The Most Creative Bit of Glasswork in the City

Porter's St. Christopher window in the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church may be the artist's most creative work. The composition shows a complete break with traditional stained glass window design.
Porter’s St. Christopher window in the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church may be the artist’s most creative work. The composition shows a complete break with traditional stained glass window design.

Writing in the April 1904 issue of The Overland Monthly, Helen Ellsworth Wright described the St. Christopher window  as “without doubt the strongest and most original bit of glass work in the city.” The window, designed by Bruce Porter, is located in the Swedenborgian church at the corner of Washington and Lyon Streets in San Francisco. This small church is quite well-known in certain circles, particularly with devotees of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2004. A small congregation has struggled to maintain the aging structure since it opened its doors on March 17, 1895.

In 2012 the Church learned that without immediate attention, the window would soon be beyond repair. In the search for a suitable restorer, I met Ariana Makau, owner and chief conservator at Nzilani Glass Conservation. The way she described her work was fascinating. I learned that stained glass conservation weaves together many fields, fields often thought to be incompatible: craft, chemistry, mechanical engineering, material science, and artistry. It also draws on the art historian’s drive to understand the artist’s motivation and methods of expression. It requires the resolution of competing desires: do we restore the window to its original appearance – assuming we can even know what that was – or conserve the original materials and techniques? Do we honor history or art?

As a result I decided to document the conservation effort in photographs.

Ariana Makau plans the conservation of Bruce Porter's St. Christopher Window
Ariana Makau plans the conservation of Bruce Porter’s St. Christopher Window

In the process I discovered that attempting to understanding the window lead to explorations of the role the artist, Bruce Porter, played in a west coast cultural renaissance that took place as the 19th century transitioned into the 20th, an American revolution in stained glass design, the unique artistic and architectural collaboration centered around the church’s orignal pastor, the Reverend Joseph Worcester and how this all tied into the writings of a now-obscure Swedish scientist, politician, bureaucrat and theologian, Emmanuel Swedenborg.

The resulting book, The Most Creative Bit of Glasswork in the City, uses as its backbone the story of the conservation of Bruce Porter’s St. Christopher window, but branches out to reveal in vignettes other fascinating stories that are intimately tied to this remarkable piece of artwork.

The book is available for purchase here.

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