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Restored to Light

County refurbishes antique Tiffany windows.

Covered with plywood for almost 30 years, three stained-glass windows recovered from the ruins of an Arlington mausoleum are now restored to their antique beauty and on display at the Arlington Arts Center.

HISTORIC PRESERVATIONISTS discovered the windows in 2001 among the ruins of the Abbey Mausoleum overlooking Arlington National Cemetery and had to be recovered in a hurry before the structure was completely demolished. The Mausoleum, a fixture on a hillside overlooking Arlington National Cemetery since 1924, was torn down by the Navy to make way for an expansion of its facilities surrounding the Pentagon. Before demolition could begin, according to Michael Leventhal, the county’s historic preservation coordinator, the Navy gave Arlington two weeks to salvage any historically significant items from the site. Boarded up since the 1970s, many of the original 13 windows had suffered damage from vandals. Preservation workers scrambled to recover the few that remained intact along with any fragments of their original glass, used later to reconstruct missing portions. But workers didn’t know what they had until someone pried open a nearby panel and uncovered the signature of Louis Comfort Tiffany, a master glazer who worked out of Queens, N.Y., in the 1920s and '30s.

“It’s a signature of his used when he was still active in his studio,” Leventhal said. “It became clear that we had something of great value.”

Tiffany’s work is featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh and at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

LEVENTHAL AND his team sent the windows to Shenandoah stained glass, a restoration company, to have them pieced together. Three bas reliefs were also recovered from the mausoleum. Of the 13 windows, the largest, stretching 10 feet by 10 feet, portrays a figure of Jesus. The rest are comprised of geometrical patterns with religious elements like crucifixes incorporated into the design. Reconstructing the windows was a painstaking job that took more than three months to complete.

“Each piece of glass had to be hand- cleaned and resized to fit into a newer aluminum frame,” said stained glass restorer Mark Russel, who oversaw the project inside his 4,000-square-foot studio.

Russel used shards of the damaged windows to fill in the gaps and cracks on the three he restored but renewing their color posed its own challenge. Even beneath the boards that covered them, the windows had begun to deteriorate because of sunlight.

“When you buy glass of a particular color, the next batch from the same company is likely to be one or two shades different,” said Russel. “When glass is exposed to sunlight for that many years without someone taking care of it, you start to see them fade.”

Russel faced the task of finding similar glass to retouch the color in each window without paint and reglazed them. The windows are comprised of common opal glass and glass from the Kokomo glassworks, in Indiana. Epoxy filled in any stray cracks or chips in their surface.

According to cultural affairs coordinator Jennifer Riddell, the windows were commissioned in 1933 to honor E. Saint Claire Thompson, a wealthy Arlington businessman who was buried inside the mausoleum. Constructed with ominous Romanesque architecture, the mausoleum, she said, is the final resting place for many Arlingtonians of note, primarily the rich and the powerful.

RUSSEL IS NOW working to restore more of the windows, which may be displayed at the Fairlington Community Center, according to Leventhal.

“The only one we might have trouble with is the largest one, the one of Jesus,” Leventhal said. “We’re worried someone might take offense if we use county money to restore what is clearly religious art.”

The windows are now a permanent part of the Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington.