Climb what seem like never-ending flights of rickety scaffolding steps. Try not to look down at the altar and pews. Look up to the light filtering through stained-glass windows in the dome. At the top, workers are cleaning, scraping, and oiling long panels of colored glass, apparently oblivious to their distance from the ground.
This workshop in the sky is where Patrick Clark and his 10 assistants are spending long days restoring 12 glass portraits of the apostles as part of the $6 million dollar renovation of the St. Jean Baptiste Church in Manhattan.
The turn-of-the-century church is designated a national and city landmark. Its stained-glass windows were made by the son of the founder of the famed Lorin Studies in Chartres, France. It is the same vibrant glass that dominates windows of the Chartres Cathedral.
The church, originally formed to serve Roman Catholic French-Canadian immigrants, is now an important part of the Upper East Side community. The DiCapo Opera & Theatre Company resides in the renovated basement. And the church provides food deliveries for the poor and helps the homeless find living quarters.
About 10 years ago, however, the church realized it needed to begin a restoration program when 20-pound chunks of limestone and decorative moldings started falling into the street. To help pay for the restoration, the church decided to sell an adjoining piece of property to a developer. As part of the approval process, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission required the church to work on the stained glass as well.
"It had never been worked on but was not in all that bad a condition," says the Rev. John Kamas, pastor of the church. To restore the stained glass, the church turned to Mr. Clark, who owns the Sunlites Stained Glass studio in Rockaway Park, N.Y. In March, Clark, who has done restoration work on other churches and synagogues, set up shop.
This has been a rush job; the project began in June, and they now hope to reopen the church in time for midnight mass this Christmas. The work on the windows is nearly complete, but other restoration activities - which take up the bulk of the $6 million budget - need to be completed.
The church's windows, of which the apostles in the dome are only a sample, have a long history. Half were ready to ship from France in 1914, but war broke out. "They hid them in cellars during the war. Somehow, in the meantime, they made a second batch of windows during the war," he says.
In 1919, all the windows arrived in New York on steamers and were installed. This is the first time they've been touched since then. "All stained-glass windows, after about 80 years, fall apart," says Clark. The windows consist of small pieces of colored glass bonded by lead strips; the panel is reinforced by metal bars.
The work is done meticulously. Workers begin by cleaning the windows using only water. Then they remove the framework and pull out each panel from the wall. They scrape old putty from under the lead strips, then put on new putty, and let the panel dry. With new wires, they reattach the reinforcement bars. If there's a crack, they bond it with special glue. And conservators rarely if ever change the glass.
"We can reproduce anything, but these are high-art stained glass," says Clark. And since they are "conservators," as opposed to less rigorous repairers or restorers, they document the entire process with photographs.
How does one become a conservator of stained glass? In Vienna as a teenager, "I used to crawl around in old abandoned villas hunting for treasures," Clark says. He "rescued a couple of old windows" and brought them back to Washington State, his original home. He got his BA in sociology and began learning about stained glass. Eventually he went to work in a studio and soon after opened his own.
It's not easy to become a conservator these days. "In Europe it's very organized," says Clark. "Even in the '40s and '50s in the US, there was a formal seven-year apprentice-training program. Now you learn by working in an advanced studio."
Continuity is a theme of Clark's work. "We're still using the same approach," says Clark, with the windows at St. Jean Baptiste that was used a thousand years ago. Nowadays, though, the equipment is up to date, with computerized kilns replacing fires. He keeps intact both the old techniques and the old windows. "When we put them back up, they'll be stable for another 80 years."