Illuminated by a jewel

Ceremony: Brown Memorial church in Bolton Hill rededicated its renovated building -- the highlight of which is the 11 newly restored stained-glass Tiffany windows.

April 07, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

As the organ music began to swell and the choir assembled yesterday afternoon, many eyes in the congregation were turned heavenward, but for once less in worship than in sheer delight at the beauty of the restored windows.

Eleven stained-glass Louis Comfort Tiffany windows glowed, seemingly lighted from some internal fire, like the members of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church had never seen.

"It's more beautiful than we could possibly imagine," said Midge Nelson, who has a long history in the church with her husband, Travers, who was christened there 82 years ago.

The couple, who live in Baltimore County, were at the packed church in Bolton Hill for a service marking the unveiling of the results of a yearlong, $1.8 million renovation project that restored much of the 133-year-old church along with the nearly century-old Tiffany windows.

The years had taken their toll.

The heavy lead had bent and buckled, causing fractures in the glass and calcified concrete dust to settle between the multilayered panes, leaving them dingy.

To repair them, the windows were painstakingly disassembled and shipped to restorers, who spent six months mending and cleaning the largest of them.

Now, there's no extraneous material to hinder the sunlight, which flowed brilliantly through the glass.

"[God] said, `Let there be light,' and there is light," Robert Gorham, who has been a member of the church for 10 years, said before the service.

The Tiffany windows are valued at about $1,800 per square foot, a church official said. That adds up to roughly between $21,600 for the smallest window, which is about 3 feet by 4 feet, to $864,000 for the two largest windows, which the church claims to be the biggest Tiffany made at 16 feet by 30 feet.

Most of them feature biblical scenes, including Christ walking on water, sitting in solitude and floating among the clouds.

Two works contain likenesses of former church members. In the "Nativity Window," a portrayal from the Gospel of Luke, a cherub's face is fashioned after the child of the window's donor. And in "Jesus and the Children," a scene representing the unwavering faith of the innocent, the child on Christ's lap is modeled after James Gary Black, an infant for whom the window is a memorial.

Five other stained-glass windows, along with the ceiling and roof, were repaired in the renovation, which was paid for by member donations. New lighting was added, stonework was fixed, and floors and pews were refinished.

A columbarium for cremated ashes was also created. "I came upon it and I was kind of spooked," said Elizabeth Toland, who volunteers for Meals on Wheels through the church. "It's like you turn a corner and you see a ghost."

The organ, a 1930 E.M. Skinner with nearly 3,000 pipes, is something of a prize for the church as well.

It's one of the few in the country that has maintained its tonal integrity, said organist Geoffrey Shoffstall, even through the 1960s and 1970s when congregations moved to adjust the sound of their instruments to the fads of the time.

Behind the scenes before the 2 p.m. service began, Shoffstall and the choir members were hidden in the back assembly room, which was used for services during the construction. They fretted and fidgeted as if it were opening night at the Met.

"We're a little nervous," Shoffstall admitted.

A cork labyrinth in the floor of the Smith Chapel section of the church has yet to be completed and one Tiffany window awaits restoration, but that didn't seem to matter to members who wore their pride on their faces.

"The thing that excites me about this church is the part it's played in Baltimore," said Charles Obrecht, a Baltimore developer and 43-year church member who volunteered his time as project manager.

"These windows are such a treasure," Obrecht said. "They're arguably the greatest collection anywhere."

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