First Parish Looks to Restore Aging Stained Glass Windows
More than a century old, historic glass in danger of fading away.
The history of Brookline is looking a little foggy.
That is, if you're looking at it through the historic stained glass windows of First Parish in Brookline, one of the oldest churches in Brookline, located on the site of the original town hall and green.
Many of the windows, commissioned by prominent Brookline families such as the Tappans, Goddards and Lowells have begun to deteriorate, as dampness seeps in and the lead around the glass pulls the glass down. Panels have slipped, once-vibrant colors have faded and facial details have become hardly noticeable.
To remedy the situation, First Parish Unitarian Universalist church established a stained glass committee in January to explore the process and cost of restoring them.
"Just about every window represents a family that had deep roots in the town. And we'll be exploring those roots as we go," said Sheila Hussey, chair of the First Parish Stained Glass Committee.
Some windows in the church's cavernous sanctuary show biblical scenes, but many represent Brookline history, such as the World War I memorial rose window, the Goddard window, which depicts church members John and Hannah Goddard, and the centermost stained glass window behind the altar is in honor of Rev. John Pierce, the church's longest-serving reverend.
The two panels needing the most repair are the Lowell and Sweetser windows.
The Lowell window, installed in 1899, was built by Sarah Wyman Whitman, a Beacon Hill artist whose stained glass windows can also be found in Harvard's Memorial Hall and Boston's Trinity Church.
The Sweetser window, installed in 1906, depicts Mary, baby Jesus and angels, and was made by the renowned stained glass artist Louis Tiffany in New York, in honor of Frank E. Sweetser.
According to Hussey, stained glass has a lifetime of about 100 years, and these two windows have passed their prime. The Lowell window, made up of multiple layers of glass, will have to be carefully removed and cleaned. One panel on the back of the Sweetser window has fallen, and the facial details on both windows have nearly disappeared.
Hussey said the committee has raised enough money to pay a stained glass expert to visit the church this week and determine the cost of restoration. Once determined, Hussey said the church hopes to involve the many community organizations in Brookline in fundraising.
"It's a historical collection for a town," she said.
Fifteen years ago, when Francis Hutchins, a professional historian and 20-year member of First Parish, began piecing together the history of the windows, he said he had to start from scratch.
"They were sort of folkloric tales," said Hutchins.
"There was no one at the church who knew anything about the windows," he added, explaining that the windows had been neglected for over 50 years and the church had kept virtually no records.
To recover the windows' history, Hutchins said he struck gold at the Brookline Public Library, where his best source of information was the Brookline Chronicle, the local newspaper published during the time that the windows were installed, from 1895 to 1945.
There, and in the rare book room at the Boston Public Library, Hutchins was able to locate records of the windows' donors, artists, dates and stories.
After about two years of compiling information, Hitchens put together a guide about the windows in 1999.
"I realized that we had a very important collection of stained glass that we needed to preserve," Hutchins said.
Not only were the windows donated by money from Brookline's extremely wealthy estate class of the early 1900's, but the individuals who created them were some of the nation's most talented stained glass artists.
Hutchins said experts in art history and restoration said the Sarah Wyman Whitman window makes First Parish's collection was particularly valuable. Whitman was the only important female artist of the period who had a short career in stained glass but is considered by experts to be the equal of Isabella Stuart Gardener, Boston's prominent female art collector of the same era.
The two other Whitman windows are at Harvard and have already been restored.
"We have a window that's not only very good but very rare," Hutchins said.
Acknowledging that some members prefer to remove the windows altogether, he added "now that we're discovering this, people are coming around."
Hutchins said parishioners as well as other Brookline-dwellers are realizing that the windows are an important part of Brookline history.
For example, the rose window in the church's nave commemorates members of the Brookline community killed in World War I, including one MIT student who lived in Brookline but was not a member of the church.
"We want the whole town to realize that the early history of the town is preserved there and shouldn't be thought of as that of the church, but as the history of the entire town," he said.
First Parish, established in 1717, has ties to Theodore Roosevelt, John Adams and Leverett Saltonstall, the three-term Massachusetts governor and U.S. Senator. First Parish's rev. Frederic Henry Hedge, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, launched the transcendentalist movement in New England, which was first known as Hedge's Club. Its members also played important roles in slavery abolition, small pox inoculation and women's suffrage.
The goal "is not only to inform our own members but to have in mind an event in the fall to bring in more people," Hussey said.
She said the church is exploring the idea of a musical event to raise money.
The Brookline Community Foundation is responsible for the money that the Stained Glass Committee raises. The foundation handles donations and expenditures to keep the window funds separate from the church's budget, said Erica Richmond of the Community Foundation.
The First Parish congregation, however, has mixed feelings about the window restoration.
"Some people find the windows disturbing," Hussey said.
She said people come to the Unitarian church after leaving other religious backgrounds, and when they enter the sanctuary, they feel like they have re-entered the religious heritages they are trying to escape.
Hussey said she understands, but ultimately, "it comes down to how you keep the building going," she said.
"I think it's a beautiful place and it's worth preserving. It's an art form and you can't put it into a museum," she said.