H. Weber Wilson has a confession to make. "Actually," he said, "I've always wanted a church steeple."
He got his wish earlier this year, when he bought the salvage rights to an old church just in time to save its 30-foot spire from the wrecking ball.
It was a fitting addition to Wilson's small Frederick County farm at the corner of Rte. 26 and Dance Hall Road, where he buys and sells stained glass and other artifacts from a white barn that has "Antiques" written in red on the side.
His back yard is an elephant's graveyard of architectural oddities: old columns, ornate cornices, antique wood molding, hand-hewn beams, marble fireplaces and other frills and flourishes that were handcrafted for 18th and 19th century houses.
With the same passion for collecting, Wilson has assembled one of the area's largest stockpiles of antique stained glass, not the kind found in churches, but what he calls "secular American decorative stained glass."
The history of this rediscovered craft is not well known in this country, but Wilson hopes to change that.
A book he has written, scheduled for publication next year by E.P Dutton, is one of the first comprehensive surveys of American decorative stained glass, his agent, Lily Lihn, said.
"It will cover the simple yet significant windows of the pre-Civil War decades, the flamboyant creativity of the 1880s and '90s and the mass-produced residential ornamental glass of the early 20th century," she said.
Lihn discovered Wilson while she worked as publicist for Glassmasters, a major New York City retailer of expensive glassware. Part of Wilson's collection was displayed there in 1980.
The years between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century were a sparkling age for stained-glass.
"The real high point of American residential stained glass was after 1870," Wilson said. "I think the zenith may have been after the 1876 centennial when Queen Anne architecture became popular."
But by the 1920s the infatuation was over, he said. Tastes changed, and modern and American colonial revival architecture became more popular. Decorative windows became aesthetic outcasts.
In the years since then, the work of major artists such as Louis C. Tiffany and John La Farge have been well documented. But a generation of other artists has been largely overlooked, Wilson said.
Even his obsession with the subject began by happenstance, he said. After graduating from the University of Maryland in the mid-1960s and serving in the Peace Corps in North Africa, Wilson landed a public relations job in New Jersey. He salvaged his first window in 1970 in that state from an old house that was being demolished to make way for urban renewal.
"At that time there was nothing in print that told you anything about secular stained glass, or American residential windows," he recalled.
Wilson, who had majored in journalism, began writing about stained glass on his own for such publications as Old House Journal and Victorian Homes magazine.
He collaborated on a television series about techniques for restoring old homes, "Old House Works," which aired on Maryland Public Television in 1980 and 1981. He won a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to conduct further research, and subsequently he published two small books.
Weber's Mount Pleasant farm is treasure-trove for restoration buffs and those swept up by the revival of interest in Victorian architecture.
His collection includes dozens of crystal door knobs, cast-iron window sills, old iron gates, brass fixtures, an 1840s log cabin, old doors, antique lamp posts, 19th century glazed architectural tiles and dozens of other items.
Glass still comes first, though: He has thousands of individual antique glass pieces, gaudy glass jewels and delicate pieces of hand-spun glass known as roundels. He also has dozens of windows.
Wilson's collection is so extensive he has been asked to help prepare an exhibit for the Peale Museum in Baltimore, which specializes in urban history, said Barry Dressel, the museum's assistant director.
"From our standpoint, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Baltimore row houses is stained glass," Dressel said. "It's important for us to do an exhibit like this."
Baltimore and Washington are filled with houses featuring outstanding examples of stained glass, Dressel said.
Wilson has discovered at least 10 window styles that begin with simple designs of the pre-Civil War period and run through ornate neo-classical, Renaissance and art nouveau designs of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Renaissance designs, which featured inverted hearts, fleurs-de-lis and swirling motifs, dominated American tastes during the 1870s and 1880s.
But although trends usually began in Europe, Wilson says, the influence of Old World designs was soon eclipsed by American artists who used jewels and roundels and a wider assortment of colored and textured glass to distinguish their designs.
"We really haven't appreciated our own history," he said. "America took something and completely reinvented it, and took it artistically beyond all established boundries. Even today with all this new emphasis on glass art, artists still haven't done what artists did 100 years ago.
"In my book I really stress the concept of American contributions. Because that's really what it was: this country developing itself."