fix the windows. Please fix the windows,’” said Gerie Ann.

One particular window near the red front door attracted the most attention. Large and circular, it shows Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was handed over to be put to death.

“That Jesus window being lit up at night, at 3 o’clock in the morning,” was special, said Pastor Sky Kershner, Unity’s spiritual leader.

“I’ve had several people tell me that in the middle of a tragedy or a scary moment, they were driving to the emergency room with a baby that had croup or driving behind the ambulance of a loved one who was being taken to Memorial, and they would drive by that window in the middle of the night and this light would be on and they would feel a sense of peace. And that’s a desire we have, to be a place in the community where people can have that kind of experience, so adding to the beauty from the outside was important to us.”

Soon after buying the church, they got a quote for renovating the old stained-glass windows. There were several options, but only one they could even consider was based on lots of member help and doing-it-yourself that was intimidating. And, there were other, more immediate, structural priorities — a leaky roof and a flooded basement among them.

Finally, by May of this year, “We had done the major projects, the guttering and downspouts system, and had finished a major water diversion project in the last two or three years to keep water away from the foundation, so we were looking at what we might do next,” said David Gettman, president of the Unity board of trustees.

Standing in the parking lot with Patricia Richmond, they both noticed the warped and yellowed plexiglass. It wasn’t clear, it wasn’t pretty and it didn’t look right on the old stone church.

“The windows are like the next step in our caring for this facility,” he said.

He asked that Patricia be put in charge of the stained-glass window committee.

A few days later, she stopped by Amanda’s Glass Art to talk with the owner, Amanda Buckner, who had given the original quote years before. It turned out Amanda had kept that old quote with all of its plans, and she had often wondered about the project.

“I didn’t get the job, so I always figured I lost it to someone else,” she said.

With the yellowed plexiglass still covering the glass, she couldn’t see the windows themselves and assumed they had been repaired.

“Every time I drove by the church, I would wonder who they got to do the work.”

She held on to the quote, just in case.

Hearing the story, “I thought, ‘This is just meant to be,’” said Patricia.

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The first thing Amanda needed to do was offer a new quote. This time around, the congregation wanted her to handle everything. That meant the broken, cracked pieces of glass had to be removed, one by one. New pieces — matching in both color and texture — would be stained and fired at the Paul Wissmach Glass Company in Paden City.“In liquid form it’s about 2,100 degrees. It looks like lava. Liquid lava. And then they take pitchforks and put three blobs out on a table, and it gets processed through a roller, pushed into a kiln, and four hours later it comes out on the other side as a sheet of glass,” she explained.

The grainy pattern of the wooden table it was rolled on would help create texture, and tiny air bubbles would intentionally be trapped — all a part of matching the original process.

The sheets would then be cut to the exact sizes and shapes that were needed. Some of them would be painted with black paint that would then be wiped clean to create an effect, and finally put back in the windows, securely tucked into metal pockets with shiny new strips of lead, soldered into place and stained to match the old.

All the other pieces of glass — the ones that weren’t broken or cracked — had to be individually cleaned. And the old Victorian-style window that was so out of place in the sanctuary, the one that covered a rickety stairwell? That had to be replaced with an entirely new window that fit the tone of all the others, but opaque so it could hide the stairs.

This was no small task. It required a general contractor with an expertise in renovations and a subcontractor to install the custom window.

Amanda submitted her quote, and the money was raised in a matter of days.

The biggest challenge she faced? Getting past her fear of heights. The exterior work, after all, had to be done on a two-story platform.

“I locked up on that scaffolding right there,” she said, pointing. “I had to train my guy to do everything for me, which, he had never done patchwork before. So I had to sit on the scaffolding and tell him what to do.”

There were a million or so little challenges — every time a piece of plexiglass came down, it seemed there was a new issue to be addressed.

For Andy Jones, owner of the West Virginia-based Phoenix Advantage Group restoration firm, the biggest challenge was carrying the huge new sheets of tempered glass that would cover each window from the trucks to the scaffolding where they could be secured in place on the church.

“These pieces of glass probably weigh 120 pounds,” he said, then pointed. “That one over there probably weighed two (hundred) something.”

The concern wasn’t dropping the glass — it’s not as fragile as it looks. The concern was where to set it down along the way so it wouldn’t shatter.

“I can’t set it on something hard. I can set it on wood. I can set it on padding. You can hit it, you can beat on it; but you rest it on a rock, something sharp catches it, and the weight of it, it turns into a million pieces.”

Instead, he and his team had to stagger the journey, laying down plywood to rest the glass on as they went.

The final piece of the entire project was a new window in the sanctuary. Amanda envisioned something that would look like it belonged, had maybe been there from the very beginning. She designed a rectangle to fill the space, with large blocks and bands of color like the other windows have.

“Our center image is a flying dove against a West Virginia mountain. It’s actually their old logo,” she said.

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By sunlight, electric bulb or candle, the colors are brilliant. The thing you might not notice right away is how transparent the windows are. Passing by on one side, it’s possible to see clear through to the other side. That, too, is by design. With the resignation of Catholic West Virginia-based Bishop Michael Bransfield coming just days before the stained-glass finale at his own church, Sky, the Unity pastor, told his congregation, “It’s important that we have transparent windows, it’s important that we have openness between the outside and the inside.”

“I just realized it’s not about how it looks from the inside that’s the real gift of these windows, but it’s how it looks from the outside,” he added.

Beauty, said stained-glass committee member Gerie Ann, is a wonderful thing.

“It’s good for the soul,” she said.

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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