To Own A Tiffany

A church in Northampton considers selling its historic stained glass window.

The First Churches of Northampton is exploring the sale of its Tiffany window, Rev. Todd Weir confirmed in an interview last week with the Valley Advocate. The church will propose the details of its plan in a letter to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

“We’re still very early in any kind of process,” Rev. Weir told the Advocate. “I’m not sure we’re even going to be able to do it. We’d also want to make sure it would be on public display, not in somebody’s foyer.” While he is not sure if the church can solicit bids at this point, Rev. Weir acknowledges they know there is interest, “but not in the sense we’re engaging.”

The issue was brought to the Advocate’s attention by local architect and historic preservationist Tristram Metcalfe, who says that while it’s important to “have compassion” for the church and their struggling financial situation, the Tiffany window is a central feature of the building and an integral “part of the history of our city.”

The son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the famous jewelry and silver firm Tiffany and Company, Art Noveau designer and decorative artist Louis Comfort Tiffany lived from 1848 to 1933 and dominated the glassware world of mosaics, lighting and windows from the 1870s through the 1930s. Decades after his death, he is still regarded as one of the most acclaimed artists in American history, and is credited with revolutionizing the medium of stained glass.

“Artists, famous artists, get millions for oil on canvas,” Metcalfe told the Advocate. “The fact that it’s part of the building means that its highest value is in that original building.”

Neither Metcalfe nor Rev. Weir are certain what year the church acquired its Tiffany window. “It’s been there a long time,” says Metcalfe. “Any Tiffany is an old window.”

“There was a fire around 1878, and the window came in with that renovation,” Rev. Weir says. “It was a gift to the church from a family who farmed over by the Oxbow.”

The congregation at First Churches was forced to fix the entire roof of the building when the ceiling fell in in 2007, Rev. Weir said. The church was able to raise $1.5 million, but the cost of fixing the damage to the building was $2.3 million. There is still a “substantial mortgage left over from that campaign,” says Rev. Weir. That, he said, is the reason the church has considered selling its Tiffany window: “We’re trying to get out from under that debt, otherwise I can’t imagine why we would do it.”

But it’s not as simple as a church in financial distress potentially selling off an artistic asset. Because the renovations were partially paid for by $250,000 in public money when the church received a CPA (Community Preservation Act) designation, the issue is complicated.

“The whole building has this designation, so nothing can be changed, removed, or altered,” says Metcalfe, adding that windows are critical to a building’s integrity. “Window scam artists will rip windows out and suggest putting in this vinyl crap because its cheaper, but it falls apart,” Metcalfe continued, adding that in his 30-plus years practicing in Northampton, he has “seen many buildings destroyed with bogus lies.”

“There needs to be a new formula for churches to survive,” says Metcalfe. “The architecture must survive.”

“We’re a progressive peace and justice church who are supportive of the homeless and the needs of the community,” said Rev. Weir, noting that each month the space is used by 30 different groups, including 12-step programs, Scottish dancers and various advocacy organizations. They consider the church a community space, like the New England meeting houses of old.

“While we like having a beautiful sanctuary,” Rev. Weir continued, “we’re not a museum.”

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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