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There are few objets d’art more precious and stunning than Tiffany windows. Yet, often, church windows – while we acknowledge their beauty in a general way – are overlooked, viewed somewhat passively as everyday things.
Step inside Plymouth Church UCC, 2717 E. Hampshire St. – designed by Alexander Eschweiler as a replacement for the congregation’s previous Edward Townsend Mix-designed house of worship Downtown – and you will likely find it difficult to ignore the nine Tiffany Studios windows that adorn the sanctuary.
Other churches have windows made by New York’s Tiffany Studios – like the former St. James and, especially notably, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – the Plymouth collection is as good as any you’ll find anywhere.
Best of all, they're set inside a fine Eschweiler building with the architect's trademark high-quality brick masonry.
While Tiffany has always held information on specific window designers and artists close to its vest – as evidenced by a letter Tiffany sent to Plymouth in 1914 – it seems that the designer of the largest and most striking window has been identified by experts.
The church sold its Downtown building in 1912 and the congregation began worshipping in barracks on the East Side site until the new Eschweiler building was completed the following year.
In the meantime, congregation members like Mrs. O.W. Robertson, who lived on Lake Drive, began the effort to secure the windows.
Although it appears that each window was funded or at least partially funded by various church members as memorials or honors to loved ones, the 1914 letter from Tiffany and Tiffany invoices for at least one of the windows are addressed to Robertson.
And although the windows were created and installed in stages over the course of a number of years, it appears the plan was set from the start.
“You are correct in your understanding of the price of all the lower windows,” read that letter. “Namely $800 each.” That’s around $21,000 today.
The large window reportedly cost $3,000, or about $78,000 in today’s dollars.
As to the designers, the letter – signed “Tiffany Studios” – noted, “It is contrary to the policy of this Company, to give the name of the artists who execute our designs, but would say for your information, that the designs for the windows in Plymouth Congregational Church have been executed by an artist who has been with this Company for a great number of years, and they have all been designed under the personal supervision of Mr. Louis C. Tiffany.”
Because it seems a given that the main window was designed by Clara Burd, the letter’s wording – “the designs for the windows in Plymouth Congregational Church have been executed by an artist” – might suggest that she was responsible for all the windows, though that is not explicitly clear.
Who was Clara Burd?
Artist Clara Burd was – along with others including Agnes Northrop who designed the 1917 Hartwell Memorial Window that’s at Art Institute of Chicago, Clara Driscoll and others – one of the so-called “Tiffany Girls,” talented women responsible for designing stunning works of art in glass (not only windows, but also lamps and other objects).
Born in New York City in 1873, Burd studied at New York’s National Academy of Design before heading to Paris where she continued to study art at the Academie Colarossi.
Upon her return to the U.S., she began working for Tiffany, J&R Lamb Studios and Church Glass and Decorating Company.
Across her long career, Burd also drew children’s books, magazine covers and advertising cards, too, including for Milwaukee’s Gridley Dairy.
“I don’t know just where I got the idea of working in stained glass, but it was natural for me to take it up because of my fondness for color,” she told the Newark Evening News in 1915, around the time she was creating some of the Plymouth Windows.
“My first position was in the Tiffany Studios. I went there one day to show some of my work and so the position was opened to me. I was not there long before I was offered the entire charge of the window department in a smaller concern and in time I became connected with another company.
“My opportunities for creative work constantly were increasing, but, of course, I was looking forward to having a studio of my own. When this was possible and I was established in New York, I could receive and execute my own orders.”
Burd explained that in addition to designing the windows, she painted the glass.
“I do almost all the work except the cutting and leading of glass,” she told the newspaper. “In my painting on glass I seek to carry out the artistic conception of face, figure and background. I came to the conclusion that glass painters, as a rule, were not sufficiently trained in this art, and it has been my ambition to perfect myself in it.”
Burd also discussed her philosophy of stained glass with The Architectural Record in 1914, again, around the same time she was working on the Plymouth panels.
“The window should be subordinate to the architecture of the church, and not the prominent feature of the edifice, and the color should be in harmony with the color scheme introduced into the decoration of the church,” she said.
“The stained glass worker is too apt to disregard the architectural lines of the church in designing and placing his window, and sometimes takes more interest in making a conspicuous exploitation of himself than in conforming to the style of architecture already there.”
The first four windows were installed on the north wall of the sanctuary in December 1914 and were dedicated at a Sunday service just before Christmas.
“Mrs. O.W. Robertson gave a history of the biblical figures represented in the glass,” wrote the Sentinel. “Nelson P. Hulst made an address in which he paid a high tribute to the Rev. Judson Titsworth, to whom one of the windows was dedicated.
“The other windows were dedicated to Royal Pearl Houghton and Lucy Millicent Houghton, Alfred C. Wright and Eiliphalet Cramer and his wife Electa Fay. The ceremonies were closed by the pastor, the Rev. Theodore M. Shipherd.”
These windows depicted “The Sower,” in honor of Titsworth; “The Good Shepherd”; “Gethsemane”; and “Resurrection.”
The following October, two more windows were unveiled on a Sunday morning. These were the two middle windows on the south wall and were in memory of Mrs. George C. Swallow and the Rev. J.J. Miter, the first pastor of the church.
These depicted “Jesus in the Temple” and “The Nativity.”
Next to be installed was the large memorial “rose” window above the entrance and choir loft.
“The window, a large Tiffany art glass, was presented to the church by Mrs. C. W. Noyes in honor of her mother, Marcia Wells, wife of Daniel Wells, who built the Wells Building and for whom Wells Street was named,” wrote the Sentinel in June 1917.
“The window represents an angel figure bestowing the benediction of peace. This is the seventh memorial window in Plymouth Church."
In addition to funding this stunning Burd window – with its beautiful angel, that, to me, recalls the work in Chicago's Second Presbyterian Church – Noyes also provided the money for the congregation to construct its gym building.
The next one to arrive is the one closest to the altar on the south wall.
Installed in April 1918, the window, which shows “The Annunciation,” is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Sarah R. Munro. If you visit at the right time of day, the sun will illuminate the star making more visible its subtle rays of light shining down on Bethlehem.
One can read between the lines of this announcement in the Milwaukee Sentinel, which makes clear the connection between pioneering physician Munro and the woman who funded the window in her honor.
“A beautiful memorial window, recently placed in Plymouth Congregational Church, the work of the Tiffany Studios, New York, recalls to Milwaukeeans the story of the almost romantic friendship existing for many years between the donor of the window, Miss Emily F. Greenleaf, and Dr. Sarah R. Munro, in whose memory it was given. The two lived together for many years.
“Dr. Munro died in 1914 and her friend, who followed her in 1917, left a provision in her will for this memorial window. Dr. Munro was not only a pioneer among women physicians, but during her long career in Milwaukee took an active interest in many humanitarian projects and was for many years a member of the board of directors of the Wisconsin Home and Farm School, which is training boys on its farm near Dousman.”
Interestingly, the final window in the set – “Jesus Blessing the Children” – would not be installed for another decade.
“The Tiffany favrile glass window presented to Plymouth Congregational Church by Mrs. Nelson P. Hulst, in memory of her husband and daughter, Nelson P. Hulst and Alice Florence Hulst, will be dedicated on Sunday during the morning service,” wrote the Journal in November 1927. “A brief memorial address by the Rev. Roscoe Graham, pastor of the church, will take the place of the usual sermon.
“The colors of the window are rich and harmonious. The figure of Christ in the central panel is robed in a garment of soft rose and mauve, while the figures in the outer panels are gabred in blue and russet hues. The predominating colors of the landscape which forms the background are varying shades of green, and at the left the waters of a lake reflect the sunset tones of the sky.”
Why there was such a delay is unclear, but this window is easy to pick out from the others because in the intervening decade, Tiffany’s palette had changed and this window on the south wall nearest the back of the church embraces an entirely different color scheme.
All but this last window bear a Tiffany signature.
“The collection of signed Tiffany windows, depicting episodes in the life of Jesus, are our greatest artistic treasure,” the church’s website notes. “As you look at the windows, please note the play of light, the drapery of the glass, and that all of the facial features, hands, and feet are painted.
“As you look at each window, with the wooden tracery, you have the effect of looking through them to a scene ‘out there.’ And here, you can be on eye level with the windows to study them closely, even the largest over the balcony. The story begins in the southeast corner of the sanctuary and moves clockwise around the sanctuary.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.