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Window Pains: Stained Glass Faces Dark Days
From the Wall Street Journal of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 00:16:36 EST

When it comes to stained-glass windows in churches, Kevin O’ Dea’s views are crystal clear.

“Honestly, it makes me more comfortable not to see any at all,” says Mr. O’Dea, a 34-year-old real-estate agent from Norfolk, Va., who belongs to a nondenominational church called Wave, which has a 2,500-seat, windowless worship space.

Wave’s contemporary look—there is no steeple and no organ, either—gives the church a vibe more like a rock venue than a house of worship.

“Changing with the times is an OK thing,” Mr. O’Dea says.

For devotees of stained glass, these may be the dark ages.

After a couple of millennia of sustained popularity, the stained-glass industry is showing serious cracks. Declining church attendance is playing a role, as is the growth of nondenominational congregations like Wave that pine for a more modern aesthetic.

Even churches that want stained glass are increasingly evaluating whether it fits in the budget.

“There’s a cost factor: Can you really afford a $100,000 window?” says Steve Fridsma, principal architect at Elevate Studio, of Grand Rapids, Mich., which specializes in churches.

Mr. Fridsma says not long ago nearly every project that he worked on incorporated stained glass. Now only about 15% of clients ask for it. He says stained glass “may be going the way of the pipe organ.”

To attract business, some artisans are even steering clear of using the term “stained glass” because it carries connotations of fusty old churches.

“I’ll refer to it as art glass. Architectural glass. Leaded glass,” says David Judson, a fifth-generation owner of a stained-glass studio in Los Angeles started in 1897. Like some of his peers, he is also increasingly targeting projects without religious overtones: His recent jobs include gift shops at a Shanghai amusement park and the entrance of a Hollywood boutique hotel.

Stained glass has been a mainstay in churches for around 1,300 years. Most experts point to old French chapels and cathedrals, including Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame, as the finest examples of stained glass. They took hundreds of years to complete. Before specialized cutting wheels, artisans would individually chisel pieces with a hot iron and pliers.

Stained glass served a practical purpose in those early days. “These windows were a way of imparting biblical stories to people who couldn’t read,” said Michael J. Crosbie, editor of Faith & Form, a quarterly publication.

But church architects and experts say modern churches rely more on video and photo slideshows, which they say connect with attendees more than the static imagery of stained glass. “They want to have it dark, so they can project PowerPoint onto a screen,” says Richard Gross, editor of Stained Glass Quarterly.

The Stained Glass Association of America, the industry trade group, has seen membership dwindle to around half of its peak size of 900 during the 1970s. The annual conference draws about half the number of attendees it once did, and SGAA officials say they have privately considered broadening the group’s name.

Even denominational churches are finding ways to bypass pricier stained glass. Cheaper laminated windows are available. Some use framed LED lights to re-create the stained-glass look. And others are using “environmental projection” to beam high-definition images onto blank walls.

This spring, Asbury United Methodist of Tulsa, Okla., installed five projectors to generate images such as mountain scenery, song lyrics or subway trains onto the walls of the church, stretching more than 30 feet high and 230 feet wide.

“The disadvantage of stained glass is that it’s permanent,” says Tom Harrison, senior pastor at Asbury United Methodist. With the projections, he says, “We’re not boxed in.”

Kenneth F. von Roenn saw this trend coming nearly four decades ago. At an industry conference inside a Nevada hotel, Mr. von Roenn says he tried to warn his fellow artisans, urging them to shift focus to nonreligious buildings, in a speech called “Time to Jump Ship.”

His advice won a lot of glassy-eyed stares and little applause, recalls Mr. von Roenn, now 66 and semiretired. “What I predicted would happen has actually happened,” says Mr. von Roenn, who carved out a successful career catering to companies. His work includes a 500,000-pound glass sculpture that sits atop the former Charlotte headquarters of Wachovia Bank, plus installations in casinos and bridges.

Now, other studios are taking similar leaps of faith.

John Phillips Jr., earlier this year purchased his bigger rival, Willet Hauser Architectural Glass Inc., and merged it with his firm, Associated Crafts, based in Gilbert, Ariz. The two firms, combined, have their windows in more than 26,000 U.S. churches, but Mr. Phillips says the new focus is on secular gigs like store fronts, lamp shades and the tops of restaurant booths.

“Why are there not skyscrapers with a 100-foot curtain wall of art glass?” says Mr. Phillips. “The amount of available space to do creative glass art is massive.”

Andrew Cary Young, of Jackson, Miss., is betting kiln-produced glass, which melts whole images onto a single piece of glass—rather than the conventional color-by-color, piecemeal approach—will lead to a revival of the art form.

The kiln method is faster and cheaper to produce and has been a hit with restaurants, hospitals and a synagogue, says Mr. Young, who has been working with stained glass for more than 40 years.

There are pockets of sustained popularity in churches, particularly in the South and Midwest, where population trends and immigration are contributing to growing Catholic populations.

Joseph K. Beyer, whose Philadelphia studio hasn’t been closed in months, says he has fielded an avalanche of requests from such churches.

Still, many churches now see stained-glass as a relic from the past. After moving into a renovated commercial building several years ago, Trinity Church of Sunnyvale, Calif., brought its only stained-glass window. It had hung prominently above its entrance in the old church, says Tom Greene, one of Trinity’s elders.

Faced with steep membership declines and wanting to project a more modern image, Trinity decided against putting the stained glass inside the new sanctuary. Doing so, “would have been more harkening back to the traditional church,” Mr. Greene says.

In the end, the stained glass was put in a wooden frame and installed in the lobby.

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