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

Through a Glass Darkly is based on two years' on-the-ground, library and archival research in a city of architectural treasures that reflect a long history of racial, religious and ethnic segregation. Stained-glass makers continue to produce beautiful products of an endangered craft.

Copies of Through a Glass Darkly are available for purchase online or in person from the Maryland Center for History and Culture shop, Red Emma's bookstore, the Museum of Industry and the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore. 

Click on the headline above to read the Introduction to Through a Glass Darkly.

Q&A with Linda Rabben, November 2023


* What initially inspired you to write a book about stained glass in Baltimore?

After moving to Baltimore in 2021 I walked around my NE neighborhood and noticed numerous vintage stained-glass windows in homes. Curious to know more, I started asking my neighbors about them and taking pictures of them.


* How did you first get interested in the medium of stained glass?

I got interested after seeing a striking stained-glass window in an Overlea bathroom while house hunting in late 2020. I hadn't been particularly interested in it before, although I'd admired beautiful stained-glass windows in European churches.


* How did the writing of "Through a Glass Darkly" come about?

At first I tried to find out who'd designed and made the windows, when and where. This turned out to be a wild goose chase, so I consulted books by local historians such as Antero Pietila and Eric Holcomb about the social context of their creation. That was how I learned about Baltimore's long history of racial, religious and ethnic segregation. About a year ago, realizing that I could connect stained glass to that history, I decided to write a book that would address those connections.


* When was the golden age of stained glass art?

Stained glass decoration came to Baltimore in the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of European immigrants who brought their craft with them. Stained-glass decoration in churches, homes and public buildings became omnipresent in the early twentieth century, first among the wealthy, later among the burgeoning middle-class, as taste became democratized. Many of the stained-glass windows I saw were installed between 1900 and 1940.


* Why are so many of us drawn to stained glass art?

I believe we have a basic emotional and physiological response—delight—to the play of color and light through glass as the day advances and the weather changes. It goes beyond a cognitive or intellectual appreciation. Somebody should do neurological research on brain activity related to the aesthetic experience—or maybe somebody already has.


* Who were the early stained-glass artisans of Baltimore?

The first stained-glass maker I could find in Baltimore was H.T. Gernhardt, a family business that started in the late 1840s and lasted until 1942. Other local glass makers included Foertsch and Lettau, Henry Seim, the Maryland Glass Company and G. Wilmer Gettier in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I found about a half-dozen art-glass studios listed in city directories of that period. Most of the artisans who fabricated stained-glass windows remain unknown—most vintage windows are unsigned and undated.


* Do Baltimore's stained-glass windows really differ from those in other cities, such as Philadelphia, Chicago or New York?

I don't know; I haven't studied stained glass in other cities. I do know that art-glass studios existed in many cities around the United States, artisans moved from city to city, and many artisans fabricated windows with designs from widely distributed pattern books.


* Is there a "Charm City style"? What differentiates it?

Style variation emerged from choices builders and religious congregations made in adopting designs that were disseminated across neighborhoods. For example, transom patterns in houses built by Frank Novak, "the two-story king of East Baltimore," are very similar to one another in the neighborhoods where he built row, semi-detached and detached houses. On the other hand, wealthy church congregations could afford to buy elaborate custom-made windows made in New York by Tiffany, in Boston by McPherson, and by well-known makers in other cities and countries. Abstract patterns became more common, perhaps because they were cheaper, quicker and easier to make than elaborate figurative designs.


* What do different stained-glass art elements say about Baltimore's racial, religious, class, sex and ethnic divisions throughout its history?

Stained-glass windows were luxury items that tended to appear in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods where white Christians of Northern-European descent lived and worshipped. Homeowners there signed restrictive covenants that prevented them from selling property to "undesirables," including Blacks and Jews. Meanwhile, Black congregations and residents inherited the windows when the original white residents decamped to the suburbs. In elite neighborhoods such as Guilford, Homewood and Roland Park, where wealthy white Christians built mansions with restrictive covenants in the early twentieth century, stained-glass windows are hard to find in houses but common in churches. As taste became democratized, stained-glass windows fell out of fashion as domestic decorations in upper-class white neighborhoods.

This is only a summary of two chapters I spent answering that question. For the whole story, readers should buy the book or ask their local library to order it.


* How does stained glass tell the social history of Baltimore?

I think it's the other way round. The social history of Baltimore tells the story of stained glass as a decorative architectural element among certain classes, religious communities and ethnic groups in certain neighborhoods. It's no coincidence that stained glass moved along with white middle-class Christians and Jews to separate suburbs, especially after the annexations of 1888 and 1918.


* What are some of your favorite stained-glass pieces around the area?

I especially like the five-feet-square panel next to the front door of 104 East Biddle Street, built in 1883 in Mount Vernon. I was thrilled by a Tiffany window in the New Hope Community Church in Catonsville, but the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland removed it and other windows in 2021, and their whereabouts are unknown. Windows in two corner houses and several rowhouses on Eutaw Place are spectacular. The unusually abstract Tiffany side windows in the First Unitarian Church downtown are impressive. Windows in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen are beautiful. You can see color and black-and-white pictures of some of these in my book.


* Why do you think stained glass in Baltimore has not received as much recognition as it should?

Stained-glass decoration is often inconspicuous. Seen from outside the colors may look dull or dingy. Passersby cannot see some panels from outside. They're expensive to buy, install and maintain. Some designs are aesthetically uninteresting. Many have been lost or have deteriorated so much that they've been removed. Homeowners removed them when they installed vinyl siding or storm windows. Between the early 1970s and the early 2000s stained-glass windows were stolen from churches, public buildings and houses and not replaced. And because they've been around for more than 100 years, residents tend to take them for granted.


 * How would you characterize the state of stained glass in Baltimore today? Who are today's artisans of this medium?

Prominent stained-glass makers and mosaicists include Dan Herman; Len and Sherry Fackler-Berkowitz, owners of Great Panes; Reva Lewie; and Loring Cornish, who works in mixed media. I interviewed several makers who, in their seventies, are approaching retirement. They don't know who will take up the craft, and its future is cloudy. Artists Corner, the principal studio training aspiring practitioners, is about to close. MICA hasn't had a stained-glass program in decades. The next phase of my project in 2024 will be promotion of a professional training and apprenticeship program for stained-glass makers at a local educational institution.