Lessons in stained glass

January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

Putting finishing touches on the Swedenborgian's St. Christopher window

Putting finishing touches on the Swedenborgian Church’s St. Christopher window


Like many people, I had been active in church life from childhood into early adolescence. Then, confronting what my teenaged mind saw as cowardice and hypocrisy within my church, I swore off religion.

In college I became aware of the writings of the 18th century scientist and Christian mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg and, as a scientist, was drawn to his insistence that the teachings of faith and reason must conform. But I had no interest in being part of any organized religion.

Until I walked into the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church.

I was awestruck by the building’s humble strength and simple beauty. Everything breathed a spiritual essence. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

By 2012, the condition of the stained glass windows that had graced the Swedenborgian church at the corner of Lyon and Washington Streets for more than 100 years had deteriorated. We learned that if action were not taken, the beautiful windows — an integral part of the National Historic Landmark — could be lost forever.

We engaged the services of Nzilani Glass Conservation of Oakland. Ariana Makau, the company’s founder and principal conservator, emphasized the many challenges and decisions involved. First and foremost, she said we needed to choose between conservation and restoration — whether to simply arrest the decay and preserve the original materials and methods, or restore the artwork to the artist’s original intention. If the windows were in a museum, conservation would be appropriate. Because the church is a National Historic Landmark, we wanted to honor its history as much as possible. But the windows are part of a living church and must withstand its rigors. Besides, to paraphrase the words of the church’s first pastor, Rev. Joseph Worcester, the windows must teach their lessons.


Douglas Stinson’s new book

Attempting to determine the artist’s intent led to an investigation of the life and work of Bruce Porter, the designer of the stained glass windows. Porter lived just a couple of blocks from the church on the Presidio Wall, at 3434 Pacific Avenue, in a house that unintentionally extended into the Presidio. The house design was a collaboration between Porter and influential San Francisco architect Ernest Coxhead. In fact, Porter, Coxhead and another renowned architect, Willis Polk, heavily influenced the design of the entire neighborhood. Their influence can still be seen today.

While now Bruce Porter is almost forgotten, toward the end of the 19th century he was a flamboyant figure in the San Francisco art world and a consultant to high society.

A painter, muralist, interior designer and landscape designer, Porter is most associated with stained glass. He was part of an American revolution of stained glass design initiated on the East Coast by John LaFarge and picked up by Louis Comfort Tiffany. In many ways, however, Porter’s windows in the Swedenborgian Church are unique, and don’t fit comfortably into any school.

Porter created the windows using that era’s latest — and distinctly American — innovations in stained glass aesthetics and techniques. He used minimal painting on clear glass and instead created the design through mosaics of multiple layers of opalescent glass and lines of lead. But Porter moved beyond that, striking out into new aesthetic territory. He abandoned symmetry and ornamentation and instead created a clean and straightforward composition with extensive use of negative space that has more in common with painting or photography than with stained glass.

The degree of science, engineering and craftsmanship involved in stained glass conservation and restoration was a revelation to me. I began to spend time in the Nzilani studio just observing the artisans at work and helping to make the trade-offs between conservation and restoration.

We uncovered many connections between a turn-of-the-century cultural renaissance in San Francisco, national trends in stained glass art, how artistic collaborations form and the intricacies of art conservation — all tied together by the windows in a San Francisco church.

It became obvious I needed to share what I was learning, so I decided to write a book. It uses as a framework the effort to conserve and restore Porter’s St. Christopher window, which for a century has been installed in the southern wall of the church facing the garden. The Most Creative Bit of Glass Work in the City includes photographs of the restoration process and a description of the cultural explorations the process stimulated. It is available at lulu.com.


VIDEO: “Conserving the Dove Window,” another of Bruce Porter’s stained glass windows at the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco

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