In 2015, Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, a landmark at the corner of Peabody and Belvedere, embarked on a major renovation. The 75th Anniversary Project — commemorating the church’s move to Central Gardens in 1940 — was an ambitious one. Among other improvements, the church is laying a limestone floor in the main sanctuary, replacing lighting throughout the building, installing a more efficient HVAC system, and adding a new “antiphonal” pipe organ over the gallery at the south end of the sanctuary.
Perhaps the most visible of these projects — it’s certainly hard to miss the protective covering over the stained-glass windows facing Peabody — involves the repair and restoration of the window frames surrounding the church’s famed “Ascension” stained-glass window, one of the most outstanding Tiffany windows in the Mid-South.
That window has an interesting history. In 1900, church member Mrs. W.A. Gage admired the work of the Tiffany Studios on display at the Chicago Centennial Exhibition. According to church records, she personally contacted Louis Comfort Tiffany and commissioned the impressive stained-glass window depicting the ascension of Christ into heaven. The window was originally installed, along with six others, in the original Grace Church building located downtown at the corner of Vance and Lauderdale. When Grace merged with St. Luke’s in 1940, the Ascension Window, as it’s been called, was moved to the new church building on Peabody, along with six other, smaller windows.
For years, the entire collection was believed to be the work of Tiffany, but later research determined that the smaller windows, which are now located throughout the church, were the work of the Gorham Studios, a competitor of Tiffany in New York City, but equally celebrated for their beauty and craftsmanship. A series of stained-glass panels surrounding the Ascension Window was later created by the Payne-Spiers Studios in New Jersey.
Although most of these windows have been cleaned and restored over the years, for the 75th Anniversary Project a more ambitious restoration was required. The glass itself had weathered the years fine, but the massive wooden frame needed work.
Supervising the overall project is the stained-glass conservation firm of Femenalla & Associates of New Jersey. Church officials clarify that Femenalla is “being used for approval of all plans relating to our Ascension Tiffany window.” Most of the actual wood repair is being done by two firms who specialize in this type of delicate work: Beelines, Inc., and J. Sussman, Inc.
Beelines, the Memphis-based company that restored many of the church’s stained-glass windows in the early 1990s, carefully removed the individual window panels, cleaned the glass, and made templates of each panel. These templates were then sent to the Sussman firm in New York, who is making the new window frame, reinforced with stainless-steel rods.
According to Lucy Owens, church communications director, the work should be finished in 2016. “The main thing we are waiting on is the framework for the window,” she says. “After the window is finished, we can install the new pipe organ, which goes below the window. Then we’ll invite everyone out to see the work. The church will really look beautiful.”