Oak Hill chapel stained-glass restoration makes for painstaking work

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Marcia Nelesen
Monday, August 4, 2014

JANESVILLE—Forty-four stained glass windows--16 double hung, 12 arched, 13 diamond, two rectangular, one rosette.

A total of 2,634 pieces of glass.

And 1,848 feet of lead cames.

Restoration of the Oak Hill Cemetery chapel windows will take an estimated 2,600 hours of cleaning, reassembling, soldering and cementing, said Richard Snyder, the stained-glass artist who so far has restored two of them.

Cost estimates to restore the windows and install storm windows start at $90,000 but have been ranged as high as $155,000. The Friends of Oak Hill Chapel are preparing to seek bids for the work.

But what would the century-old Gothic chapel be without its glorious windows?

Plywood covers them now as the friends tuck-point the building's brick and fix its roof.

When restored, the chapel's inside will shimmer in blues and golds, violets, greens and pinks. Facet-cut glass jewels will flash splinters of light on the walls and floors. The rosette window on the east side of the chapel will direct and shine morning rays onto the alter on the west side.

Snyder promises it will be a sight to behold.

The glass in the 16 windows on the north side was complete when restoration began. But most of the windows on the south side and all on the east were filled with bubbled amber glass. The stained glass over the years had fallen from the windows as the leading aged and loosened.

Snyder and Jim Crittenden, co-presidents of the friends group, were excited to find several boxes of original glass stored in the basement.

Snyder recently marveled at the skill of the old-time glasscutters, noting they did not have the grinding tools available today.

He pointed to a piece of amber cut in the shape of a teardrop, wondering how many times they had to cut that piece to get a good one.

“This is a one-of-a-kind piece,” Snyder said. “To even cut that back in 1899 ... that's difficult even today because of this point that likes to break off.”

Snyder has restored two of the double-hung windows to display during chapel open houses. He offered last year to donate part of his labor as part of a bid to save the building. City staff had recommended the chapel be destroyed.

Snyder said some of his stained glass students have offered to donate their time, as well.

Restoring stained glass a painstaking effort (2:33)

One restored double-hung window represents about 40 hours of work, Snyder said.

Restoring stained glass windows takes about triple the time it takes to build a new one, he said.

“Two down, 42 to go,” Snyder said with a smile.

Restoration is a painstaking process.

The restorer must:

-- Remove the glazing holding the stained glass in the wood frame.

-- Remove the nails.

-- Draw an replica of the window on paper.

-- Snip and remove the old leading holding the glass in place.

-- Number each piece of glass according to the corresponding pattern.

-- Soak and clean each piece of glass in mild soap to remove dirt. Scrape off cement and paint with a soft bristle brush, being careful not to scratch the glass.

-- Rebuild the glass window, starting at the bottom. Lay the glass in new H-sectioned lead cames and secure them with tapered horseshoe nails and clips.

-- Heat the soldering iron and drop the molten alloy on the joints, the most demanding part of the process. Carefully flip the glass and solder the other side.

-- Push cement under the lead cames to reinforce the glass and waterproof the window. Wait 48 hours and clean the glass with a fingernail brush.

-- Buff the seams and glass.

-- Install the window in its wood frame.

It seems like a crazy amount of work, but Snyder said he loves the challenge of putting the windows back together.

“It's nice to see them come back to life,” Snyder said.



What did the round rosette window above the east door—roughly 4 feet by 4 feet—look like? The glass has long since disappeared.

Ivy covers the window in the only postcard from that time that pictures the chapel without the porte cochere, which was added 12 years after original construction.

The Friends of Oak Hill Chapel are holding a contest and the winning design will be used in the restoration.

The Knights of Pythias, a community service group active at the time of the chapel's construction in 1899, donated the original rosette window.

Historical research indicates the Knights of Pythias had an important part in commissioning the chapel, said Richard Snyder, co-president of the friends group.

All designs must include the Knights' motto: “Friendship, Benevolence, Charity.”

For rules, go to FriendsofOakHillChapel.org or contact Snyder at 920-382-1807.

-- Marcia Nelesen

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