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Sunday, June 3, 2012

A 'masterpiece' church turns 100 in Pittsburgh

The ornate stained-glass windows at First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – Century-old records are missing that could shed light on the motivation behind the elaborate and massive stained-glass windows gracing a landmark Baptist church in Pittsburgh.

The First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh has just one sheet of paper from the artist, Charles Jay Connick, explaining his use of particular symbols in the windows, his first major commission, said its current pastor, the Rev. Gary W. Denning.

"We do not have records of church committee discussions debating/deciding what they thought the symbols should be on the various windows," Denning said Sunday as the church at 159 N. Bellefield Ave. in Pittsburgh's Oakland section marks the 100th anniversary of its completion.

"We don't know what they were all thinking," Denning said.

It's even more fascinating that any Baptist church would have ornate stained-glass windows to begin with, he said.

"Baptists are usually poor," he said.

However, the congregation in the early 1900s was blessed with money after its Downtown home was demolished to clear land for a public office building at Fourth and Ross streets.

The sale earned the church $570,000, which allowed it to construct the Oakland site, a second in Mt. Washington that not longer survives and a third in Dormont, one that since has been heavily altered, Denning said.

A donation from the family of George and Clara Porter allowed First Baptist to spend $6,500 on windows for the English/Gothic-style sandstone building in Oakland, said Rommy Wyllie, an architectural historian who spoke at the anniversary celebration.

One of the smaller stained-glass windows inspired by those created during Medieval France and incorporated into the Pittsburgh church. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Connick, along with the church's architect, Bertram Goodhue, gave Pittsburgh a "sublime masterpiece" to tell the story of the Bible, Wyllie said.

Connick was born in Springboro, Pa., in 1875, and turned to drawing after moving at age eight with his family to Pittsburgh and being bullied by children for being a country boy. His other masterpiece in Pittsburgh would become the 73-feet-tall windows in Heinz Memorial Chapel at the University of Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Goodhue was born in 1869 in Pomfret, Conn., built the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. and designed the Cheltenham typeface used to create The New York Times headlines.

Goodhue incorporated two-dimensional relief sculptures of Earthly scenes to adorn the east, exterior side of his Pittsburgh church and heavenly versions of the art style on its western walls.

For example, Denning said, an image of a ship at stormy sea can be found among the Earthly images and its counterpart is one of Noah's arc, a rescue ship.

Connick drew inspiration from medieval churches he toured while visiting France and sought to blend that ancient style with glass-making technologies that were new when he was alive, said Albert Tannler, director of collections at Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

The riches brought to Pittsburgh by the steel industry in the early 1900s also attracted a bank of artisans that gave the city "some of the finest work available" in the United States, Tannler said.

The bulk of the design of the 13 giant windows created by Connick in the city's Baptist church involved repeated geometric shapes on gray and beige backgrounds.

The religious symbols on the panels can largely be found along just one row of the glass, and were designed in such images as a cross, lamb, inverted torch and broken sword. They were arranged in the progression of Christ, from his birth in those beside the altar to the others following his ministry, teachings, death and resurrection as visitors returned to the front doors.

The sculptures outside included a vine to represent Jesus and their branches to symbolize his followers in such a design to invite people inside the building, Denning theorized. Above the main entry are bas-reliefs of God's hand reaching down to a lamb (Jesus) shown above a dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, he added.

Indoors, he said, the windows prepared the congregation to follow the word of God as its members left the sanctuary.

The Rev. Gary W. Denning, pastor of First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, discusses its architecture outside the main entrance to the landmark building that turned 100 this year. (Scott Beveridge photo)

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