20 years of light work: Glass Heritage restores stained-glass windows to their former glory (2024)

Gretchen Teske

Windows are a big part of how people view the world. Adrian English has dedicated his life to making sure the view is beautiful.

The owner of Glass Heritage LLC at 3030 Hickory Grove Road in Davenport, English works year-round to restore windows in the community. The windows are appreciated all year long but when the sun is shining in the spring and summer, English's company is at its busiest while the weather is just right for the job.

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"A lot of the work that we do is outside," he said. "We love doing smaller projects, but we cater to the bigger projects."

Locally, that has translated to windows all over the Quad-Cities and the George M. Curtis mansion in Clinton. The 1883 home was built for the famous lumber baron and features more than 40 stained glass windows.

In 2009, Glass Heritage took on one of its largest projects to date: a 25-foot tall window designed by renown Iowa artist Grant Wood. The only window Grant ever designed, it was in the first floor of the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall building in Cedar Rapids when it was damaged by a severe flood.

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That project "put us on the map" English said, but St. John's, Holy Family and First Presbyterian churches in Davenport have also been clients of his. Most of the time, the windows already exist and English's team restores them, bringing them back to life using old-school techniques.

"We're doing the same thing they did hundreds of years ago, so the process is still the same," he said.

The first step with restoration, he said, is removing the window and crating it for transportation— a task that seems daunting considering how large some windows appear.

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"When you see these big, giant windows they're not just one window," English said. "They're broken up into multiple panels so you can remove them."

Next the team covers the spot where the window was, ensuring it's sealed to prevent moisture from seeping in.

"Once they're back in the studio we remove them from the crate and do photo documentation," English said. "We take photos back lit and front lit and the process starts after that."

It starts with what English refers to as a "rubbing:" a tracing of the window. A worker will place a thin piece of paper over the window, then using a crayon, will slowly trace each individual line, essentially creating a map of what the window looks like from a structural standpoint.

"That rubbing identifies any breakage in the panel, where the original reinforcement went. So it's a nice guide," he said. "But it does take a little bit of time depending on the complexity of the window."

The rubbing is then laid out on a table, awaiting the next step.

With the blueprint complete, a worker will take the window to a "water tank" that looks like a large table with walls up on all sides to keep the water in. The window is disassembled while submerged to protect workers from harmful elements.

"A big issue that we deal with in our industry is lead. A lot of these panels that come in, there's lead corrosion on them," English said.

The window is disassembled while under water and each individual piece is thoroughly cleaned. Once dry, the pieces are laid back onto the rubbing in a slow process that resembles putting a jigsaw puzzle back together.

If any pieces are missing, a worker will cut a piece to fit the space. But, English said, workers do their best to repair cracks and work with what they have in order to keep the piece authentic.

"We do try to keep as much original glass as possible," English said. "Truly that's the historic aspect of the window, is the glass."

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Because there are so many different shades and hues of colors, it's impossible to match exactly. In the case of a cracked piece of glass, workers will fill in the cracks with lead. As the entire window is made up of lead lines, it blends right in.

Some windows have sayings or words painted on them. If they become too faded to read, the Glass Heritage team repaints it back to life before placing it back onto the rubbing before it moves onto the next step.

"At that point, the window is ready to reassemble," he said.

Once again, the window is moved piece to a work table and leading is placed in between each individual glass shape to hold the window together. Then, a worker will solder each individual joint on both the front and back of the window, a process that can take days depending on the size.

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With the window fully put back together, it moves over to another table where it is re-weatherproofed. The compound resembles a thick mud and is spread all over the window with a brush, pushed into the cracks and joints of the window to help strengthen and stabilize it.

"After this we detail the window," English said, adding it is lengthy, painstaking process. "You're literally taking a pick and going around each individual piece of glass to clean off each residual piece of weatherproofing."

While its drying, reinforcement bars are soldered onto the window to give it even more support.

"The final step is to take photographs again of the completed work, back lit and front lit, and then you put it back in the crate and you bring it back to the jobsite and it falls right into place for us," he said.

Before the window is re-installed, the Glass Heritage crew cleans up the window opening on the building its going into. The trim is glazed, painted and weatherproofed to ensure the window will be secure and last, as well as the window frame itself.

Last year English's company completed about 60 projects— a number that does not seem daunting, but it all depends on the size and details in the window.

"They could be someone's cabinet door from their home or it could be like St. Raphael Cathedral. It could be a huge project," he said, referencing the Dubuque church with 14 massive stained glass windows depicting different saints.

The 1860s windows are among the oldest ones he has ever worked on.

This year marks 20 years in business for English, who found his love for the craft while in high school. Although the work is tedious and requires a significant amount of patience, the light through the window— seeing the windows restored to their former glory — makes it all worth it.

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"I just enjoy taking something that is in a terrible state ... and making it look new again. It's very rewarding," he said. "And, when I drive past a church I get to say, 'I did that. I worked on that.' There's a lot of careers where you can't see your work."

Once fully restored, the windows are expected to last 75-100 years, ensuring English will have many more years to be proud of what he sees.

"I'll be able to see them when I'm old and retired," he said with a laugh. "I just love restoration work. I think it's fun and rewarding."

Photos: Glass Heritage restores stained glass in Davenport shop

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20 years of light work: Glass Heritage restores stained-glass windows to their former glory (2024)
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