Restoring a splendor in the glass Preservation: Detailed documentation helps clear the way for efforts to rebuild fragile artworks damaged by a fire at the Maryland Club.

April 24, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Bill Miles came home from vacation last summer, picked up a newspaper and said: "I'm going to have a busy day."

He's been busy ever since.

When the Maryland Club was hit by a six-alarm fire in August, Mr. Miles found himself with a unique key to its restoration -- detailed documentation of every pane of stained glass in the 105-year-old Baltimore landmark.

"This is a cautionary tale about historic preservation," says Mr. Miles, of Artisan Glass Works in Govans. "The old boys want their glass back just like they want their moose heads back. All their good stuff was damaged."

The best of the good stuff -- a stunning, 13-by-15-foot skylight of blue and yellow and milky white glass depicting a black-eyed Susan that looked more like a daisy -- was destroyed. But it wasn't lost to memory.

"We will rebuild the skylight within one-sixteenth of an inch of the original," says Tage Jakobsen, Mr. Miles' partner, who has cast a number of amber-hued glass "jewels" that will be studded around the center of the glass flower.

The club is due to reopen in June with a wedding, although much of the stained glass and other details won't be finished by then. Out of an overall rehab job of $4 million, the glass work is costing about $100,000.

"This is disproportionately visible work," asserts Mr. Miles. "It's a bargain compared to the overall restoration."

Duplication of the glass treasures is possible because a month before the fire, Artisan Glass Works was called to the private club to appraise the value of its turn-of-the-century stained glass, much of it believed to be original Tiffany.

After taking photographs and dimensions of the glass, Mr. Miles says he told club officials: "Here's the value of your windows, and by the way, they need a lot of work."

(Not quite as much work as they needed after 150 firefighters descended on the corner of Charles and Eager streets with axes and hoses to save the landmark building from an electrical fire that started in squash courts built in 1927.)

Most stained glass of historic value does not fall victim to calamity, according to Mr. Miles, but to slow deterioration. By the time the damage is obvious -- like bits of sky that showed through the skylight at the Maryland Club -- it's often too expensive to repair.

Money wasn't a problem for the Maryland Club, which since its founding in 1857 has been home to some of the state's wealthiest and most powerful men. Just weeks before the fire, they decided to act on Mr. Miles' recommendation to repair the glass.

"If we hadn't planned to fix it, we wouldn't know [exactly] what it looked like," said Richard C. Riggs Jr. president of the club. "Sometimes things turn out to be very lucky."

But instead of slowly releading original glass at their work benches, Mr. Miles and Mr. Jakobsen sifted through rubble to retrieve buckets of shards. The shards will be sent to a glass factory in Kokomo, Ind., which will attempt to match the colors exactly. The damaged shards have a network of thin heat cracks resembling a dragonfly's wings. In some parts of the club, the fire burned so hot that glass melted.

"It was hopeless," says Walter Schamu, a club member whose architectural firm, SMDA, designed the restoration of the four-story building. "Water and fire came crashing down from the terrace above the skylight, and it was lost to the ages."

In all, the Artisan shop will be releading, repairing and restoring 62 pieces of glass.

"It costs more to relead the glass. You've got to take it apart and put it back together piece by piece, but if you do, it could serve another 100 years," says Mr. Miles.

Escaping damage in the fire, except for layers of soot, were two large transoms depicting both sides of the Great Seal of Maryland.

The rest of the pieces are decorative windows with colored glass and French "crackle glass" and a few dozen leaded windows of clear glass.

"We have some stuff on the bench already -- the plain Jane, straight line, clear leaded glass," Mr. Miles says. "We haven't made our moves on the skylight and the painted artistic glass over the front door yet."

Four panels of the skylight, which hung over a cafe along the Eager Street side of the club where luncheon buffets were served, were removed before the fire and taken to the Artisan shop in Govans. The surviving panels represent about 20 percent of the original skylight.

Because stained glass subtly changes color through years of exposure to sunlight (it does not fade, as some people think), the naked eye would be able to able to pick out the old glass if it was incorporated with the new parts from Kokomo.

What was saved will now be used for a transom over a new door being built at the club.

All of the leaded glass panels in the club's windows will go back in their original locations.

Oldtimers say that until the fire, not much had changed at the club over the years. They should be pleased when they come back.

"If some guy has a favorite corner of the club where he likes to sit with a cold one and admire a favorite wrinkle in a window, he'll be able to see it when he sits down again," says Mr. Miles.

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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