Local Stained Glass Firm Continues 108-year Tradition of Craftsmanship
by Kristin Pazulski, TheChestnutHillLocal.com
November 9, 2006
The red-bordered stained glass window at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in Chestnut Hill colorfully depicts one of the most comforting messages in the Bible — the 23rd Psalm, which describes God as a shepherd who cares for his sheep even "through the valley of the shadow of death."
This spectrum of glass was created by Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, a nationally known stained glass creation and restoration company with its 108-year-old studio situated right in Chestnut Hill's backyard on East Moreland Avenue.
The Willet Hauser Architectural Glass studio is deceptive in appearance. A plain brick building with fogged windows and a simple 15- by 30-inch sign, it has the look of a classic factory structure or storage warehouse. But once inside, the visitor finds something vastly different.
The reception room is a small gallery that displays a selection of the firm's stained glass creations – some catching the slanting sunlight as the works lean against the fogged glass. Others are arranged along the side of a box that presumably lights up at nightfall. One wall is covered with photos of projects already completed by the company.
The offices are more typical — desks scattered in small offices or on the open floor of the second floor of the former PIO winery. But serving as bookends and doorstops are smooth, large chunks of green- and blue-colored glass.
While the walls of most offices are brightened with Van Gogh prints and enlarged Dilbert comic panels, the walls of Willet Hauser are decorated with images of Biblical stories etched in stained glass, illuminated by a mix of light from the clear windows and stained glass fixtures.
Rick Prigg, the Chestnut Hill studio's general manager, sits in front of technology that helps him communicate with the president, Crosby Willet, who lives and works in Florida, the firm's Minnesota office and the off-site artists and clients from around the country (and the world). Prigg is a humble, energetic oil painter, who began working in stained glass in 1984 after he discovered that making a living as an oil painter was not as glamorous (or easy) as he originally thought. He is not related to the Willet family, but his pride in talking about Willet Hauser studios and its work would make you assume otherwise.
The 108-year-old company, renamed Willet Hauser Architectural Glass in 2005, began as Willet Studios in Pittsburgh.
William Willet was an employee of Ludwig Grosse in his stained glass studio in Pittsburgh, according to the company's retired research librarian, Helene Weis. When Grosse went abroad for a vacation, Willet was left in charge of the company as a supervisor, and was later asked to take over the business when Grosse decided to stay in Germany, his home country.
For 15 years, the company operated from Pittsburgh, creating windows for projects, such as the new First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh (which the congregation hated, but inspired architect Ralph Adams Cram to hire Willet for a similar window in the Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh).
Willet studios won an international contest in 1910 to create the windows for the new Cadet Chapel at West Point, a commission that Willet Hauser claims is the longest continuous commission in stained glass in the United States, running 66 years as parts of each window was sponsored by West Point's graduating classes until 1976.
In 1913 the couple moved Willet Studios to a studio and home in Chestnut Hill, prepared for them by Dr. George Woodward, a local real estate developer who was a "satisfied customer and friend, " according to the company's history.
The Willet firm continued to design and manufacture stained glass windows for churches after the death of William in 1921. His son, Henry Lee and Lee's wife continued the business, expanding it into an international company with windows appearing in the American Research Hospital in Krakow, Poland, the American Lutheran Church in Oslo, Norway, and St. Anselm's Meguro Church in Tokyo, Japan.
In 1965, Henry Lee was named chairman of the board of Willet Studios and his son, E. Crosby, became president, a title he still holds today. At this time, according to company history, Willet Studios was the largest in the United States, and had completed projects in the associate's dining room at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., a two-story high window in the reception room of Gore Associates in Cherry Hill, Md., and in numerous other churches, temples, halls and chapels.
Because of financial difficulties, the Hauser Stained Glass Studio purchased Willet Studios in 1977. The Chestnut Hill studio, however, kept its name despite its Minnesota-based owners until 2005 when the two names were combined to create Willet Hauser Architectural Glass.
Prigg said the name was combined not only to represent both companies, but also to redefine in the name what the company actually does.
"The studio has a lot of skills in terms of what it does – which is not just church jobs," Prigg said. "We don't create just the typical stained glass. There are many other types of architectural glass."
For example, he said, Willet Hauser's designers recently translated a New York artist's work into stained glass windows for the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority's stations.
"We wanted to make sure people are aware there is a lot more available," Prigg said, adding that today the Minnesota location concentrates mostly on restoration while the Chestnut Hill studio specializes in the creation of stained glass. And the company's handiwork appears in all 50 states and 14 countries, according to the company's history.
On the hour-long tour of the studio's expansive, two-floor studio, Prigg introduced numerous artists, archivists, designers, glass selectors, cutters and foremen. Willet Hauser's Chestnut Hill library holds more than 17,000 sketches of stained glass windows — all created by the company during its 108-years, plus numerous architectural and glass resource books.
On Wednesday, librarian Cathryn McGurl, the granddaughter of the well-known stained glass window designer Colum Cille, who worked with Willet Hauser, was involved in the arduous process of transferring the library's resources into digital form.
Prigg explained, as he traveled from room to room, the chronological process of creating a stained glass masterpiece. After the designers and the client have agreed on a design for the window (which can take a long time in itself), the sketches are delivered to Jim McConnell, Willet and Hauser's engineer, who brings together the artistic design and size logistics to ensure that the window will fit into its frame.
Sometimes, Prigg said, Willet Hauser will design a window and when the firm delivers it, it will discover that the window's frame was constructed differently than originally thought, through no fault of Willet Hauser.
The engineering step is important, Prigg said, because "if it's wrong here, everything else is wrong from then on."
When the logistics of the window are complete, the design is sent on to "selecting," which is clearly Prigg's favorite part of the process. He said the selectors of glass for a stained glass window have to do more than color matching. They must be aware of the location of that particular window, whether it will catch the sunrise on the west side of a building, or the constant, indirect light of a window to the south, whether the window will be situated high on the building — therefore vulnerable to more light but less visible to an observing public — or indoors and lit instead by artificial lighting.
"As day changes, light changes, and the glass changes, that's the beauty of this skill," Prigg said.
He said the benefit of being such a large company is the "broad palette" of glass colors and types it has available. Picking up a piece of blue, bubbled glass (and wiping off a thick layer of dust), he named the company and country the piece was from.
Most of Willet Hauser's glass, he said, comes from Germany, through the company Lambert's Glasshüüt, though another favorite provider is a West Virginia firm that has branches on the West Coast and in Poland, France and England.
Selector Amy Novak recently returned from a trip to an older glass provider, searching for grayed glass. Willet Hauser is recreating some of the windows lost to Hurricane Katrina, and Prigg said the glass in those windows – of which they have bits and pieces – is older and therefore grayer.
In the same room is glasscutter Chuck Webb, who cuts the glass along the outline of a paper-cutout shape. After all the pieces are cut, they are pieced together like a puzzle and held with beeswax to ensure that the colors fit together and with the designer's intent.
Prigg explained that, contrary to many people's beliefs, a stained glass window's colors are not painted on. Rather, the painting portion comes in during the step after the cutting, where artists create details and shadows using a non-transparent black glass paint, a mixture of iron oxide, ground glass and a few chemicals, Prigg said, which can be brushed off to create a shadow or remains thick to create lines of detail.
When the glass is fired up in the kiln, which can reach 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit in seven minutes, the black substance turns into a smooth, glassy texture. After this, the individual glass pieces, still held together by beeswax, are framed by lead, and the joints soldered by Mike Susko, a 46-year Willet Studios employee, and the lead is cemented for a permanent hold that is strengthened by bars to prevent "bulging," as Prigg called it, that can occur in an installed window as it undergoes changing temperatures and weather conditions.
The viewing room holds Jane Collin's design for a window for the Armstrong Browning Library in Waco, Texas. The window is the fifth of a six-window series depicting Browning's travels. This one illustrates various scenes in Rome, Italy.
On one of the smaller sections, Prigg said that the sky needs to be made more purple, so after an extra layer of glass is added to alter its current color, the window will be ready to catch the sunlight of Waco, Texas, just as the windows in St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, and in its Chestnut Hill sister, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, do each day in the Philadelphia sun.