Julie L. Sloan

St. Columba's Chapel Middletown, Rhode Island

History

St. Columba's Chapel - the Bishop Berkeley Memorial - is located barely a quarter of a mile from the Sekonnet River and about one mile from the ocean outside Newport, Rhode Island. The tiny stone church nestles in the center of its picturesque burial ground, looking as if it should be in the English countryside, rather than in New England. The chapel, designed by Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre in 1885, reveals more delights inside: eleven gloriously jeweled stained glass windows. The chapel, which is dedicated to the English philosopher and cleric, Bishop George Berkeley, who lived in the area, was begun in 1884 and consecrated in August, 1887, a month after the completion of all its stained glass windows.

In the rear of the church, high up in the wall, is a peculiar yet mesmerizing window depicting a woman holding a dove to her breast. She stands in a brilliant blue niche constructed of hundreds of tiny rectangular pieces of tile-like pieces of glass. Around the niche is golden architecture. Although the artist and manufacturer of this window are unknown, the history of its donor is quite famous: this lovely window is dedicated to the first wife of the illustrious 19th century actor, Edwin Booth, whose fame has been eclipsed in our century by the notoriety of his brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Edwin Booth and his daughter, Edwina, summered in the Newport area, building a house just down the street from the chapel. They were involved with the construction of the church from the beginning and in 1885 donated this window - the first in the building - in memory of Edwina's mother, Mary Devlin, who died in 1865.

Columba The other windows in the building are no less marvelous, although their history is better known. The eight small aisle windows, one small choir window, and large triple lancet chancel window were designed by David Maitland Armstrong in 1886 and manufactured by the Tiffany Studios of New York. They are some of Armstrong's earliest windows. The chancel window, which borrows the figure of St. Michael the archangel from a Fra Angelico altarpiece, is one of his first figural windows. The aisle windows are decorative, constructed primarily without layers, unlike most other Tiffany windows, but with an exuberant selection of opalescent glass and cast jewels, turning the church into an unparalleled jewelbox. In total, the St. Columba's windows are a rare treasure of American stained glass art.

Columba Julie L. Sloan, LLC, was retained to provide a condition study and restoration plan for these windows, and to contract and oversee that work. The chancel window's restoration was begun in February 1996 and completed in May of the same year. The aisle windows' restoration is beginning in September 1996 and will be complete by May of 1997. The Booth Memorial window is not being restored at this time. The restoration is being carried out by the Daniel Maher Stained Glass Studio of Cambridge, MA, where we visit once a month to oversee the progress of the restoration.

David Maitland Armstrong

History

The side aisle and chancel windows were designed in 1887 by David Maitland Armstrong, who lived from 1836 to 1918. They are all composed of unique and unusual glass, including machine-rolled opalescent, hand-manipulated opalescent, cast glass jewels, and hand-faceted glass jewels. The local newspaper accounts describing the windows, from the Newport Daily News and the Newport Mercury , are worth quoting at length:

Mr. Armstrong's method of working[,] though not original or entirely peculiar to himself[,] is noticeable in that he hews out the lights and shades of his subject in the glass, thus making the graduated lights and shades by the varying thicknesses of the material and the sunlight itself create the diverse effects required. The glass is not painted or merely stained on its surface, making a window picture lighted from the rear and intercepting and diffusing all the rays of sunlight and heat, but the pigment is melted and blended with the glass, coloring it throughout, somewhat in the manner of so called Cathedral glass, a method giving far greater brilliancy and richness to window work than other processes of coloring and, what is infinitely more important, preserving the essential or sanitary purposes of windows by direct admittance of the sun's rays of light and heat.

Those who desire to see some of Armstrong's remarkable work should visit the mission chapel of St. Columba - The Berkeley Memorial - on the south-east cliffs of the island of Rhode Island. The side windows of the nave and choir are all his work and present the most intelligent and elegant compositions of color and form a graceful introduction to the main and larger group of eastern windows of the chancel which he has recently finished and placed in the chapel. The side windows are remarkable for a spring-like freshness and charm of colour - the chancel windows for a ripeness and vigor that[,] seen under the early sun[,] are a glory of color unsurpassed for calm and gorgeous brilliancy and splendor.1


Although Maitland Armstrong (he rarely used his first name) was quite a prolific stained glass designer, even opening his own studio on New York's Washington Square in the 1890s, little is known or written about him. His autobiography, Day Before Yesterday , published in 1920, reveals almost nothing about his own life, being more concerned with anecdotes about family and friends. Hamilton Fish Armstrong, his son, also wrote an autobiography in 1963, called Those Days , which is also largely anecdotal, but contains some images of his father at work in his glass studio. He says of his father, "He was attracted to work in glass, I think, by the opportunities it gave for luminosity and depth of color, and these are the qualities that mark the most successful of his windows, as also those of his friend La Farge." He described the glass shop on Washington Square:

It was an enormously high room, with bins of glass lining one side and sheets of glass propped up everywhere. The glass had been made according to his directions, and it was of every variety of hue and texture imaginable. On one side was the oven where the painted glass was fired, a delicate operation. Shafts of light slanted down from the glowing parts of an unfinished window. Papa would be up there, directing things from the top of a ladder. The head workman, Mr. Hart, would hold up one piece of glass after another from a certain bin. Papa would reject and reject until at last, satisfaction showing in his china-blue eyes, he found precisely what he had in mind. The cutter would then shape it to fit the design on the full-size cartoon, brushing the remnants onto the floor in a tinkling shower. The whole would be fixed together eventually with snaky lengths of lead, secured at the joints with solder. I left with a glass jewel or a bit of ruby glass cut for me into a heart or diamond.

This description was of Armstrong's studio some twenty years after the completion of St. Columba's windows, but it gives a nice picture of a typical stained glass studio of the period. His daughter Helen eventually became his principal assistant, carrying on his work until her own retirement when she was in her seventies.

Maitland Armstrong did not begin life as an artist. He was a lawyer, having studied at Trinity College in Hartford and passing the bar in 1862. Late in the 1860s, he went to Rome as the American consul to the Papal States and later to the Kingdom of Italy. While in Rome, he became friendly with the American artists living there, including sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens, who became a close friend. Armstrong took up painting at this time, and upon his return to New York around 1875, took studio space in the same building as Saint Gaudens to begin his artistic career in earnest. Saint Gaudens' biographer says that it was Armstrong who introduced him to John La Farge at this time.

That Maitland Armstrong was commissioned to do the windows of St. Columba's Chapel is not surprising. In the 1860s, before his diplomatic appointment, Armstrong had summered in Newport, where he met and married Helen Neilson, daughter of John Neilson, who owned property in Paradise Valley adjacent to that on which the church was built. 2 This was when Armstrong met John La Farge, as well; he also summered in Paradise Valley in the 1860s, painting his most important landscapes. Armstrong was well-connected and was a logical choice for St. Columba's windows. He claimed that it was he who introduced Mrs. Edward King to La Farge and Saint Gaudens when Mrs. King wished to erect a memorial monument in her husband's memory in the Newport cemetery, in 1873; the monument was ultimately designed by La Farge and sculpted by Saint Gaudens. Mrs. King donated a number of the windows to St. Columba's, as well. Armstrong's son, Edward, married Edward King's daughter, Maud Gwendolyn, and resided at Kingscote on Bellevue Avenue. A number of Maitland Armstrong's paintings can be seen there.

Armstrong began his career in stained glass in the mid-1880s, around the time he received the St. Columba's commission. In his autobiography, he calls his "Annunciation" window in the Church of the Ascension in New York, "almost my first figure window." 4 The "Annunciation," which is dedicated to his father-in-law, John Neilson, was installed in 1886, a year before St. Columba's windows.

The Tiffany Studios seems to have executed most, if not all, of Armstrong's early windows. He was sometimes referred to as one of Tiffany's designers. In an 1886 announcement of the reorganization of Louis C. Tiffany & Co. into the Tiffany Glass Co., Armstrong is listed as one of the "well-known artists ... who will contribute memorial windows and other special work." 5 He is not mentioned in the standard references on Tiffany, however. 6 By the 1890s, he was clearly no longer working with Tiffany Studios, but had opened a studio to build his own windows.

In Armstrong's autobiography, Tiffany is never mentioned. John La Farge, however, is described as a friend, and written about in some detail. We might infer from this that Armstrong learned about stained glass from La Farge, rather than from Tiffany. Hamilton Fish Armstrong's book implies that Armstrong worked with La Farge, saying,

[Maitland Armstrong] and his friend La Farge developed new techniques in opalescent glass, sometimes `plating' their windows with as many as three or four thicknesses, one on top of the other, thereby giving them depth and glorious color. In this they differed from the windows later on manufactured by commercial artisans for churches all across the country which gave 'American glass' such a bad name. 7

It is not known exactly what the working relationship between Armstrong and La Farge was, however, or whether there ever was one. Armstrong kept company with the same artistic crowd as La Farge, which included Saint Gaudens, the architectural partners Stanford White and Charles Follen McKim, and artists Elihu Vedder, Francis D. Millet, and Will H. Low, all muralists, easel painters, and stained glass designers. In most period writings about this crowd, Tiffany isn't mentioned. Despite the lack of mention of Tiffany in Armstrong references and vice versa, and despite the fact that Armstrong and La Farge were friends, there is no reason to doubt that the St. Columba windows were in fact fabricated by the Tiffany Studios, as the local newspapers of the period state. By 1887, La Farge's artistic career was in shambles and the Tiffany Studio was on the rise as a major force in the stained glass business. Tiffany's establishment was undoubtedly more reliable than La Farge's at getting windows produced, friendship notwithstanding.

Maitland Armstrong was quite a prolific designer of stained glass. His windows grace the Church of the Ascension, the First Presbyterian Church, and St. Michael's Church in New York, as well as the New York State Appellate Court House on Madison Square and Columbia University's Chapel.

Summary of Conditions and Recommendations

Condition Report

St. Columba's windows have been heavily repaired in the recent past. The Mary Devlin Booth window has been almost completely releaded. It requires no restoration now, but will in the next five years.

The rest of the windows have been partially releaded and extensively repaired in the past. This has not forestalled their advancing deterioration, however. In the chancel, "St. Michael" was in the worst condition of all the windows and was restored first.

In our restoration, we called for the complete releading of all the windows, not only because the lead came had deteriorated, but because the previous repairs had muddied the lead line with sloppy craftsmanship and failure to fully clean the windows after waterproofing. Cleaning the glass and edge-joining the broken pieces is done after the windows are taken apart. Missing glass is replaced with new glass that matches the original exactly. After the windows are reinstalled, new protective glazing, made of glass, will replace the discolored plastic glazing presently on the windows. This will substantially increase the amount of light reaching the windows.

Documentation

One of the most important components to restoration is documentation, which is completely missing from the previous work on these windows. There were no records at all of this previous project: no contract, no photography, no rubbings. Although the work had been done only about 20 years ago, we could not even figure out who did the work, or why. It was a textbook example of how not to restore a window and an excellent illustration of the importance of project documentation and reversibility of procedures and processes. By contrast, according to our specifications, the Maher Studio will provide the owner with a full set of before and after restoration photographs, panel by panel; the original rubbings and microfilm copies; and a daily journal kept by each craftsperson at the Studio describing the work.

The previous restorers had clearly run into trouble when they took the windows apart, and their releading was a mess. Original glass had been cut in order to force the window into shape, although the shape was the wrong one - the repair studio had not taken templates of the opening into which the window was to be reinstalled and the curve of the Gothic-arched head didn't match the frame. Many pieces were installed backwards or upside down, and some were lost altogether. Whole borders were relocated. It was obvious that the repairers had not made rubbings of the window before taking it apart and so had no clue how it was to go back together. The craftspeople of the Maher Studio had to puzzle out how the window had originally looked and which glass had been where. Fortunately, the excellent original craftsmanship helped them out; the pieces that had not been altered by the previous repair were so well cut that there was no question about where they went. The previous repair leads had been selected without regard for matching the size and shape of the original lead. There were only about 6 square inches of the window that contained original lead; fortunately, this was enough to determine the sizes and profiles. In the restored window, the figure of the archangel gained height and slenderness as the glass was returned to its original location. His wings and breastplate were tightened up to their original configuration, which gave them greater definition. In the side lancets, the bishop's miter and book, symbols of Bishop Berkeley, to whom the window is dedicated, gained legibility and dimension; the ribbons that entwined them are now distinguishable from the background.

In the aisle windows, the situation is much the same. The same repair studio releaded them, and the Maher Studio will have a similar puzzle on their hands when they try to figure out the original placement of the glass. But they feel that having completed "St. Michael," they now know the windows and expect that there will be much less trouble in reassembly.

  1. Newport Mercury
  2. Mary C. Sturtevant, "The East Shore of Middletown, RI", Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society 54 (July 1925), p. 14-17. Helen Neilson Armstrong also had a brother named John; it is not clear from this article whether the owner of the land was the father or the son.
  3. Maitland Armstrong, Day Before Yesterday: Reminiscences of a Varied Life (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920), p. 263.
  4. Maitland Armstrong, Day Before Yesterday , p. 309.
  5. "Tiffany Glass Co.," Builder , Trade Supplement 4 (February 6, 1886): 2.
  6. These include Alastair Duncan, Tiffany Windows (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980); Robert B. Koch, Louis C. Tiffany: Rebel in Glass (New York: Crown Publishers, 1964); and Hugh McKean, The "Lost" Treasures of Louis Comfort Tiffany (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1980.
  7. Hamilton Fish Armstrong, Those Days (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 31.