Madison Monday: Stained-glass windows

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Taking the windows down in November.

Living in an old house in downtown Madison is a porous sort of way to live. The boundaries between you and the rest of the world are leaky. The outside seeps in and your inside drifts out. This can be good or bad. It’s bad when the screaming argument on the street wakes you up at two in the morning coming through your windows. It’s good when you get a front row seat to all sorts of interesting things happening just outside your door.

For the past few months, we’ve had a front row seat to the restoration of the stained-glass windows in the Prince of Peace church next door. Well, we’ve had a front seat to all the work being done on the church, including the removal of the steeple (it’s coming back) and the taking down of one of a chimney (it’s not coming back). We’ve become quite friendly with a series of teams doing this work, but by far the most fascinating part are the windows.

Back in November, we watched the first team of workers remove the windows, pane by pane. Interesting fact about stained-glass window panes—they’re flexible. They bent and wobbled as the workers carefully removed them. Watching the workers remove a pane from the top of a window and then work it slowly down the scaffold to the ground was a great lesson in the suspense in the everyday. Would they drop it? Would the window wobble into pieces? Some mornings, I sat on the couch in our kitchen with a cup of tea and bated breath, watching.

Packing them into crates.

Afterward, it was disorienting to see the windows broken down into bits and pieces, often stacked around the yard in front of the rectory. A reminder that these windows which are so beautiful are also deeply fragile.

The workers built each crate to send the windows off to wherever they were cleaned and restored. This was probably the slowest part of the process, as each crate was clearly made to order. They marked pieces of Styrofoam inside the crates with letters and numbers, so they’d know where each puzzle piece fit when they returned. The windows on our side of the church were filled in with white plywood, while the windows on the other side still had some glass in them after the stained-glass was removed.

This week, the windows came back. In a U-Haul truck, of all things. A different set of workers are reinstalling them pane by pane, about one window per day. We haven’t gotten the full effect yet, of the sun setting on the other side of the church and lighting up the windows on our side of the church like our own personal fireworks display. But soon enough. And it’s a comfort to have them back as a wondrous feature in the background of our everyday lives. They’re like old friends back from a pleasant and restorative vacation.

In the U-Haul.

It’s a little disconcerting sometimes having people working on the building right next to you every day. It can be noisy. We tell ourselves that the workers aren’t as interested in what’s going on inside our house as we are in what they’re doing because the windows go both ways. We can see out and they can see in. The cats are deeply freaked out by strangers in their territory.

But where else would you get the opportunity to watch such a delicate and fascinating process up close? How many people are there who do this kind of work? How do you become someone who works with stained-glass windows? Where did the windows go to be restored? Do the workers take pleasure in the beauty of the windows they’re so delicately maneuvering?

Putting them back in.

I’m not a religious person, but you don’t have to be to appreciate the beauty of the windows. They speak to a time when we believed that our world should be full of beauty and we built it that way. It’s good to see that belief affirmed and in this small way, restored.

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