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Transforming Light: The Stained-Glass Windows of Boston College


From Jeffery Howe’s Introduction:
A Literature of Stone

The Collegiate Gothic Architecture of Boston College

The architecture of Boston College was hailed from the outset. Devlin Hall was awarded the J. Harleston Parker medal in 1925 by the Boston Society of Architects, an award given every three years for the new building judged to be the most beautiful in the Boston area. Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942), a tireless advocate of the modern Gothic Revival, praised the new campus:

For some years everyone who has seen the beginnings of the new Boston College—and who has not?—has realized that something was happening here in Chestnut Hill that was immensely significant. The extraordinary beauty of the site and the striking qualities of the architecture make a combination that not only gives immediate satisfaction to the eye but stimulates the imagination as to the future. Certainly, here is a scheme under way which promises to work out into one of the greatest artistic features of Massachusetts, even of the United States. . . . Altogether, the profession of architecture must feel it is already heavily in debt to Boston College and its architects.

Nonetheless, the Collegiate Gothic style was eclipsed in the second half of the twentieth century, as international modernism swept the field, most dramatically at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida, where the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was asked to design a new campus and built eight buildings between 1940 and 1950. And European-born architects, who fled Hitler in the 1930s and came to the United States, introduced a new, rigorous modernism known here as the International style. Although the style has deep links to the Gothic structural tradition, the rigid modularity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's (1886–1969) new campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology (1940–1960) and of Walter Gropius's (1883–1969) Graduate Center at Harvard University (1949) rejected all visual ties to historic architecture for a flat-roofed, functional expression.

Bapst Library., c. 1930
Bapst Library., c. 1930.

The triumph of the International style was so complete that even at Boston College it was out of the question to build a Gothic-style building until the late 1980s. In fact, when the O'Neill Library was dedicated in 1984, it was the most complete image of modernism yet constructed on the campus, designed by The Architects Collaborative (TAC), which had been founded by Walter Gropius. Post-modernism brought a new respect for the historical traditions, however, and by 1990 even former members of TAC were designing fluently in the Gothic style for remodeling projects on the Heights. The restoration of Bapst and Burns Libraries won an award for its sensitive adaptation of the Collegiate Gothic style in 1986. Among the chief architects of this project, as well as the renovation of Devlin Hall (1993), was Royston Daley, who had played a major role in the design of O'Neill Library. Subsequent projects, such as the renovations of Fulton Hall (1995) by Svigals + Partners and Higgins Hall by the firm of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott (2002) remade those clunky 1950s-style buildings into elegant modern Gothic monuments. The Collegiate Gothic had returned as the signature style of Boston College.

Recitation Building (Gasson Hall), c. 1925
Recitation Building (Gasson Hall), c. 1925.

The powerful tower of Gasson Hall and the impressive grouping of the original buildings on the Heights are the first and greatest artworks sponsored by the University. In creating their ambitious scheme, Father Thomas Gasson and the architects Charles Donagh Maginnis and Timothy Walsh did not allow themselves to be limited by the exigencies of the moment, but looked to the riches of the past and, seemingly, to the unforeseeable riches of the future.

From Chapter Two:
Labor of Light

Stained Glass As an Art Form: A History of Technology and Style.

Boston College possesses a series of marvelous glazing installations, the work of four masterful and stylistically distinct stained-glass artists: Earl Edward Sanborn, Richard King, Thomas Murphy, and Alexander Locke. Each set of windows is beautiful in its own right, and together they comprise an aesthetic treasure.

Although all four sets of windows at Boston College were designed and installed in the first half of the twentieth century, they vary widely in purpose, style, technique, material, and setting and exemplify many aspects of stained-glass art and its fascinating history. For example, the range of settings in which these windows are found on campus-from sacred spaces to large-scale buildings to smaller-scale gathering places-is fully in keeping with the fact that stained glass has been a vital part of many types of architecture for more than a thousand years.

Contrasting the style of each of the four artists serves to highlight their expressive individuality; examining the historical antecedents of their work leads to a deeper appreciation and understanding of this major decorative art.

Recipes for making glass have been found in cuneiform on clay tablets, dating to the second millennium BCE. The ingredients and methods used to make glass then are essentially the same ones used today. Sand, lime, and soda or potash are mixed and then heated to at least 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. This molten material is then poured into molds or cooled in small batches for carving. The presence of different metal oxides in the molten material produces glass that is colored all the way through, also known as pot-metal glass.

Sheets of glass have been used architecturally since Roman times, formed either from cast glass or blown glass, the latter a process introduced by the Romans. Blown glass is produced by a glassblower collecting a swirl of molten glass, called a gather, at the end of a hollow metal blowpipe. As the glass bubble is formed, it is supported in a wooden trough while being rolled from side to side, allowing gravity to assist the process of stretching the glass. Blown window glass can be made in two ways. In one procedure, when the walls of the bubble are of the appropriate thickness, the end is snipped off and the sides are opened and formed into a cylinder. The cylinder is then scored along one side, placed in a kiln, and manipulated so that it flattens into a sheet. The alternative method consists of spinning the gather, a process that forms a flat, circular sheet whose central area is slightly thicker and shows a circular mark where it was attached to the pontil, the metal rod used in spinning. Writers as early as the fifth century mention colored glass in windows. This ancient glass was set in patterns into wooden frames or into molded and carved stucco or plaster. Each framing network had to be self-supporting, which limited the kinds of shapes used.

No one knows when or where craftsmen began using strips of lead to hold glass pieces together, but it was a breakthrough innovation. Lead's malleability and strength greatly increased the variety of possible shapes available to artists, giving them greater creative freedom. The earliest evidence we have of this method comes from excavations at Jarrow, England, which have yielded strips of lead formed into shapes, and pieces of unpainted glass cut to those shapes, dating from the seventh to ninth centuries.