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Window with a history

Rediscovered and restored, Chatham's Tiffany is one of few that he did honoring women

Wednesday, July 19, 2000

By Donald Miller, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

In 1926, Chatham College decided to store a Tiffany window, removed from its former chapel, in a dusty basement. It would not be seen again for 70 years.

  Chatham College's Tiffany window was commissioned by the Alumnae Association of Pennsylvania Female College (now Chatham) in 1889 to honor the Classes of 1873-1888. Now restored and hanging in the college's Science Complex, the 8-by-10-foot glass features a scholarly woman reading an open book inscribed with the college's motto. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Commissioned in 1889 from Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), the window -- the oldest of its type in Pittsburgh -- moldered nearly forgotten in the college's Jennie King Mellon Library.

And it might still be there if John Cummins, English professor and Chatham archivist who had watched over the crated window for years, had not told Chatham President Esther L. Barazzone about it before he retired in 1997. Barazzone was eager to see the window given its due, seeing it not only as a link between the past and future but also between art and science, which commingle on campus.

Now the public may view the fully restored 10-by-8-foot glass, glowing in its backlit case high on a 30-foot wall in the glass-walled atrium of Chatham's recently enlarged Science Complex, just behind the present chapel. The building group consists of the 70-year-old Louise C. Buhl Hall of Science, the atrium and the new Science Laboratory Building, designed by the architectural firm of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott of Boston and other cities.

The college is thrilled with its science addition and equally pleased with its reclaimed window, Barazzone said. The window is a Tiffany work from his early period, beginning in 1874, of which only 50 windows are known. The city's next three oldest Tiffany windows, from 1894, are in Calvary United Methodist Church, Allegheny and Beech avenues, North Side.

The Alumnae Association of Pennsylvania Female College (now Chatham) commissioned the window in honor of the Classes of 1873-1888. More than two-thirds of the 130 alumnae of the honored classes gave to the window. It cost $650, a considerable price in 1889. In a grand ceremony that year, the window was unveiled in the chapel, which was then in Dilworth Hall. There it remained until, to provide the chapel with more light, the window was removed, disassembled and packed away. Chatham alumna Marion Swannie Rand, Class of '45, underwrote the $250,000 restoration.

  The Chatham College Alumnae Memorial window, a Tiffany created in 1889, hangs on a 30-foot wall in the Science Complex. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Damien Peduto, head of Tiffany Studios Restorations, Long Branch, N.J., and his staff completely rebuilt and restored Chatham's window. They replaced the H-shaped lead cames holding the pieces of glass in place, removed five kinds of putty Tiffany artisans were experimenting with at the time and redid the crumbling wooden frame.

It is well known Tiffany disliked using enamel on windows. He wanted glass to be used for every detail, but "paint" could not be avoided with faces and hands.

The piece includes experimental handmade -- called Favrile by Tiffany -- glass and coloring techniques that would become standard Tiffany practices. The window contains sandwiching (layered glass) and, while the glass was malleable, pieces shaped with tongs to resemble drapery.

The window depicts a scholarly woman reading an open book inscribed in enamel with the college motto: "That our daughters may be as cornerstones polished after the similitude of a palace." Genius as a cherub holds high the lamp of wisdom over the book.

The female figure is derived from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco of the Erythraean Sibyl, one of the prophetesses of the classical world who allegedly foretold the coming of a Messiah.

There is no record of who conceived the window's design or actually painted it. But radiating lines inside the arch recall straps in water lily lampshades that Tiffany himself designed. An artisan retained the sturdy torso of Michelangelo's sibyl but eliminated a sleepy cherub from the original. There is also duplication: "Shakespeare" appears in wreaths on both the arch and right pillar.

As beautiful as the Chatham window is, it is awkward compared with later Tiffany work. Still, it is one of Tiffany's few windows saluting women and education. However, none of the names of philosophers, scientists, playwrights and poets on the window's 13 wreaths is female. That list would be different today, with names from post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi to Allegheny-born Mary Cassatt to consider along with women in other fields.

It is not known whether the window's original donors challenged the all-male list. The new complex's dedication booklet, however, lists 28 women who have contributed to science through the ages. One of them is Rachel Carson (1907-64), Class of 1929, who sparked the ecological movement with her book "Silent Spring" and was the inspiration for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

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