‘It’s just like putting a puzzle together’: Fort Monroe begins stained glass restoration at Chapel of the Centurion
(Tribune News Service) About two years ago, Rhonda Williams entered the Chapel of the Centurion seeking comfort and wanting to reflect.
Her eye was immediately drawn to the stained-glass memorial windows, ornate with images and inscriptions, adorning the church walls.
“They always have some significance to them. They have a message. And that message reaches out to people at various stages in their life,” said Williams, Fort Monroe’s property manager. “When my father passed away, I came here. We went to one of the other windows where there is a quote about ‘good and faithful servant, well done.’ That’s the message I personally gathered for my father.”
During another visit, the windows in the 164-year-old chapel revealed a different message — wear and tear.
“I was expecting to come in here and you know, inspect the carpet and inspect the pews make sure the lights all worked,” she said. “I started walking around and really looking at the windows and I noticed little pieces of the lead which had fallen and cracked and were missing, and I thought that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”
The evidence to a trained eye: out-of-plane bowing, badly oxidized lead came and support wires and broken solder joints, according to an assessment report from Fort Monroe preservation officer David Stroud — the result of years of exposure to the elements without the best storm protections needed for the delicate windows.
Last week, Fort Monroe launched a project to restore eight of the building’s 31 windows and add protective storm coverings on all the windows. Lynchburg Stained Glass is doing the job, estimated at $190,000 with funding coming from the Fort Monroe Authority’s maintenance reserve funds, deputy executive director John Hutcheson said.
The restoration will be done at studios in Lynchburg with an anticipated reinstall early next year. While the windows are being restored, co-owner Jeff Speake and installer Troy Kidd spent last week putting in temporary inserts, made of a light wood, with the same images painted on them. Established in 1983, the company specializes in designs and handcrafting custom liturgical art glass, but for Speake, the trade goes back much farther.
“My father had been doing this since, you know, for 50 years,” Speake, who now runs the family business with his brother Mark, said. “That’s all we’ve ever done.”
One project, several puzzles The chapel on Bernard Road at the former military post is a Gothic Revival style and the nation’s oldest continuously used wooden church.
Architect Richard Upjohn designed the building that has served as the military chapel since its construction in 1857. After the Army pulled out in 2011, two congregations have been using the chapel, Williams said, but when their lease expired, the authority assumed the maintenance.
While it served as the post chapel, the Army over the years made a slew of modifications to the original design, including making it a five-bay church, adding pews, a vestibule, a Moller organ in its loft, to name a few. The church building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is within the Fort Monroe Monument National Historic Landmark District, according to Stroud’s report.
Of the many stained-glass windows, at least two are Tiffany glass, crafted by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Speake, co-owner of Lynchburg Stained Glass, says Tiffany glass can be tricky, compared with other windows.
“(Most) windows have one layer of glass. Tiffany can have up to two to three layers of glass,” Speake said. “There’s so many pieces. The pieces are so tiny. It takes a lot of time.”
And disassembling the windows will be painstaking, including taking multiple high-resolution photos, doing a sketching or rubbing of the windows, removing and repairing the lead, laying out the glass pieces, cleaning the glass and reconstructing the windows.
Creating a master rubbing is an important step. It’s similar to shading over a stencil with a pencil, so the craftsmen can capture the exact design. The glass itself will be cleaned with gentle materials and will be re-glazed, according to Stroud’s report.
“We lay paper over the window. We take a ... pencil, and we go across it and it puts an image of the piece of the lead, and it takes the shape of the pieces,” Speake said. “It’s just like putting a puzzle together with a guide that shows you how to put it together.”
Speake has a staff of some 20 people, including craftsmen and artists, with mostly everyone having a hand on this project. The group has done restoration work to dozens of houses of worship in Virginia and around the country, including at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Williams did over a year’s worth of research to find the right group, including consulting the Stained Glass Association of America, to learn the terminology and also just seeing what’s out there.
“I’ve checked out churches in Puerto Rico, San Juan, San Francisco and New York. It’s just been an experience really,” Williams said.
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