Restoring fragile pieces of historyEven among other examples of beautiful stained glass, the windows of St. James Basilica are special. That’s why a donor has funded a $325,000-plus project aimed at protecting and preserving them for the future.
By: By Kari Lucin, The Jamestown Sun, The Jamestown Sun
Even among other examples of beautiful stained glass, the windows of St. James Basilica are special. That’s why a donor has funded a $325,000-plus project aimed at protecting and preserving them for the future.
“The quality is just top-notch, hand-painted,” said Tracy Wallach, founder and owner of Classic Glass. “They’re some of the nicest windows I’ve seen in North Dakota, for sure, especially in an installation this size.”
Classic Glass has been working on the basilica’s windows since May.
When it is completed this spring, all 42 of the building’s stained glass windows will have been re-leaded and restored, and all 37 of the exterior windows will have new frames and protective exterior glass.
Glass with a history
The windows were originally purchased with a $5,000 gift from Pierce Blewett in 1918.
Stained glass typically lasts between 80 and 100 years before it begins to fall apart, Wallach said.
When that happens, the glass itself isn’t the part of the window causing the damage. It’s the lead, putty and strips of rebar that hold the stained glass together. As that lead decays, it begins to bulge and as it moves, it can put pressure on the glass and make it crack — ruining the material.
“When you have windows as valuable as St. James (has), it’s all hand-painted. Those pieces aren’t fixable,” Wallach explained. “It’s cracked now. You try to prevent that by re-leading them before they get too bad.”
At the basilica, at least one piece of glass has cracked, and possibly a few more, but for the most part, the glass is still in good shape.
To preserve the glass, workers from Classic Glass are taking down the windows — from inside of the basilica when possible — and bringing them back to the business. Then, they make a rubbing of the window to record its precise pattern, documenting along the way what pieces go where and which of them, if any, are broken.
Then the windows are taken apart, piece by piece. Classic Glass replaces the lead solder, the rebar and the putty between the glass pieces and cleans and buffs the glass, too.
“If you replace all that (housing around the glass) you basically have a new window,” Wallach said.
When one of the delicately-painted stained-glass faces has a crack, workers have a few options, though none are considered good ones.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do. You don’t want to replace it, you don’t want to do that — I mean, the Mona Lisa’s having trouble, so you replace it? No,” Wallach said.
Another option is to glue the glass pieces together, leaving the cracks clearly visible in some cases. Sometimes, though, the crack won’t show very much because of the composition of the glass, so gluing is the best option.
Other times, Classic Glass will put lead between the broken pieces, which will leave a black line between them. Because the line is just like every other leaded black line in between glass pieces, it blends right in.
Deciding whether to glue or lead the break depends on where the crack is and what the glass is like, but either way the glass can’t be left broken, Wallach said. It needs to be stabilized, or the glass pieces can rub together and chip or break.
Protecting the glass
The restoration of the windows themselves is critical, but the project also includes a second part — the replacement of the Plexiglas-like coverings on the exterior of the windows.
The coverings were put on the windows in the 1980s to protect the stained glass, but since then, the once-transparent coverings have turned cloudy, stopping some light from getting into the basilica and keeping people outside the building from seeing the windows’ patterns.
The housings of the old window protectors were also horizontal and vertical — meaning they didn’t follow the pattern of the stained glass circles, flowers and arches.
Not following the window pattern and being dark brown rather than the pale color of the housings around actual stained glass meant that the protectors stuck out a lot — and not in an attractive way.
“It was a cheap way to protect your windows, but it didn’t look very good. Over time, it got really ugly and started leaking,” Wallach said. “We replaced that.”
The new protectors follow the shapes of the stained glass and have pale paint, matching the housings of the stained glass.
“It’s not supposed to be the focal point. The stained glass is supposed to be the focal point,” Wallach said.
The new protectors are double-paned insulated glass, designed to be energy-efficient.
The exterior work will likely be complete this week, Wallach said, and then it will be time to take out the really big stained glass windows, one at a time, for their restoration.
Removing a stained glass window will change the lighting inside the church, and parishioners are likely to notice.
“It’ll be bright in there,” Wallach said jokingly. “Bring your sunglasses.”
A way to give back
Funding for the project was provided by Jon and Lori Wanzek of Fargo.
The restoration memorializes Jon’s grandparents, Vincent and Agnes Wanzek of Windsor, N.D., and also Jon’s father, Leo Wanzek.
“We’ve supported a lot of things in the Fargo Diocese, and then also my dad had gone to St. John’s Academy when he was young,” Jon said. “We just recognized it as a project that needed to get done, and thought it would be a nice gift to give back.”
He had asked the Diocese if there were any projects that needed to be done, and restoring the glasswork in the basilica was on the list.
The project’s estimated cost is between $325,000 and $350,000.
“The glass hasn’t been fully renovated since it was put in … it’s just been patched over the years, and the exterior protection glass was very dirty and old,” Jon said. “It was something that had been deferred for too long. (Restoration) really wins it back to its original beauty.”
Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at 701-952-8453
or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org