Census Project Tracks Michigan's Stained-Glass Treasures


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Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press, July 31

Strangers often ring the bell and ask to see the Tiffany windows.

"A lot of students, art students and just random people come," said Yasmin Habib, student assistant at Beecher House, headquarters of Wayne State University's Development Office.

She looks up at the first-floor landing with its glowing set of six-panel stained-glass windows, featuring allegorical figures, flowers, doves and flutes.

"It's awesome," Habib said. "I get to see it every day."

The Beecher House has some of the most famous stained-glass windows in Michigan -- but there are thousands more, and for 20 years, Betty MacDowell of Grand Ledge has been slowly compiling a census of all of them.

She's not done yet.

"I know there are roughly 1,200 buildings that have been registered on our census," said MacDowell, who did her PhD dissertation in the 1980s on the history of female stained-glass artists. "Some have only one stained-glass window, and some have 50. They may be churches, synagogues, public buildings, business places, even homes.

"The windows are works of art, things of beauty in themselves," she said. "But they also record a good deal of history of the community, the ethnic or religious groups that installed them and the history of the stained-glass industry in Michigan."

The Michigan Stained Glass Census is a project of Michigan State University Museum in East Lansing. MacDowell and fellow volunteer Betty Krueger of Hartland work on it for free, but after 20 years, it's still incomplete.

However, this month it became easier for the public to see the glorious windows tracked so far. After three years of planning, a new Web site for the census, www.michiganstainedglass.org , lets visitors search by city, artist, studio or building. They can see images and read about artists.

There also is a streamlined method for the public to nominate a window.

"It's really citizen anthropology," said Lora Helou, spokeswoman for the MSU Museum. "I had a stereotype of stained glass as something that was just in churches. But all kinds of buildings in the state have stained glass."

The oldest stained-glass windows in Michigan date from the 1860s. The most recent examples in the census are from 2009.

Detroit and Grand Rapids buildings are rich with fine stained glass, mostly due to the Detroit Stained Glass Works, the oldest and first studio in Michigan, which was in business between 1861 and 1970.

"But sometimes, in other parts of the state, it comes where you least expect it," MacDowell said. One of her favorites is the window at the Tuscola County Courthouse in Caro that depicts Lewis Cass, Michigan's first governor, at the Treaty of Saginaw, obtaining the land that became the state of Michigan.

"And sometimes in small towns where settlers wanted to have a beautiful church, they sacrificed a good deal in order to put up the finest interior and stained glass," MacDowell said.

At its most basic, stained glass is made by combining small pieces of colored glass into shapes and pictures using leaded dividers. The technique has been popular for at least 1,000 years, and stained-glass windows remain fascinating to the eye.

"The fact they are translucent and light is coming through them, it gives them a certain splendor you might not see when you are looking at a painting," MacDowell said. "It's light and color working together."

The new Web site should allow more people to appreciate Michigan's considerable stained-glass heritage.

"We want people to be able to look at all this wonderful glass that is often hidden away," MacDowell said.

Contact Ellen Creager: 313-222-6498 or [email protected]