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Through a Glass Darkly: The Social History of Stained Glass in Baltimore


Baltimore is a city of architectural treasures. I didn’t realize that until my husband and I were house hunting in Northeast Baltimore on a cold gray day in late 2020. On the second floor of a hundred-year-old house in Overlea, an Art Deco stained-glass window in the bathroom, next to a claw-foot tub, glowed in late-afternoon light. I’d never seen anything like it, as far as I could recall. It was love at first sight.

Associating stained glass with churches, I hadn’t noticed such windows in the Montgomery County neighborhood where I’d lived for more than 25 years. I’d admired medieval colored-glass windows in French, English, and Italian churches when I traveled in those countries, but the imitation-medieval windows in American churches didn’t move me.

The Tiffany-style lamps, bowls, and vases on “Antiques Road Show” and in secondhand shops were pretty but too expensive to consider buying. I didn’t understand the creativity involved in designing them or the technical virtuosity required to make them.

We bought a house at the top of Hamilton in Northeast Baltimore. Built in 1952, it contained no stained glass. We’d made offers on a couple of Craftsman bungalows with art-glass windows but lost them to higher bidders. I was disappointed, and our real-estate agent took pity on me. He gave us a lovely British window as a house-warming gift, and we installed it in our bay window. It enriches my life every day. Later I bought a window at Second Chance, a nonprofit architectural-salvage warehouse that is one of Baltimore’s treasures. Living with stained glass is even nicer than glimpsing it in other people’s houses.

Now I notice art glass wherever I go, in films, shops, and public buildings, as well as homes and houses of worship. The more I look, the more I see.

To get to know the area, I walked in our new neighborhood almost every day. Many houses built between 1900 and 1940 had small stained-glass windows, usually on their sides or fronts. I started taking pictures of the windows from outside. From time to time I’d encounter a neighbor in his or her yard, and I’d strike up a conversation about the colored glass that graced the house. Sometimes the homeowner would invite me in to photograph the window in its glory. My quest for stained glass became my pandemic project and helped me meet my neighbors. Despite “social distancing,” I was finding Baltimore a friendly place.

Attending the opening of a Tiffany glass exhibit at Evergreen House (a stately home owned by Johns Hopkins University), I met a local glass artisan whose knowledge of his craft and its history in Baltimore is encyclopedic. Every month he and a colleague met me for lunch to trade stories. They were exceptionally kind and helpful, and I learned a great deal from them. Through them I met other professional glassmakers who shared their expertise with me. I also met architectural historians, city planners, and other experts who gave me substantive help with my research, which became a joyous experience.

Meanwhile, on tours of my neighborhood I’ve met artists who make windows at home and collectors who’ve decorated their houses with what the British stained-glass artist John Piper called “painting in colored light.”

After a year of walking and taking pictures, I’d collected hundreds of images of windows within a two-mile radius of my new home. When I started walking in other Baltimore neighborhoods, I also found exceptional stained-glass panels in homes, public buildings, and churches.

My opinion of church windows has changed since viewing glorious windows in several Baltimore churches and watching a great television documentary, Let There Be Light. It tells the story of stained-glass artist (and Baltimorean) Rowan LeCompte (1926-2014) and his collaborator Dieter Goldkuhle (1938-2011), who created many important windows in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The documentary also shows the whole process of stained glassmaking, from blowing the glass to designing, hand-assembling, and installing the window.

Reading and talking to experts, I learned that wealthy Baltimore homeowners installed elaborate panes or transoms in their mansions during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Prosperous congregations spent large sums on church memorial windows made by Tiffany and other well-known studios. For the first time I really saw them, and they took my breath away.

The more I learned about stained-glass windows, the more questions they raised. First of all: Who made them, when and where? These are the hardest to answer. Art-glass windows were (and are) often unsigned. Record-keeping by late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century glass companies was spotty—or the files had long since disappeared. Sometimes churches kept such records, but they often went missing, too. Businesses failed, churches burned, houses were demolished. Windows cracked, collapsed, or were even stolen out of their frames. So much has been lost forever.

Over time my focus shifted. I began considering the social context of stained glass in Baltimore. Who bought the windows? Why? What did the windows say about the class, race, sex, and social networks of the people who made or bought them? What were the economics of the glass industry? Where did art glass fit in the development of the Aesthetic Movement, the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the Prairie Style of architecture, the House Beautiful and City Beautiful movements? How did Baltimore City’s annexations of big chunks of surrounding counties in 1888 and 1918 affect settlement patterns? How was the countryside transformed into segregated suburbs full of detached houses containing art-glass windows?

These questions led me down many detours to dead-end streets and on several wild-goose chases. Visiting a couple who’d been producing and restoring art glass for some 40 years, I aired my theories about the provenance of local windows, based on their similar designs. The couple disagreed, saying that much of the information I’d gathered from art-history books and other glassmakers was merely “a matter of opinion.” I kept hunting but realized I might never solve the conundrums the windows posed.

Part of the charm of stained-glass windows lies in the mystery of their origins, but also in their unobtrusiveness. Baltimore-born author R. Eric Thomas observed, “Baltimore is a city of treasures, but some of them aren’t always apparent when you walk by the outside.” It’s all too easy not to notice the windows while one strolls along city streets. Once seen, though, they can easily be appreciated, whether their provenance is known or not. Viewing the transitory play of light and color through glass as the day advances and the weather changes is deeply satisfying. A homeowner explained why she liked the ordinary-looking colored-glass windows around her front door: “In the winter they’re so lovely, they bring the warmth of sunlight into the house.”

If I couldn’t solve the mysteries of art-glass provenance, learning as much as I could about its social context in Baltimore, my new hometown, would have to suffice. I realized I could reconstruct and illuminate important parts of the city’s history by telling the story of Baltimore’s stained glass. Inspired by the work of Antero Pietila and other local historians, I found links between the city’s racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination and its architectural history.

In the process I’ve met talented artists and artisans with great experience, dedicated historians happy to share their expert knowledge, and neighbors who’ve welcomed me into their homes. I’ve had the pleasure of admiring and documenting hundreds of beautiful windows and sharing what I’ve learned about them. Welcome to my neighborhood! Enjoy these feasts for the eye and the stories they tell.