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The Stained Glass Windows of Norfolk

A Tale of Two Masters
By Babs Perkins

When stained glass is mentioned in conversation, for many, the first name that springs to mind is Tiffany: Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of jeweler and Tiffany & Co. founder Charles Lewis Tiffany. When stained glass windows and Norfolk are referenced, the windows in Battell Chapel, the library and the churches probably come to mind. In any case, Tiffany’s name will spring up.

That Norfolk has stained glass windows by both Louis Comfort Tiffany and D. Maitland Armstrong is cause for celebration–and preservation. Photo by Babs Perkins
In many small towns, stories are passed down about this house or that building, its history and origin. Over time a name gets attached, be it an architect or artist or designer, and eventually all related occurrences get credited to that one person.

In the case of stained glass windows and Norfolk, that person is Tiffany. While all of L. C. Tiffany’s artistic pursuits (as a painter, interior and furniture designer, first design director of Tiffany & Co.) were successful, his work with glass brought him the most fame, and for good reason. But the story of Norfolk’s stained glass is more complex.

Stained glass had remained largely unchanged from the medieval age. Craftsmen traditionally used simple flat panes of white or colored glass and painted ecclesiastical scenes and details on the surface. But by the 1880s Tiffany and his friend and early rival John La Farge were revolutionizing its design and technique.

Inspired by early studies in the arts and painting, Tiffany and La Farge independently experimented with techniques to create new types of glass and to develop a wider color palette, deeper, richer hues, texture and depth. By 1881, each had patented a type of “opalescent glass” featuring an opaque, milky, at times rainbow-hued appearance.

A statesman and an artist, Armstrong established himself as a one of the foremost designers of stained glass windows, utilizing the uniquely American-style opalescent glass during the period that became known as the American Renaissance (or Gilded Age). After serving as consul general to Rome and Director of American Fine Arts at the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle, Armstrong worked with his friend Tiffany, even running his studio for a time. He went on to found his own workshop, and the Battell Chapel altarpiece, installed in 1888, is thought to be one of his earliest commissions.

Norfolk residents may be somewhat familiar with the Armstrong windows thanks to last year’s Historical Society exhibition or from the attention surrounding the windows’ restoration effort. The fact that the Armstrong windows predate the 1928 Tiffany windows by nearly 40 years might come as a surprise. That works by both master artists exist in the same space is an occurrence nearly unheard of outside museum settings.

After years of inattention and at least one substandard repair over 50 years ago, work is underway to restore all the Battell Chapel windows. Much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, Michael Skrtic and his team at the Glass Source in Shelton, Conn., have recently completed the painstaking restoration of the central panel of the Maitland altarpiece. The work included mapping and cataloging and then the disassembly, cleaning, repair and reassembly of more than 1,800 pieces. The restorers are now waiting for Mother Nature’s cooperation to reinstall the window, along with its new exterior safety glass.

Plans are in place to remove a second, slightly smaller window for the same meticulous treatment. Barry Webber, president of the Norfolk Historical Society, who has been involved with the endeavor, noted that about one-third of the money needed to complete the restoration process has been raised and more town-wide fundraisers are planned. He adds that Norfolk has historically benefited from patrons and benefactors of the highest order, and while Norfolk doesn’t need another church or library, our town is made richer for the attention paid to maintaining the gems entrusted to us.

Photos by Babs Perkins: That Norfolk has stained glass windows by both Louis Comfort Tiffany and D. Maitland Armstrong is cause for celebration—and preservation. 

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