Treasures of the Cathedral: The Cathedral Windows

with 2 Comments

by Gregory Bloch, Director of Communications

What are the defining architectural elements of Saint Mark's Cathedral? I think the most common answers would be the glass and steel screen behind the altar, our reredos, or its counterbalancing visual element, the mighty Flentrop organ. But it seems that for some the building can be represented by an element that is, at least superficially, less attention-grabbing—the cathedral's massive windows.

Two examples have appeared recently, both related to the concerts produced by Abbey Arts: the poster for the upcoming concert by the "folk-pop indie rock" band Ivan & Alyosha, and the recently-released album by the Seattle artist SYML, Sacred Spaces: Live at Saint Mark's Cathedral.

In the guise of that album cover, Saint Mark's, in an oblique way, appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel show last week!

(Click on images to enlarge)

There is a story about the windows that I always tell when I give a cathedral tour, because I think it communicates something important about this building and this community. It seems like a good moment to write it down to be shared more broadly.

The original windows of the cathedral were always intended to be temporary. They were single-paned and made of thin glass—just something quick and relatively inexpensive to fill the holes while they awaited the arrival of the traditional stained glass. Then almost 90 years went by, and somehow the stained glass never arrived. (A previous installment in this series explained how the Bloedel family wished to make a large gift to provide stained glass for the nave, but were convinced to fund the construction of Bloedel Hall instead.)

Over the course of those 90 years, the windows went through a gradual transformation. Some of the panes slowly turned a pale purple due to ultraviolet radiation and trace elements in the glass. Many others were broken and had to be replaced. (Dean Leffler recounts that, during the periods in the 1940s when the building was left completely vacant due to foreclosure, "the windows were fine targets for boys with slingshots." [1]) Up until the early 2000s, remnants of the blackout paint that completely covered the windows while it was being used as an WWII army installation were still visible. The result of this gradual metamorphosis was a unique, though unplanned, mosaic pattern of purple and yellow and blue and clear.

Of course, over those same decades the condition of the windows seriously deteriorated, and replacing them was a high priority for the Living Stones Capital Campaign, which began in 2014. (The two windows on the west wall had been replaced as part of the Century II renovations in the late 1990s.) At a Living Stones community forum, one of the contractors on the project stated that some of the glass panes were being held in place by nothing but rust. They were also extremely poor at insulating the space, driving up the cathedral's carbon impact and its heating bills.

But this left the community with a choice to make: what would the replacement windows look like? Was this the moment to commission an artist to, at last, create the longed-for stained glass? It was the subject of lively debate, but in the end the consensus of the community was that the new windows should super-efficient, highly insulating modern windows... that precisely mimicked the look of the old windows. Saint Mark's would have beautiful, modern, functional new windows that followed a pattern that no one had ever designed or planned or even wanted. It was a pattern that had been created only by nature and time and accident. And the community of Saint Mark's had come to see the beauty in this brokenness, and to love it.

Living Stones renovations, before and after

In this way, the story of the windows is the story of the cathedral building itself—the story of a building that, to its original creators, was only an emblem of disappointment, thwarted ambition, heartbreak, humiliation, and ridicule, but which subsequent generations came to find beautiful in itself, and came to love and cherish.

There is much more to the story of the new windows, which cost over $200,000 each. Great care was taken by the design committee to reproduce the look of the originals, meeting many times to determine the precise colors and opacity which would create the right effect in different light conditions. Unlike the originals, the widows are actually composed of very large triple-paned panels, with false mullions added to create the look of small individual panes, resulting in an enormous improvement in energy efficiency. Their fabrication involved multiple firms and materials sourced from four different countries. And everyone who was around in 2017 and 2018 will remember the unexpectedly long period during construction when the cathedral had no windows at all, just sheets of plastic covering the openings! Even the story of the removal of the old windows is more dramatic than you might expect, after the discovery of lead, cadmium, and asbestos rendered the entire windows toxic waste.

Many of the windows were given as gifts by generous donors, offered to the glory of God and in honor or memory of loved ones. One of these dedications is anonymous, given by a man known for his restoration work on historic buildings in Seattle in memory of his wife and in thanksgiving for the historic place of the cathedral in the city. These dedications may be read on the bronze plaques beneath the windows, and they will stand as enduring monuments for generations to come.

But I'd like to end with one final detail: if you look casually at the windows, you might assume that the pattern is entirely random, or perhaps that each new window reproduces the random pattern of the window it replaced. But look closer! In what I think was a stroke of brilliance, the design team took a photograph of only one of the windows—specifically, the west-most window on the south wall—and reproduced its pattern of purple and blue and yellow and clear panes exactly. Then that one window was used as the pattern for all of them, simply mirroring the pattern for every other window. So what seems at first glance to be chaotic and unplanned is revealed to be, from a larger perspective, ordered and symmetrical. The design that was created by nature and time and accident is honored, but not simply copied. The disorder that emerged from the building's painful history was first embraced, and then transformed.

May we have eyes to see and hearts to understand the many lessons that this building has to teach us!

Perfect symmetry in "coffee corner"

  1. The Very Rev. John C. Leffler, Dean Emeritus, The Holy Box: The Story of St. Mark's Cathedral (1972), p. 5.

2 Responses

  1. Penny Reid
    | Reply

    Great article, Greg! Thank you.

  2. Pearl McElheran
    | Reply

    Wonderful history. Never knew how the colors of the original windows were created.
    Thanks so much.

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