Stained Glass Windows at Christ Episcopal Church, Sag Harbor
By Annette Hinkle
Since 1885, Christ Episcopal Church has graced the corner of Hampton et and East Union Street in Sag Harbor. Though this corner has been home for 130 years, the congregation itself dates back to 1845 when a small group of residents, professing the Protestant Episcopal faith, assembled for the first time in a room on the second floor of the Arsenal building on Union Street for the distinct purpose of starting an Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor.
The congregation first began worshipping in the former Presbyterian meetinghouse which was built in 1816 and sat on the southeast corner of Sage and Church streets — it’s now part of the Watchcase condominium complex. On August 25, 1846 the Christ Church congregation bought the meeting house for $2,100 and spent another $2,000 renovating it. The space was consecrated on December 16, 1846 and served the congregation for many years.
But by the early 1880s, many congregants were expressing interest in building a new home for Christ Church. Initially, the former Budd property (which was on the west side of Main Street between Garden and Howard streets) was considered as a location, but in the end, the wardens and vestry of Christ Church settled on the Winters property at the corner of Division and Union streets which was purchased in 1884 for the sum of $2,200. Incidentally, after the purchase the house that sat on the Winters property was moved further up Hampton Street and is now directly across the street from Sag Harbor Elementary School.
Construction began on the new church in June 1884 and the cornerstone was laid a month later, on July 23, 1884. The Corrector newspaper dated July 24, 1884 notes that among the items placed inside the cornerstone were four issues of local newspapers and periodicals, a Bible, a prayer book, coins, a list of local and national political leaders, as well as names of church members and tradesmen employed in the construction of the church.
The church, which cost $5000 to $6,000 to build, was covered in clapboard, painted dark red and built in the Gothic revival style of the day (the white aluminum siding you see today was installed in 1968). The structure was completed by a 100-foot-tall square steeple, which was raised in November 1884. Other unique touches included a gabled slate roof, with each gable topped by a metal or wooden cross, and an Italian marble altar which was built over the old wooden altar that had been saved from the previous church.
The new church was consecrated in March, 1885. A $1,200 mortgage which financed construction was paid off by Mary Aldrich, wife of James Herman Aldrich, in 1892. Mr. and Mrs. Aldrich would continue to play a major and active role as benefactors in Christ Episcopal Church in the years that followed.
Summer residents of the Maycroft Estate in North Haven, in 1893, the Aldriches helped finance a second major building period to expand the church which lasted eight months. In 1911, the Aldriches also helped fund the building of the new parish house, which was designed by Arthur Wood a Garden City architect formerly from Sag Harbor.
Beyond its beautiful architecture, perhaps the most striking feature of Christ Episcopal Church are the many stained glass windows which grace its sanctuary and side chapel – including one window by glass maker Maitland Armstrong and two impressive examples from the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany. All three windows were paid for by the Aldrich family.
But it’s the simpler windows you encounter first as you enter the church from Hampton Street. The windows in the church foyer (which is the bell tower) are etched with the names of the wardens and vestrymen of 1846 who gathered to form the congregation as well as those from 1884 who were instrumental in the planning and construction of the current church.
In the main worship space, the south wall of the nave is lined with a series of similarly designed mullioned-style stained glass windows. Among these are a couple with imagery that references the sea, including one featuring an anchor and another depicting “Red Right Return,” the marker buoys which captains rely on when entering a safe harbor. In the red center of this particular window is a bull’s-eye mark indicating where the puntel, or tube, was attached to blow the glass. Other windows along the south wall with this same mullioned motif depict a dove, a crown, the Eucharist and a winged angel.
Dominated by shades of red, pink, blue, green and gold, the color in these windows was achieved by baking various material sources into them during the production process. Initially, these windows were quite dark and allowed very little light to penetrate the space — in keeping with the Gothic style of the church. But because they were not baked at sufficiently high enough temperatures, over time the color has largely evaporated from the surface of the windows, allowing them to admit far more light than they once did. Today, in places where the window design appears to be etched, it was once, in fact, solid black.
When the church was built, there were several matching stained glass windows on the north side of the nave as well, but with the church’s expansion and addition of the side chapel, those windows were removed and installed in the St. David AME Zion Church on Eastville Avenue, where they remain to this day.
We don’t know the maker of these windows, and while beautiful, their designs pale in comparison to the centerpiece windows at Christ Church — the two created by Tiffany Studios and the third by Maitland Armstrong.
D. MAITLAND ARMSTRONG WINDOW
The oldest of the three windows is an early one by D. Maitland Armstrong and it dominates the chancel wall behind the altar on the east side of the church. This window was installed when the church was built and given to the congregation by Mrs. Aldrich in memory of her mother.
The window depicts Jesus calling his first disciples, who were fishermen, by the Sea of Galilee. It’s an ideal Biblical motif for a coastal village like Sag Harbor, and it is a deceptively complicated window because of the fact that the folds that make up the fabric of the figures’ clothing are created by setting in many pieces of glass. If you look closely at the fishing net in the lower right hand corner of the window, you’ll notice that its form is like a mosaic and made up of tiny individual glass pieces which create the shape of the net.
Armstrong (1836-1918), who rarely used his first name, began working in stained glass in the early 1880s and was a prolific designer. Not much is known about him, but he is believed to have begun his career in stained glass by having his window designs executed for him by Tiffany Studios. Some conjecture that Armstrong was one of Tiffany Studio’s designers, but that connection is not definitive, though Armstrong’s name is listed as one of the “well-known artists … who will contribute memorial windows and other special work” in an announcement about the reorganization of the Louis C. Tiffany & Co. into the Tiffany Glass Company. But what is known about Armstrong is that by the 1890s, he had his own glass studio on Washington Square North in New York City.
Along with his friend and fellow glass designer John LaFarge (who was a one time associate of Louis Comfort Tiffany as well), Armstrong developed many techniques related to opalescent glass, including stacking windows with three or four layers of glass in order to give them greater depth and color — something Tiffany did in his designs as well.
The older of Christ Church’s two Tiffany windows can be found in the side chapel. Though not marked as such, this stained glass window, which was created by Tiffany Studios and depicts a cross, was given to Christ Church by the Aldriches in memory of Lily Buckner Belknap of Kentucky who frequently visited the Aldriches in Sag Harbor and who died on December 29, 1893 at the age of 35.
This is an early example of a Tiffany window at it features many of the signature techniques the studio was known for. Among them is the use of solid masses and lumps of glass pressed while hot into molds which gives the impression of a great number of facets (like a cut stone), or blocks of glass that have been roughly chipped into numerous small facets. The window has the effect of being made up of brilliant gems with shades of color that change depending on the angle of vision.
The second Tiffany window in Christ Church (which is marked “Tiffany Studios N.Y. 1917”) dominates the west wall at the back of the nave, near the Hampton Street entrance. The window, “Boy Jesus in the Temple," depicts a passage from the Gospel of Luke (2:46-47) in which a young Jesus is discovered deep in discussion with temple elders who are amazed by his knowledge. This window was given to the church by Mary Aldrich in memory of her husband, James, who died January 1, 1917. A light donated by the Aldrich family illuminates the window around the clock.
The window is best viewed from the opposite end of the nave on the steps leading to the altar. The pillars in the composition look substantial because they are made with many layers of glass (as a side note, notice how the pillars appear to bow outwards, whether you view the window from inside the church or outside). Conversely, the figure of Jesus is comprised of far fewer glass layers, which gives him a glow that makes him appear to be much brighter than any of the figures around him.
As a craftsman and artist, Tiffany’s ultimate goal in his window design was to literally paint in glass — and in the case of this particular window, he came up with a design that references a real painting — Heinrich Hofmann’s, “The Boy Jesus in the Temple.” Hofmann painted the work in 1881 (the original is in the Dresden Gallery in Germany) and it features Jesus as a young adolescent in white robes at the center of a group of wizened, bearded old men listening to him. In the right foreground, one of the men is seated with a book while two others standing next to him are making quizzical gestures. To the left, a fourth man holds one hand to his chin and the other grasps a scroll on his hip. Behind him a fifth man without a beard can just barely be seen.
"In the old man who sits to the right I thought to depict someone who firmly clings to the authority of the law, and who is amazed by the new interpretations that the boy gives,” wrote Hofmann in describing the composition of the painting, “while the sophist loves to raise captious objections...and the white haired gentleman only shows good-natured delight in the wise boy.”
“On the left you see the only one who really allows the divine words to flow into his heart (perhaps it is Nicodemus who later visited the Savior at night),” continues Hofmann, “and finally we have in the background the beardless man who turns away with contempt from the conversation his colleagues have with a child.” “About my conception of Jesus, the boy, I cannot talk,” Hofmann concludes. “I believe that the way I have painted him expresses everything I tried to convey.”
MORE ABOUT TIFFANY HIMSELF
When we say “Tiffany windows” we’re referring, of course, to the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Born in New York in 1848, he was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the famed New York jewelry store Tiffany & Co. (the glass company and the jewelry company have no connection). He founded the Tiffany Glass Company in 1885 and renamed it Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company in 1892. It continued as Tiffany Studios from 1900 through 1924 when his plant in Queens was closed (though some glass continued to be made there until the early 1930s).
Tiffany windows are unique in that they often contain glass that is mottled, patterned, striped or spotted and because he used no brushwork in his windows (Tiffany disliked the idea of painting on glass) light passes unrestricted through his pieces.Tiffany’s interest in glassmaking dovetailed nicely with the gothic revival in church design, which is evident in Christ Episcopal Church, and he was driven to reproduce stained-glass windows like those of medieval cathedrals. But he also wanted to go beyond the medieval method in which glass was colored with metallic oxides and wanted to actually create depth and texture through the coloring and layering of the glass.
He and fellow glass designer John LaFarge (mentioned earlier as a friend of Maitland Armstrong) were founding members of the Society of American Artists and they began experimenting extensively with glass around 1876. By the early 1880s, they had revolutionized the process of creating glass and had come up with ways to produce original effects in color and texture, largely through collage and layering.
But eventually, Tiffany and LaFarge had a falling out and they became bitter competitors. Some say the two had planned to go into partnership together — until Tiffany learned LaFarge’s secret for creating opaque glass, which LaFarge patented in 1879, though he failed to include the plating process that was later patented by Tiffany. As a result, there is evidence of a prolonged legal dispute between the two in the early 1880s and fierce competition for commissions followed.
It would appear that Tiffany largely won the battle, as today his name is far more familiar than LaFarge’s. That might also have to do with the fact that Tiffany was not only a talented glassmaker, he was also very good at marketing his work and through the use of advertising campaigns, showrooms, catalogues and other tools of the trade, Tiffany became the most popular and well-known stained glass designer in America and his methods were subsequently copied by other glassworkers.
Over the years, Tiffany Studios created hundreds of stained-glass windows for churches — both Protestant and Catholic — as well as some synagogues around the country, particularly after 1899 when his studio opened an ecclesiastical division. Incidentally, Long Island is a bastion of Tiffany’s work and Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor is not alone in possessing fine Tiffany windows. There are more than 100 known examples of his works in churches all over Long Island, including Oyster Bay (where Tiffany once lived), Cold Spring Harbor, Great Neck, Roslyn, St. James, Islip, Great River and Northport, as well as several other East End churches including those in Quogue, Southampton and on Shelter Island.