Churches Going for More Modern Looks Are Putting the Stained-Glass Industry Out of Business

Two pieces made for a residence by Judson Studios. EMILY BERL FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Two pieces made for a residence by Judson Studios. EMILY BERL FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When it comes to stained-glass windows in churches, Kevin O’Dea’s views are crystal clear.

“Honestly, it makes me more comfortable not to see any at all,” says Mr. O’Dea, a 34-year-old real-estate agent from Norfolk, Va., who belongs to a nondenominational church called Wave, which has a 2,500-seat, windowless worship space.

Wave’s contemporary look—there is no steeple and no organ, either—gives the church a vibe more like a rock venue than a house of worship.

“Changing with the times is an OK thing,” Mr. O’Dea says.

For devotees of stained glass, these may be the dark ages.

After a couple of millennia of sustained popularity, the stained-glass industry is showing serious cracks. Declining church attendance is playing a role, as is the growth of nondenominational congregations like Wave that pine for a more modern aesthetic.

Even churches that want stained glass are increasingly evaluating whether it fits in the budget.

“There’s a cost factor: Can you really afford a $100,000 window?” says Steve Fridsma, principal architect at Elevate Studio, of Grand Rapids, Mich., which specializes in churches.

Mr. Fridsma says not long ago nearly every project that he worked on incorporated stained glass. Now only about 15% of clients ask for it. He says stained glass “may be going the way of the pipe organ.”

To attract business, some artisans are even steering clear of using the term “stained glass” because it carries connotations of fusty old churches.

“I’ll refer to it as art glass. Architectural glass. Leaded glass,” says David Judson, a fifth-generation owner of a stained-glass studio in Los Angeles started in 1897. Like some of his peers, he is also increasingly targeting projects without religious overtones: His recent jobs include gift shops at a Shanghai amusement park and the entrance of a Hollywood boutique hotel.

Stained glass has been a mainstay in churches for around 1,300 years. Most experts point to old French chapels and cathedrals, including Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame, as the finest examples of stained glass. They took hundreds of years to complete. Before specialized cutting wheels, artisans would individually chisel pieces with a hot iron and pliers.

Stained glass served a practical purpose in those early days. “These windows were a way of imparting biblical stories to people who couldn’t read,” said Michael J. Crosbie, editor of Faith & Form, a quarterly publication.

But church architects and experts say modern churches rely more on video and photo slideshows, which they say connect with attendees more than the static imagery of stained glass. “They want to have it dark, so they can project PowerPoint onto a screen,” says Richard Gross, editor of Stained Glass Quarterly.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Timothy W. Martin

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