Damage in the Guise of Repair.

I decided to feature one of our current projects here because it it both typical and atypical of the stained glass rescue and relocation that we perform many times every year.  My good friend and prominent Architect of contemporary Catholic Churches, James McCrery, brought us in on this project in Rumson New Jersey.  Holy Cross Catholic Church was rebuilding Their historic church building, retaining only a fraction of the original structure and adding new construction, expanding to suit the parish’s needs.

When I learned that the parish was shopping for antique windows, I showed James a collection of windows that we recognized as very special.  Nicola D’Ascenzo began his art career as a muralist but quickly found his true calling in the medium of stained glass.  Here are two photos showing a couple of typical windows in this collection of 14.  Nearly all feature Irish Saints, for what was an entirely Irish parish in Germantown Philadelphia.


While these are great windows and well worthy of our attention, what I really wanted to expose here is the damage that was done to them under the guise of repair.  The former Pastor of this parish told me that a company called Cathedral Glass had been working on these windows for years.  When we documented them, we found that they were virtually all badly buckled throughout with the lead matrix in nearly every section severely bulged.   Once we had them out of their setting and in our studio, we discovered that some truly appalling damage had been inflicted on these windows.  Someone had made a  misguided attempt to flatten the bulges by inserting expanding bolts through the stained glass and pulling on the bolts to draw the leadwork flat.

The photo below showing one of these expanding bolts will do a better job of explaining just what a disaster this scheme was for the windows.  They Inflicted this damage to more than 20 individual sections.

There are a number of stained glass companies operating in the United States that claim to be able to “reduce” bulges in-place.  Several of these companies operate across the country, doing untold damage and scamming hundreds of Churches in the process.  This company is/was merely a local operation but the damage they were causing to these windows was enough by itself.

Nothing, absolutely nothing can or should be done to solve deflection in-place!  Unfortunately, there are no licensing requirements to restrict who can claim to be an art restorer.  The problem is enabled by a general ignorance about the medium, even by Architects and engineers.

Bulging in a lead matrix is not the problem but rather a symptom of a problem that lies deeper.  Bulging is caused by a fit a setting that is too tight.  Stained glass, like most building materials, is subject to thermal expansion.  Much of the problem can be attributed to the only sealant available for centuries, putty.  Nothing more than powdered cahalk and vegetable oil, the putty that was used to bed the sections into their settings will quickly dry to  a rock-hard consistency.  Once it hardens, it will disallow any expansion within the setting.  When thermal expansion occurs, the trapped sections of stained glass have no options.  Unable to expand up, down, left or right, they can only fold.  Attempts to force the bulges flat simply puts more pressure on the lead matrix that is already stressed.  Even if you are successful in reducing the bulge, it will certainly return in quick order, which is just what happened with the D’Ascenzo windows at Saint Francis of Assisi.


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Here is one of the expanding bolts.  Since the windows were covered with storm glazing, they felt the need to make an attempt on the bulging from the interior side.  What they did was to force these bolt through windows to then be expanded on the opposite side.  Once expanded, they pulled on the bolts and bulges too.  The damage they did in this case was to break out bits of the original glass to allow the bolts to pass through the stained glass.  Scattered throughout the stained glass are holes the size of a dime, where the original stained glass was broken out and discarded.  We must now recreate the missing glass wherever we find it these bolts.  Once they expanded them on the back side of the stained glass they were unable to take them out.  So the bolt were left as a calling card of this company’s idea of repair.  The worst rub is that the effort and the damage were completely pointless.  Since the remedy didn’t address the root cause of the bulging, the “fix” was only temporary and the deflection quickly returned.
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The majority of the windows we restore are Bavarian and generally, we completely disassemble these and rebuild them with all new leading.  But in the case of the Gothic revival windows of Nicola D’Ascenzo, the density of the number of pieces made it far too expensive to completely disassemble them.  Still, the severe deflection requires us to make some significant interventions.  We are guaranteeing the results.  In the photo above, you can see the new shiny leading that replaces the damaged original material.  The broad borders of densely patterned glass are being cut away whole and rejoined to the rest of the sections with new leading.  The old American workmanship was, I’m afraid, not as skillfully executed as the work of the large Bavarian Juggernauts of the last Century.

One last point of interest.  Check out the Saint on the right.  the section containing the Saints lower half, from the waist to his feet, was installed upside down.  Yep, for nearly an entire century this Saints lower half was seen upside down and no one ever noticed.  Believe it or not, this is not an unusual occurrence.  It is difficult to see the elements of a grand composition when you are on a scaffold.  Once the scaffold is down, there is little desire to expose your own mistake.  I myself have seen upside-down sections in three different churches in the past year.

Joe Beyer