George Washington and Einstein in glass at the State House

I’m blaming Abbot Suger of St. Denis. He’s the 12th-century French church leader who championed heightening spirituality through the use of stained glass.

He is also the guy indirectly responsible for my stained glass obsession — one that over the past decade has had me gumshoeing through churches and libraries, sleuthing online, calling and recalling strangers, and corresponding with glass manufacturers in the United States and Europe.

It started like this: I was working for the New Jersey State Council on the Art and indexing public art works in the capital city region.

While most of it was obvious — murals, statues, and monuments — an unusual number of glass works were also popping up. That included contemporary Philadelphia-based glass designer Ray King’s work at Thomas Edison State University and the late internationally known Belgian artist Benoit Gilsoul’s etched glass walls for the Hughes Justice Center.

Then I started to think about the State House stained glass work and got intrigued. And why wouldn’t I? I am a sucker for stained glass.

Like a lot of kids in church I would gaze wondrously at the images of flying people, red hearts pierced by swords or flames, a whale gulping up a struggling swimmer, sheep toting banners, and shafts of brilliant colors painting the air as the priest would drone on and on about things not so wondrous.

And as an adult I had concluded that stained glass was a type of community shared public art and a primary art experiences for many. So I was primed.

I recalled Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church in Trenton had a Tiffany stained glass window. I included it on the list and began to wonder if there were more Tiffanys or some other culturally significant glass works in the area and decided to find out.

And that’s when things took a twist.

‘Huh?” That’s me reacting to the Diocese of Trenton representative telling me there were no central records for Trenton Catholic church construction and art purchases and that I needed to contact each church to find out about their glass. Other central religious offices had the same response.

In hopes of finding a short cut to getting the information, I went to Trenton Free Public Library’s Trentoniana Collection and searched the files. But there was little information about glass.

Online research about churches and glass also came up empty. The exception was Sacred Heart Church in Trenton. The first Catholic parish to build a church in New Jersey proudly boasts 24 Renaissance-inspired images of saints created for a new building in 1908 by John Morgan and Sons based in Brooklyn.

Vexed by the thought that glass treasures may be right in front of everyone and could be lost in the future when churches change hands, I started e-mailing and telephoning churches when I had time.

When most of my inquiries got no response, I then started stopping at church offices and asking about the glass. The general response could be summed up as a shrug — that is if I got to speak to anyone.

Not to be deterred and thinking there may be a directory or way of identifying the maker of the work on the glass, I contacted the Stained Glass Association of America. I was told to visit the church and check the lower section of the glass for a small box with a name, initial, or emblem.

When I said I had not seen such boxes, I was politely advised to look again.

Now I was perplexed. While Sacred Heart Church’s glass clearly indicates the designer, the glass in other churches did not. (Stay tuned for the explanation.) I was back to where I started but ready to dig and dig and dig.

Now after several years of off and on investigating, I am ready to share some observations and adventures.

First get this clear: this area has got great glass — and lots of it.

Let’s start with Louis Comfort Tiffany. It is the name most people connect to stained glass in America. His company, established in New York in 1878, is represented in at least two regional churches (and maybe more, but that is undocumented).

One is the already mentioned St. Michael’s Church in Trenton. It is a landscape on the sidewall abutting the cemetery and was installed during the historic church’s 1906 renovation.

The other Tiffany is in the choir loft window at Princeton United Methodist Church and faces Nassau Street. It depicts St. George slaying a dragon and came to the church 1910 when the current building was constructed. The glass is dedicated to William Edward “Eddie” Durrell, a former Princeton student who died young.

A Tiffany stained glass can also be found in Alexander Hall on the Princeton University campus. It is artist Jacob Adolphus Holzer’s rose window (the large colored circular windows found in Gothic cathedrals) and contains four smaller circles populated by human figures as genius, knowledge, study, and fame. Incidentally, Holzer (1858 -1938) worked with American stained glass innovator John Lafarge and prominent American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He also designed the hall’s interior mosaics.

While there is some Tiffany glass in the Princeton University Art Museum collection and in private homes in the region, there are also Tiffany mysteries and uncertainties. One mystery deals with the reports and rumors of missing Tiffany windows at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital — with little trail to follow.

The uncertainty comes from people assuming any milky or opalescent glass from the late 19th or early 20th century must be Tiffany and treating it as fact. And since there are no handy central records, it is difficult to separate fact from fancy.

What is fact is that there are several important European companies represented in the region. Kempe Studios in London (1866 to 1934) provided glass for both St. Michael’s and Trinity Cathedral in Trenton. And important glass makers from Germany, Austria, and France are also present in the area — but more on that later.

While all the above is impressive, it is the early 20th-century American stained glass makers who deliver the treasure.

One person of interest is Ralph Cram (1863-1942). He is the Boston-based architect who served as Princeton University supervising architect from 1907 to 1929. He was also a proponent for neo-Gothic architecture and designed the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City (started in 1912 and recognized as the largest Gothic-style church in the world), Lady Chapel — dedicated to the Virgin Mary — of Trinity Church in Princeton (built in 1912), and numerous other campuses and churches.

You can stop in to view one of his master works almost any time: the Princeton University Chapel. But as you gaze at the colored light spilling through the nave, it is difficult to realize that in 1924 this was something revolutionary — or reactionary.

Cram said he wanted to return the “proportion, combination, poetic feeling, imagination, and Christian dogma” to religious architecture and argued the best way to do so was to return to the Gothic style.

He also wanted the drama of flowing colored light piercing the interior in such a way to “lighten the hearts so that, through true lights they can reach the one true light,” as Abbey Suger said about the use of pure stained glass.

To get that effect, Cram created a movement against the era’s most fashionable glass style, Tiffany’s opalescent glass. Cram felt the style hindered light from flowing into the chamber, called attention to itself, and was distinctly too modern.

When the Tiffany Company would not accommodate Cram’s request to adjust its approach, Cram hired and groomed other designers. And Princeton Chapel is a showcase for a generation of artists who had lucrative careers, with Tiffany closing soon after.

To get an idea of the crafters’ high aim, step up to the chapel’s chancel and gaze at the work of frequent Cram collaborator Charles J. Connick (1875-1945). Here the artist — and author of the influential book “Adventures in Light and Color” — dazzles viewers with four wall-sized units using color, lead, glass, and light to retell four key works of Christian and English literature: “The Divine Comedy,” “La Morte d’Arthur,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Pilgrim’s Progress.” They give the phrase “illuminated manuscript” new life.

Also included in the chapel are works by two Philadelphia-based stained glass artists, Henry Willet (1899-1983) and Nicola D’Ascenzo (1971-1954). Both made their marks as secular and sacred glass designers and left a legacy. The Willet company — the producer of the glass in Princeton’s Trinity Church — is still in operation. D’Ascenzo is now recognized as a master who created glass for government buildings in Trenton, St. Joseph’s Seminary in Plainsboro, the Nipper glass on the RCA building in Camden, and more. He was even the focus of a collection by Trenton manufacturer Stanley Switlik.

But back to the chapel. With its 10,000 square feet of stained and painted glass and the university listing it as “one of the finest ensembles (of stained glass) to be found in the Western Hemisphere,” it certainly puts the region on the stained glass map.

It also has plenty of surprises, including Princeton alumnus James Madison and a section by artists Irene and Rowan LeCompte featuring poets William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton, William Blake (with a Princeton tiger next to him), Emily Dickinson, and T.S. Eliot (a former Institute for Advanced Study visiting member).

And while the chapel is a grand destination, it is not the end of the glass road. The New Jersey State House Complex is a center for secular stained glass with a few surprises of its own.

As the second oldest operating state house in the nation (Annapolis, Maryland, is the first), there is the expected traditional 19th and early 20th-century colored glass that bathes the chambers with a combination of soft colors and natural light. Look for the lunettes and skylights by unknown glass makers as well as the allegorical figures designed by early 20th-century state house renovation architect Arnold Moses (1862-1934).

Things get more interesting in the 1920s-era State House Annex. Look up when you come to the floor near the meeting rooms and get an eyeful of contemporary New Jersey-based stained glass artist J. Kenneth Leap’s “360 Degrees of New Jersey,” added during renovations 20 years ago.

There in the 1,500-square-foot skylight are some of the state’s famous moments, people, and even legends in brilliant colors.

Yes, that’s the Trenton-bound George Washington rubbing elbows with Albert Einstein in front of a Princeton tower. And over there is the cultivated blueberry pioneer Elizabeth White harvesting while the airship Hindenburg explodes behind her. Then look out for the Atlantic City Diving Horse, the Jersey Devil, the world’s first drive-in theater in Camden, Martians attacking Grovers Mills, and more. It’s both a delight and hoot.

Now enter the chamber that once housed the New Jersey State Museum and let what seem like traditional, ornate framed glass windows show you what they are really about. You can’t help but smile at the state dinosaur (Hadrosaurs Foulkii), insect (the bee), and animal (horse) taking the places usually inhabited by saints.

These new works also by Kenneth Leap join or replaced other state house glass created in the late 1920s by Cram-influenced painter and stained glass artist George Sotter (1879-1953). Since he also created a stained glass movement, Sotter is another person of interest.

Originally from Pittsburgh, where he had worked with Cram, Sotter studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, settled in Bucks County, opened a stained glass studio, and created works for regional and national clients.

Two former Sotter students also settled in Bucks County and established their own studios. They also created glass for Trenton’s two cathedrals.

Trinity Cathedral on West State Street contains glass by Valentine d’Ogries (1899-1959). Light pours through jewel-like glass images of Christ and saints and illuminates the arches and pillars of the 1954 Gothic-style building. The other is St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church, where Edward Byrne (1898-1968) surrounds deep colored Biblical figures with light-hued panels to let brilliant beams and luminous glow fill the air of the 1956 structure.

With the discovery of the connections between the artists, I was struck by the artistry and the seemingly unnoticed tradition right in front of us.

I was also struck by how difficult it was to find the names of some of the artists — as illustrated by how I connected Edward Byrne to St. Mary’s.

With the idea that smaller churches may imitate the glass of larger churches, I focused my attention on getting the name of the artist who created St. Mary’s glass and was back sorting through library files and stacks, making cold calls, mining the internet, and looking for clues. But I was still in the dark.

Then I came across an article about the stained glass in a Philadelphia church. The artist was Edward Byrne. Peppered in the article were mentions of Bucks County, Trenton, and a cathedral. While there was no smoking gun, there was the scent of gunpowder.

So I began researching the Edward Byrne Company and discovered the existence of a business by that name with a Doylestown, Pennsylvania, address. I called and after several rings Edward Byrne Jr. picked up the telephone.

“Yes,” said the octogenarian to my question. “My father did the stained glass for St. Mary’s. I helped him.” Then living outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he invited me to visit. Unfortunately he died before I could.

Around the same time I had obtained a copy of a book on Philadelphia stained glass and the companies that created it. After finding similarities of styles shared by Philadelphia and Trenton church glass, I compiled a list of stained glass makers in Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey — as well as major European companies — that may have produced the Trenton glass and began communicating with them via e-mail.

Soon after there was a reply from Judith Hiemer of the Clifton, New Jersey-based Hiemer & Company.

“Our firm made the stained and faceted glass at several Trenton churches,” she said before providing a list of churches that included St. Joachim, St. Stanislaus, and some windows for Holy Cross and Saint Hedwig in Trenton; Incarnation, Villa Victoria, and Morning Star House of Prayer in Ewing; St. Raphael in Hamilton; and St. Paul’s in Princeton.

We then began a series of exchanges where she shared the hard news and facts: “Unfortunately there is no single resource for the information you seek. Churches are notoriously bad record keepers when it comes to stained glass. We often have more information than they do, and I am often called upon to do historic research when a special event or anniversary arises. There are a few people like yourself who are seeking to establish a record of their local art glass, but there are no large-scale efforts toward this goal.”

But what about signatures, like the ones at Sacred Heart? Why are they so difficult to find? “Many times we sign windows with the company name, city and state, and date of fabrication. This is usually a small plaque in the stained glass in the lower right or left-hand corners. This is where most studios would sign. If all the glass was made at the same time only one window is usually signed. When the windows were done piecemeal over a period of time there may be multiple signatures possibly by different studios. Catholic churches usually ordered all their stained glass at once or at least in batches: entire nave, sacristies and entries, clerestories, etc. So most glass was made by one studio.

“In the Protestant churches the glass was often provided by individual donors so they were created one at a time as donors came forward and the studios were usually selected by the donors so multiple studios could be represented in one building. In our experience pastors have requested that the windows not be signed or the signature be removed as they feel it is free advertising.”

Other company representatives slowly began to respond. The J.R. Lamb Company in Midland, New Jersey, forwarded a list that included work for Prospect Street Presbyterian Church and St. Matthias in the Trenton area and St. Mark’s United Methodist in Hamilton; Willet (now Willet Hauser) made the glass in the First Presbyterian, Galilee Baptist, and Saint Mark’s Lutheran in the Trenton area, and Princeton Presbyterian; and the Rambusch Decorating Company wrote to tell me that Martin Rambusch and Nikki Vogt created the contemporary glass for the Church of St. Gregory in Hamilton.

Meanwhile Monsignor Tom Gervasio at Saint Anthony Church on the border of Hamilton and Trenton responded. “I am always pleased when someone inquires about the extraordinary windows of St. Anthony Church. They were executed in Paris and installed upon the completion of the church in 1951. We don’t have anything specific in our archives about them, but we do know that they were designed by the firm Maumejean.”

Then all became silent and stayed that way for several months while I occasionally thought about what I should do next. Then I received an e-mail from the (Franz) Mayer Company in Germany — the same company that fabricated the contemporary public art work in front of the Princeton University Art Museum.

In addition to telling me that the company created the glass for Holy Angels Church on the border of Hamilton and Trenton, the representative provided additional insight on the problem of finding information on stained glass:

“Most of our old documents from Mayer and Zettler (a related company) were destroyed in 1944 by bombs and fire. We could save only a few books with photos of windows and designs and lists showing the churches with our stained glass windows, which are not complete.

“Almost all Mayer orders for USA and other foreign oversea countries between 1865 and 1888 have been managed by our London office. As the office was closed in 1913 we lost all correspondence and information. Maybe you can find some signatures looking closer at the windows. Otherwise we need the name of the churches and pictures of windows, so we can see if we could find them in our photo books.”

While I had begun to accumulate a good deal of information on the area’s stained glass, there was still so much more I wanted to know. And I wasn’t the only one.

Gemot Fusseneggar from Tiroler Glassmalerei in Austria had written to tell me that the company was the one that created the glass for Immaculate Conception Church in Trenton and forwarded a hand-drawn outline showing image placement.

Then the communication took a turn. “Do the windows of St. Francis Assisi Church still exist? Or even the church itself? And could you find out, if the windows of the primary St. Francis Hospital (now St. Francis Medical Center) have remained? With these windows I feel connected in a very personal manner, my grandfather (Konrad Mignon) designed the cartoons of three of them. The artist who designed the other cartoons was Alois Declara.”

A visit to St. Francis Hospital chapel answered one question. No old glass from the former chapel was moved into the newer one. And no one there seemed to know how to follow up. And St. Francis Church recently had been sold by the Diocese of Trenton, and the glass had gone to an out-of-state company that supplied glass for churches.

I called the diocese and got the name of the stained glass dealer, contacted them several times, and asked about the fate of the glass. Despite assurances of getting back to me, they have replied with silence — a kind of period at the end of the story at the moment.

But there is nothing to be silent about what’s in front of us. It is great and needs to be protected.

Continue the conversation or provide information on the region’s stained glass by joining the Stained Glass Project of Greater Trenton and Princeton at www.facebook.com/groups/174284746555593/about or sending an e-mail to trentonprincetonglassproject@gmail.com.

Join Dan Aubrey for a glass talk and walk at Princeton United Methodist Church, 7 Vandeventer Avenue, Princeton, on Sunday, April 15, at 12:30 p.m. The talk is part of the church’s regular 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. tour of its glass created by Tiffany and its former studios artists. The church also schedules tours on occasional Saturdays and by appointment. For more information, visit www.princetonumc.org.