Ornate stained glass windows, which Renaissance artists poured their hearts into and church designers then made as standard as pews, may be becoming a thing of the past. "We haven't built a church here with [new] stained glass windows in 10 years and it comes right down to dollars," said Kermit Scheele, associate for administration with the National Capital Union Presbytery.
Skyrocketing costs of materials, construction slumps, more modern church architecture and tightening church budgets have forced local stained glass window producers, who once thrived on church orders, out of business or into new lines of work.
Local stained glass artists who charged from $10 to $25 about 20 years ago for a simple colored glass construction now charge from $20 to $45 for the same piece. Churches that want elaborate windows with detailed figures now pay anywhere from $45 to $2,000 per squre foot for the art, compared with the earlier bargain prices of $10 to $500 a square foot.
Much of the high price is the result of a 400 percent increase in the prices of glass over the past 20 years -- largely because of the rising cost of the fuel needed to produce it, according to Jack Cushen, a stained glass window designer in New York City. In addition, the price of the lead that outlines the panels has increased from 20 cents a pound to $1.40 a pound and solder has increased from 90 cents a pound to $7 a pound over the same period.
Up until 1968, Cushen recalls there were seven or eight large studios in New York City alone that only produced stain glass windows for churches. Half of those studios worked solely for the Catholic church.
The orders for the windows dropped by about 75 percent, he said, because construction dropped off -- and in the face of churches' increasing social concerns -- it seemed inappropriate to spend large amounts of money on windows. Shops that had employed more than 30 craftsmen shrank to two or three employes and others were forced out of business.
Locally, the same thing happened. Some producers have managed to remain afloat by contracting to repair and restore the windows their predecessors designed and installed. Others have turned to producing Tiffany-style lampshades and other decorative items, or teaching their craft and selling materials to the increasing numbers of hobbyists who dabble in stained glass.
One local stained glass window producer who has weathered the storm is John Boertlein, owner of the Washington Art Leaded Glass Studio in District Heights, Boertlein, who learned the trade and inherited his business from his father, still does most of his work for churches.
Boertlein's work can be found in St. Joseph's Seminary, Epiphany Episcopal Church in downtown Washington and St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Wheaton. Most of the big local churches and cathedrals, though, bring in artists from New York instead of relying on local artists.
Unlike his father, Boertlein repairs and restores many more stained glass windows than he creates. Most of the windows he does create are abstract designs, less detailed than those he helped his father make as a boy.
In the view of many of the artists, that is not such a bad trend.
While Jim Cocharan, who operates the Prism Glassworks in Northeast Washington, worries that the art of stained glasswork is "getting lost," he's not sorry to see new churches being built without the "uncreative," traditional stained glass windows depicting biblical themes.
Robert Sowers, a New York designer, said "There is less square footage of stained glass being produced today [than 20 years ago], but much more of what is being produced is worth looking at."
Like Cocharan, Sowers said he is delighted that construction cutbacks have put an end to the "assembly line" stained windows, which he calls "Christmas card art" and Disneyland Medieval windows."
Cochran, though, is philosophical about the dropoff in his church business. "Given the role of religion in our time," he said, "there are more important things [churches] could be spending thousands of dollars on -- like helping people."