By Cheryl M. Keyser
Photos by Monika Wertman
Tiffany. It’s a name that evokes images of diamonds, pearls, and multicolored gems arranged in exquisitely designed settings at equally exquisite prices. Recall the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with an elegant black-gowned Audrey Hepburn peering in its windows.
That Fifth Avenue mecca for the wealthy, however, had a much more prosaic origin – sand – common silica found in most rocks and mixed with elements to produce the delicacy of glass.
The son of the original owner of Tiffany, Louis Comfort Tiffany, raised this humble medium to a glorious height – reinterpreting, indeed recreating, stained glass, a decorative art form that has endured for centuries and giving it new prominence.
Stained glass is most commonly associated with churches, their colorful glass windows filled with religious imagery to remind parishioners of the stories of their faith. In the hands of Louis Comfort Tiffany, this medium came into the 20th century reborn in an atmosphere of Art Nouveau, spellbinding with both religious and secular themes.
A select representation of these famed windows can be seen in Franklin County, Pa., which has a sizable, yet unheralded, array of Tiffany stained glass windows. “We have a varied collection that would rival some larger towns and cities,” says Mike Albert, Chambersburg architectural historian and guest speaker on a 2015 bus tour of these gems. Six different sites in the county – from Beartown to Welsh Run, churches to academic institutions – By Cheryl M. Keyser Photos by Monika Wertman bear witness to his radiant work.
Tiffany (1848-1933) was born in New York City, the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder of the eponymous store. He was educated at military academies in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but put that training behind him to follow his natural instincts into painting. One of his early teachers was George Inness, known as the father of American landscape painting.
On a fortuitous trip to Europe, he visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which held an extensive collection of early glass. Drawn to its possibilities, he returned and set up his own glass factory in Corona in Queens, New York, to improve on the production of what he had seen.
His most inventive contribution was the development of what he called favrile glass which he patented in 1892. (Favrile is variously attributed to an early French or Old English word meaning handmade.) He brought this new glass to the interior design of the Mark Twain House in Connecticut and also to the White House.
President Chester A. Arthur wanted to redecorate his official home and he commissioned Tiffany to redo many of the formal rooms. Tiffany’s lamp shades, later to become famous, covered the gaslight fixtures and a floor-to-ceiling glass screen filled with various designs was installed in the Entrance Hall. Unfortunately, when Theodore Roosevelt became president, another renovation eliminated the Tiffany touch. The windows in Franklin County come in various sizes and themes.
For instance, those in the large meeting room at Kiel Hall on the campus of Mercersburg Academy are smaller compared with those in churches. These bear the coats of arms and names of early graduates. In similar education mode, Lenfest Commons at Wilson College displays a Tiffany window entitled the “Instruction of Hypatia.” Hypatia (circa 250 A.D. to 415 A.D.) was a female Greek mathematician and astronomer who lived in Alexandria, Egypt – a most fitting choice of subject for what was then exclusively a woman’s school. Wilson’s window features several different types of glass, says Albert. “Tiffany worked with glass in ways no one ever imagined, taking it to a whole new level.”
Many of the windows in the county were commissioned as memorials. The two in the Presbyterian Church of Falling Spring are stunning in their simplicity. Whereas “Tiffany” lamps are noted for their bright mix of colors, these two are created in softer hues with few of the horizontal metal saddle bars to intrude on the image. One of only two which are signed by a Tiffany company (each has a slightly different name in the lower right-hand corner) is the magnificent Angel to the left of the main aisle. This was given by the children of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Nixon.
An androgynous figure stands at the center clothed in soft pastel draperies. Not only do many of the elements in the design bear symbols of Christianity, such as the sun and the palms, but the assembly of the image is so delicate that “no two feathers in the angel’s wings are the same,” notes Rev. Bill Harter, Pastor Emeritus of the Church.
Falling Spring, a couple of blocks from the square in Chambersburg, is a “rose-rent” church and the oldest public building in Chambersburg, affirms Harter. Benjamin Chambers, who established the town, provided three tracts of land for the construction of churches, with the provision that the annual rental would be a single red rose, a commitment that is maintained to this day.
Central Presbyterian Church on the Chambersburg Square,holds a generous number of windows. They are a gift of Mrs. Johnston McLanahan, in memory of her father, Col. James C. Austin, a founder of the church. A major fire in 1938 destroyed two windows and damaged others. They were repaired, however, with pieces of Tiffany glass. It is said that the Tiffany studio had over 5,000 different colors of glass. Especially striking is the remarkable Ascension window, 25- feet high, proudly reigning over the congregation.
When Tiffany passed away he left a dual legacy – one the family store, the epitome of wealth – the other these superb windows and decorative glass pieces, raising a humble craft from the mundane to the divine.