Courtesy of Emil Frei and Associates
Concordia Lutheran in Maplewood
Emil Frei and Associates, a stained glass studio based in Kirkwood, has many windows across the country and in the St. Louis area, like these at Concordia Lutheran in Maplewood.
By David Cawthon
Light brings stained glass to life on a translucent canvas.
The art looms in churches, schools, businesses, and private residences as subdued colorful pictorials set within ornate architecture. These panes tell stories and are reminders of the lessons we can learn from tales of saints, good deeds, and wise men. They are permanent fixtures that transform as the sun traverses the sky, when the cool light of a winter morning shifts to the warm hues of summer’s dusk. It’s an art and an industry inspired by
religious convictions and artists struggling to illuminate truth.
Stained glass has been a part of human history for hundreds of years, perhaps first created as a way to satisfy our innate desire for beauty and storytelling, says Ken Luebbering, a Missouri stained glass historian and co-author of Gospels in Glass, a book about the state’s stained glass. His wife, Robyn Burnett, co-authored the book and also photographed some of the best work across the state.
“They illuminate in a couple of ways at the same time,” Ken says. “They illuminate some kind of spiritual religious message by the content, but they also illuminate things symbolically.”
Stained glass was first used as a way to communicate Biblical stories to the illiterate; religious figures would refer to the windows to illustrate an important message during their sermons. The oldest windows in existence are in Germany and France and date back to 1065 and 1081, respectively. The most ancient works are thought to have been created during the end of the Western Roman Empire, but glass’s fragility doesn’t lend itself to enduring time, war, and vandalism. Those first works are lost to history. Royalty, such as King Henry VIII of England, destroyed monasteries and their stained glass. To fund Napoleon’s wars, stained glass windows were among the priceless items sold.
However, innovations and trends in a young America would inspire a variety of stained glass art throughout the ages, leading to a diversity in styles and techniques that would spread throughout the country, including Missouri.
We are still uncovering the stories behind each figure, color, and shape in the wondrous works in the windows. Modern artists are harkening back to the golden days of stained glass, employing techniques that have developed for centuries, and taking the art into new and exciting realms.
“One of the things that you have to do as a stained glass designer is get people to pay attention to what’s there,” Ken says. “If it’s something that’s too familiar, they look at it once and never look at it again—but if you can find a way to pique their curiosity, they’re more likely to come back and look at it again if they’re in the pews on a Sunday morning.”
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At the Missouri State Capitol, you might need binoculars to see the details and symbols in the glass overhead: zodiac animals, four bald eagles, lamps, bulls, and other details dot the Great Window.
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Courtesy of Emil Frei and Associates
The Emil Frei studio made windows for Concordia Seminary in Clayton. The art is typically installed as buildings are constructed because the glass’s position relative to the sun is vital.
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Courtesy of Bruce Mathews
Keystone United Methodist Church
The Ascension Window at the Keystone United Methodist Church in Kansas City was created in the Gothic Revival style, which was popular from 1425 to 1600, writes Bruce Mathews in his book, Windows of Kansas City. Thomas J. Gaytee studied at the famous Tiffany studio before starting his own company that installed this window.For more images and stories or to buy the book, contact Bruce at 816-868- 1392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inside the stained glass studio at Emil Frei and Associates, Will Frank etches a circular design on a sheet of paper, making geometric curves and lines—the early blueprints for a new piece of stained glass slated for installation in a Brussels, Illinois, church that was struck by lightning and burned one Christmas Eve. This is only one of the more than seventy-five projects Will and the team at Emil Frei have tackled in the past year. Some of the studio’s most recent work was installed in: Billings, Montana; Holyoke Massachusetts; Irving, Texas; Pensacola, Florida; Atlanta; New Orleans; Oklahoma City; Jefferson City; and India—to name a few locations.
Downstairs, Buddy Pondron uses pencils, sponges, and other tools to remove black paint on glass, much like artists did long ago; the presence and absence of light is what creates images and shapes in the glass. Jessica Hunt clips and assembles thousands of colorful stones to form an intricate mosaic, another facet of the studio’s art.
The headquarters of Emil Frei and Associates, a family-owned stained glass studio, resides within a home on a hill in a wooded residential area in Kirkwood. The house next door belongs to Aaron Frei, who is a part of the next generation who will run the studio, more than 116 years after it was founded.
If you ask current owner Stephen Frei how the operation has changed since it started in 1898, he’ll tell you that it hasn’t.
“We’re not part of the modern world,” he says. “We are truly still a fifteenth-century, family cottage guild. There are certain things that when you change them so that they are faster, it affects the final product. The techniques and traditions that we’ve worked with have been developed over centuries upon centuries upon centuries.”
They still use mouth-blown German glass, some made with bits of potato, which gives it a unique bubbling effect. It’s not surprising that salesmen peddling digital design programs aren’t welcome.
“Salesmen try to sell us computer-assisted design programs, and we can’t usher them out fast enough,” Stephen says. “Those are good at making kaleidoscopes and other things, but our windows, we want them to have a soul. And in order for them to have a soul, they have to be designed by something that’s connected to a soul—a human hand.”
These days, there are fewer human hands making stained glass. The Frei lineage is the state’s last remaining continually operating professional studio that began with Emil Frei Sr., who was born in Bavaria in 1869. The Munich School of Art graduate grew wary of the emerging political climate in Germany and the mandatory military service, so in 1895, Frei moved to New York to make art. After the move to America, his wife, Emma, a muralist, became homesick, and the couple considered returning to Germany. On their way to a ship bound for home via New Orleans, they stopped in St. Louis to stay with friends. During their visit, the strong German community in the Gateway City reminded them of home, so the couple stayed and opened a stained glass studio a few years later on South Broadway. In the years that followed, the studio would earn many awards and honors, which would cement its reputation as one of the nation’s premier stained glass creators.
St. Louis became an epicenter for professional stained glass studios. But then, the post-World War II suburban boom ground to a halt, and fewer Catholic churches, structures that most often use stained glass, were built.
Courtesy of Bruce-Mathews
The Kirkland Brooks Armour Memorial Chapel, located at Kansas City’s Elmwood Cemetery, is one of many locations that appear in photographer and writer Bruce Mathew’s book Windows of Kansas City.The fifteen-year Elmwood Cemetery volunteer writes that the window depicts Jesus’s resurrection. However, like some old windows, its creator is unknown.
The interest in sacred artwork faded. Most of the longest running studios eventually succumbed to economic hardships in the 1960s and 1970s that caused them to close or be sold to owners outside of the founding family. Stephen can name the casualties: Jacoby, Century, Davis, Unique, and Olszewski.
“I guess we were the only ones to ultimately survive that,” Stephen says. “The companies that replaced them were businessmen working in art.”
The Frei studio became smaller and moved to its current Kirkwood location. At its peak, Emil Frei employed more than 120 workers in St. Louis and in Munich. Today, there are about fifteen full-time employees.
Surviving downswings is what makes Emil Frei and Associates such an anomaly. Missouri stained glass historian Ken Luebbering says that the quality of their work might be the key.
“The Freis had the ability to create these lifelike bodies, that were also idealized, without flaws,” Ken says. “They have the ability to include a lot about the narrative that they are presenting within the content of the windows, and yet at the same time, they use light in a very effective way.”
In the modern era, the Freis have had to innovate in the realms of art and engineering, having also repaired glass when hurricanes crash into beachside churches. The studio originally installed the rounded wall of panes at Saint Michael Parish Catholic Church in Biloxi, Mississippi. The building’s location near the Gulf also made it susceptible to Hurricane Camille’s winds, which only slightly damaged the glass. Robert, Stephen’s father and the company’s third owner, repaired the windows in 1969. He was the first from the studio to arrive on the scene and says he had to cut through the freighters and boats washed up on the highway to get to the church.
However, forty years later, Katrina’s storm surge destroyed most of the glass. To prevent a future natural disaster from destroying the lower portions, Stephen’s brother, David, devised a way to raise the lower glass without electricity, protecting it from crashing waves. This design also prevents the church from trapping air and becoming buoyant if it were to become submerged again. Buddy Pondron, fifty-five, among the newer employees at the studio, says that Biloxi was his first assignment. He was hired on a Friday afternoon, and that next Monday, he was on his way to Mississippi.
Courtesy of Emil Frei and Associates
Aaron Frei cuts a piece of glass. The thirty-four-year-old has worked at the studio since 1992.
Landing a job at the studio, Frei or not, isn’t an easy feat.
“We have strong applicants all of the time, but we want to do the teaching ourselves,” Stephen says. “There isn’t a school where you can learn this anywhere else. When they’ve learned the different techniques, that will be when they are commissioned their first church.”
And that could take three to eight years.
He says this as he and the other employees sit around the outdoor lunch table where the third, fourth, and fifth generations of employees converse and recount former excursions across the country.
Other topics come up, though. Artist John Wheadon, thirty-four, says that it can be difficult to convince clients that using a particular color palette or a certain type of glass is worthwhile, especially when a square foot of German mouth-blown glass might run eighteen to thirty-five dollars or if an expensive material like gold is needed to create a pink or red color. Compare that with some types of American glass that run from eighty to ninety cents a square foot, which often does not employ the ancient techniques that give glass certain textures and intricacies that bend light in unusual ways.
Also, part of the hardship involved with the job is overcoming the client’s sentimental attachment to their childhood parish, Stephen says.
“When they commission us for their windows, in the back of their mind, they feel strongly that the windows they grew up with are what they want in their church,” Stephen says. “A lot of times, we try to expose them to the possibilities that they haven’t seen. Modern art has gotten a bad knock because you’ve seen one or two examples that were poorly done.”
Breaking away artistically but maintaining that same quality is something that every Frei generation has had to consider, Ken says.
“When a studio has an established reputation and a particular artistic style, breaking away from that can be difficult,” Ken says. “I know it was for some of the early generations of the Freis. When the founding generation was gone, the second and third generations had those issues. They had people who didn’t like their work because it wasn’t like what Dad or Grandpa did.”
Then, there’s also the struggle of living up to the Frei name.
“There is a lot of pressure,” Stephen says. “I’m standing on the shoulders of three generations of giants.”
Robert Harmon cut his teeth at the Frei studio. On one of his first projects, the windows at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis, he wove in mod- ern messages about social inequality and war with Biblical symbols. Harmon eventually left Emil Frei and established his own studio, where he further developed his own style. When Ken interviewed Harmon before his death, Harmon told him that because he worked independently, he could reinvent himself because he had shed the weight of the studio name. Harmon said that the subject matter that he worked with wasn’t important; it was the light that was important.
“Robert told me, ‘If you are going to appreciate stained glass, you have to look at the way the artist uses light because that’s our tool,’” Ken says, remembering the conversation. “ ‘You can make religious windows, and most people will understand them; it’s the function of a stained glass artist working with the church, to make God visible. You can’t see pure light. You can only see it when it’s reflected or refracted. It’s my job to make God visible.’ ”
Harmon was often inspired by his rural Ozark studio, which was evident in his final work filled with dogwood flowers and daffodil blossoms that he created for Happy Zion General Baptist in Annapolis, Missouri.
But, stained glass isn’t like a piece of art you’d find in an art gallery. The best stained glass is developed during planning when the glass becomes intertwined with the building’s future curves and shapes, like it was for the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. The work of Gateway City artists, including Frei windows, are still on display there—a reminder of the art form’s glory days.
But those at Emil Frei are still making art for a new generation, just as they always have, and, as history has shown, that’s what they always will do, one piece at a time.
“As long as society stays faithful,” Stephen says, “we’ll always be busy.”