They tore most of it down in the 1950s. This is the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Auburn. Auburn’s a half-broken little town on the Finger Lakes of Western New York. Owasco Lake, to be exact. Before the white man arrived, the Finger Lakes were Iroquois country. But that ended bloodily in the 19th century, as it ended for most of the Native American peoples.
With the Iroquois gone, settlers began to build churches and religious schools. The Presbyterian Theological Seminary was a large and important place. It thrived for most of the 19th century as trade along the Erie Canal fueled the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening. The foundations of American Protestantism were built in this area, among others.
Alas, the winds of trade are capricious. By the 1930s, it was no longer financially viable to have a large theological seminary in Auburn. The seminary was moved down to New York City, and became part of Union Theological Seminary, home to Protestant big names like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and, more recently, Cornell West.
The buildings up in Auburn were slowly torn down to make way for various — mostly failed — projects of urban renewal. A few of the buildings were abandoned to the processes of decay and neglect by which buildings become ruins. One of these ruins-in-the-making was Willard Memorial Chapel. Seventh Day Adventists purchased the Chapel complex in the late 1950s. They kept the Chapel in good condition, all told. But they couldn’t afford the mounting costs of upkeep. By the 1980s, a real estate developer was threatening to buy the Chapel and turn it into a disco. A Community Preservation Committee was formed. The Committee was able to purchase the Chapel in 1990. Thus, through a confluence of accident and dumb luck, Willard Chapel survived.
All of this is important because Willard Chapel is a hidden treasure. Its interior was designed and constructed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The Chapel is “the only complete and unaltered totally Tiffany designed religious interior known to exist in the world.” It is significant that the Chapel is a religious interior since Louis Comfort Tiffany was, as everyone knows, in love with stained glass. And stained glass is, more often than not, found in churches. Indeed, it was in the churches of medieval Europe that the art and craft of making stained glass windows reached its zenith. That was how Louis Tiffany saw it, anyway.
Tiffany began his artistic career as a painter. But he was never satisfied with painting. Tiffany was drawn to glass. Perhaps he was fated to love the shininess of glass, being the son of famous jewelry maker Charles Lewis Tiffany. Looking at all those precious stones in his father’s shops, a young Louis Tiffany became obsessed with light and color as it penetrates jewels like diamonds and rubies. The opaque surface of the painter’s canvas was never going to light up that way. But stained glass does. Have you ever seen the way evening light comes through the Gothic stained glass windows of Sainte Chapelle in Paris? Then you know something of Tiffany’s obsession. Standing inside of Sainte Chapelle is like standing inside a jewel box.
Louis Comfort Tiffany wanted to learn the old secrets of getting color into glass. The stained glass of the 19th century couldn’t even begin to compare with the incredible work in the 13th century cathedrals. Tiffany figured out why. It was a matter of impurities. Stained glass doesn’t respond well to refinement, to the industrial techniques that were being used in the 19th century. You can mass-produce colored glass with those techniques, but you can’t make the artful, deeply colored glass like the old masters once made. Tiffany tried to convince glassmakers to leave the impurities in the glass. But they wouldn’t do it. They were proud of the new, cleaner, and purer production methods. So Tiffany decided to make his own glass. He hired a man named Arthur Nash to come up with a formula for making glass the old way. Together, they would make a messy, impure glass of deep color and rich texture.
There were many failures along the way. But eventually, Tiffany and Nash succeeded in making stained glass that could compete with medieval masterpieces. Tiffany patented his glass-making process in 1894, calling it Favrile (from the word “fabrile,” meaning “hand-made”). The trick of Favrile is that the color is really and truly in the glass. It isn’t on the glass. And yet, the color is separate from the glass, too. The iridescence of Favrile glass has a swirly, mystical quality. You can’t tell exactly where the color is coming from. The color changes with the light. Blues and greens jump off the surface of the glass. The effect comes from the metallic oxides, the impurities that Tiffany and Nash were so careful to include in their formulas for making stained glass.
In the medieval Gothic cathedrals of Europe there has always been a tension between the light and color effects of the stained glass and the specific function of the stained glass as a storyboard for episodes in the Bible. The famous stained glass windows of Sainte Chapelle, for instance, depict scenes from Genesis, Exodus, The Book of Kings, The Passion of Christ, and the life of John the Evangelist, among others. The art of the stained glass in Sainte Chapelle is thus narrative and figurative. Human beings, and heavenly beings, are depicted in hundreds of scenarios, acting out the stories of the Bible. But when you stand in the middle of the floor of Sainte Chapelle on a sunny day, the effect is not narrative at all. There is an explosion of light and color. It is difficult to make out individual figures in the glass. The stained glass might as well be an abstract study in the effects of light on an iridescent surface. If there is a religious experience to be had at Sainte Chapelle, it is not one driven by the stories of the Bible, but by the overwhelming sensual experience of light and color. It is an emotional experience to stand in that centuries-old stone chapel as it is inundated with the purest streams of blue and red you have ever seen. The color is alive and even though you cannot touch or feel it, it acts upon your whole body as a force. The color thrusts your head up and your jaw open.
Tiffany wanted to make glass that could do that. For him, the narrative role of the stained glass was very much beside the point. You can see this in the stained glass of Willard Chapel. There is one piece of narrative stained glass in Willard Chapel. It depicts the scene in the Gospels where Jesus is walking upon the water and Peter gets out of the boat to walk with him. Peter gets scared and begins to sink and Jesus has to hold him up. Tiffany had his artists paint on the glass in this scene in order to create the facial features of Jesus and the hair of Peter. But Tiffany didn’t like painting on stained glass. You can see why in Willard Chapel. The beauty of the glass isn’t in its realistic, painted glass depiction of Jesus and Peter. The beauty is in the swirling blue of the ocean and the burst of fiery red (a kind of naturalistic halo) above the head of Jesus. It is in the deep hues of the complimentary reds and greens of Jesus’ and Peter’s flowing robes that blend together at the center of the glass.
In the rest of the stained glass at Willard Chapel, Tiffany dispensed with narrative altogether. Instead, he created geometrical designs that frame panels of pure stained glass. In these panels, Tiffany let the metal oxides and the glass do whatever they would do. The effect is something like an abstract painting, but one that changes with the light. Veins of green and blue and yellow shoot through the heavy layers of glass. The random effect of the chemical process of making the glass creates scenes that look, sometimes, like landscapes. A few of the panels could be sunsets in a painting by J.M.W Turner.
In fact, this is not so far from the truth. In his painting days, Tiffany had studied with the famous American Hudson River School painter George Inness. Many of Inness’ paintings, especially the seascapes and sunrises/sunsets, have a Turneresque quality in how they capture the raw effects of light and color. Inness once wrote that, “The purpose of the painter is simply to reproduce in other minds the impression which a scene has made upon him. A work of art does not appeal to the intellect. It does not appeal to the moral sense. Its aim is … not to edify, but to awaken an emotion.” Tiffany had discovered a way to do this same thing, “awaken an emotion,” with colored glass.
The central insight of Tiffany is, thus, disarming in its simplicity: color and light is enough. To bathe a room in color and light is to transform the room so completely that it enters almost into another realm of existence. This is something the Abbot Suger, designer of the 12th century Gothic Abbey of St-Denis, understood eight hundred years before Tiffany did his work at Willard Chapel. Suger wrote that the effects of light on glass and precious stones transports us to, “some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of earth nor entirely in the purity of heaven.”
Tiffany wanted to create a place like that in Willard Chapel. He created a new way of thinking about and making stained glass in order to do it. But Tiffany’s new techniques were not a matter of novelty. Tiffany’s fascination with glass as a medium for the purity of light and color went back to the medieval cathedrals and even further—back to the prehistoric human fascination with the play of light on colored stones.
Willard Chapel today is barely known. You could easily pass through Auburn, New York without ever hearing rumor of its existence. Americans have a strange way of forgetting the beautiful things we’ve made, letting them go to rot. In this case, the good people of the Community Preservation Committee are on the job, tending to a forgotten American shrine. On a nondescript street out in the Finger Lakes, one can visit, if you can find it, every hour on the hour, 10am to 4pm, Tuesdays through Fridays, a portal to a “strange region of the universe,” a region of light and color in its purest and most wondrous form. • 15 July 2013