A Local Life: Dieter Goldkuhle, 72, crafted National Cathedral’s stained-glass windows

May 7, 2011

Before Dieter Goldkuhle arrived in the United States in 1962, he had already heard about a cathedral rising in Washington. Begun in 1907, it was being built in the classic medieval manner, with sure-handed stonemansons setting one block of limestone atop another.

Mr. Goldkuhle (pronounced GOLD-cool-uh) had spent years in Europe as an apprentice in another ancient trade, learning to make stained-glass windows by hand.

After working for a glass studio in New York in the early 1960s, he helped install his first window at the Washington National Cathedral in 1966 and never left. He remained the cathedral’s principal stained-glass window fabricator until his death March 9 from brain cancer at his home in Reston. He was 72.

He built and installed more than 60 of the cathedral’s 231 stained-glass windows, including its largest and most dramatic: the rose window above the western entrance. The window, which was designed by Rowan LeCompte, is an abstract representation of the moment of creation, with an explosion of vivid hues radiating from a central point of pure, white light.

Mr. Goldkuhle fitted together more than 10,500 pieces of glass at the studio in his Reston home, securing the window panels inside an intricate framework made of lead. He smelted the lead himself.

Balanced on scaffolding high above the cathedral floor, he installed the window — which measures 25 feet, 11 inches in diameter — one segment at a time. It took more than two years, from start to finish.

“He said it was a one-in-a-thousand-lifetimes job,” his son Andrew Goldkuhle said last week.

“He was an amazing craftsman,” Joe Alonso, the mason foreman at the Washington National Cathedral, said. “He had this patience, this careful, almost loving approach to his work.”

When the rose window was dedicated on Easter Sunday in 1976, Washington Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt declared it “surely one of the masterpieces of Christendom.”

Some pieces of glass in the window are more than an inch thick. To create a more brilliant dispersion of light and color, Mr. Goldkuhle chipped them with a chisel, as if carving facets on a diamond.

“The effect is that of a magnificent jewel rather than merely a window,” Von Eckardt wrote.

Dieter Heinrich Goldkuhle was born Nov. 30, 1938, in Wiedenbruck, Germany, a town known for its crafts. Some of his ancestors had been woodcarvers, others had worked in stone. His father ran a company that supplied glass to the furniture and home-building trades.

Young Dieter became an apprentice glassworker at 16 but left the family business when he became enchanted by the mystery of light filtering through church windows.

He trained in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and England in the 1950s and early 1960s, learning the ancient craft of stained-glass windows from master artisans. He used hand tools — hammers, glass cutters, knives — that had scarcely changed in centuries and collected glass the way other people collect coins or art.

During his long apprenticeship, Mr. Goldkuhle learned about ecclesiastical architecture and began to understand the mystical way that thin panes of colored glass, set within thick stone walls, could transform a shaft of sunlight into a manifestation of a higher spirit.

“There is an inherent value or truth to glass,” he said in a 1994 profile for a National Cathedral magazine.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Goldkuhle and the younger of his two sons, Andrew, spent two summers bicycling throughout Europe.

“He would spend more time looking at the splash of sunlight on the walls than at the window itself,” Andrew said. “There were times when you could walk around with him and get lost in his view of the world, which was that of a medieval craftsman.”

Mr. Goldkuhle pioneered a method of using brass to reinforce the lead tracery in stained-glass windows and became a renowned authority on restoring aging windows. He did restoration work for the National Cathedral, the Smithsonian Institution and the Cloisters Museum in New York. He conducted historical surveys of the windows in a Spanish cathedral and a 14th-century Swiss monastery. Since 1993, he had been repairing the windows of Duke University’s Gothic chapel.

Long-accustomed to working alone, Mr. Goldkuhle often had two assistants with him in recent years — his sons.

He insisted that they be well educated — both have master’s degrees — but when they were young, he often gave them tools as gifts. At night, when they went to sleep, they could hear the gentle tap-tap of their father’s hammer giving shape to a new creation in glass.

About a decade ago, the older son, Guido, left his job as a marketing executive to spend three years as an apprentice working alongside his father. He now has his own glass studio in Traverse City, Mich.

“There’s never a day that goes by when I don’t think I’m glad I did it,” he said.

Andrew Goldkuhle, who lives in Mechanicsville, Va., worked as a construction manager for a Richmond developer until about a year ago, when he decided to devote his career to restoring stained-glass windows. The two brothers plan to complete their father’s unfinished work — including a restoration of the National Cathedral’s “Lewis & Clark” window — using the tools shaped by his hands.

“It’s truly bittersweet,” Andrew Goldkuhle said. “It’s hard at one level, but at another level it feels so right.”

Besides his sons, Mr. Goldkuhle’s survivors include his longtime companion, Martina Norelli of Reston; two brothers in Germany; and six grandchildren. His marriage to Ute Elisabeth Heising, the mother of his sons, ended in divorce.

“If you think of the rare individual whose soul is expressed through his craft, that’s what he is,” Andrew Goldkuhle said of his father.

“To have become the master craftsman of the National Cathedral and to hand that off to his boys, he said, was the proudest achievement of his life.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.