Bringing back landmark N.J. church brought low by storm

Elaine Bell Susko , a glass painter with Willet Hauser Architectural Glass in Philadelphia, paints a section of stained glass that will replace windows destroyed during a storm-related fire in 2012 at the Church of the Redeemer.
Elaine Bell Susko , a glass painter with Willet Hauser Architectural Glass in Philadelphia, paints a section of stained glass that will replace windows destroyed during a storm-related fire in 2012 at the Church of the Redeemer. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 23, 2013

LONGPORT, N.J. - It was unfathomable that this spot where the island narrows along a rock wall beside the bay had lost its beacon and landmark, the Church of the Redeemer.

Consumed not by water but by fire during the terrifying derecho storm of June 2012, flames shooting out of stained-glass windows, the 100-year-old Spanish Mission-style church was a total loss, including those singular windows combining the iconography of the life of Jesus and the seashore.

You might think the church, and particularly those windows, created in the 1930s at Willet Stained Glass Co. at 39th Street and Girard Avenue in Philadelphia, would be irreplaceable.

But some losses, it turns out, can be undone. Despite lacking any original architectural drawings, "we were determined to rebuild," said Tom Subranni, a church member who chaired the effort.

And so it was that the church overlooking the edge of an island itself prone to vanishing could, like the sand being pumped back onto the beaches, be brought back.

Windows and all.

It turned out that Willet was still in business, though merged and operating out of a warehouse at 811 E. Cayuga St. in Juniata Park as Willet Hauser Architectural Glass.

The company still had records - drawings, watercolors, slides, scribbled notes - dating back to the original windows.

An insurance policy with $1 million in art coverage - obtained by the church in a group Episcopal Church policy - made rebirth possible.

Now, workers are finishing the new structure, a near exact replica whose stucco-covered walls are now concrete, not wood.

They hope to reopen on Father's Day, the traditional start of the season for this spiritual home for summer Episcopalians.

As for the windows, "it's been kind of a detective story all along," said Jenkyn Powell, general manager of Willet Hauser. "Some things were very difficult to see in pictures, or weren't really shown in drawings. We got as many sources as we could."

When Willet research librarian Amy Di Gregorio dug deep into the old Dewey decimal-like drawers lining an upstairs wall, she found a series of cards indexing all of the windows.

"This was a rare situation," she said. "It was such an old job. We had a system. We didn't have all of the designs."

Those cards pointed the way to other drawers and files from the Longport project, which contained original cartoons, watercolors by George Gugert, and slides and shop drawings by Henry Willet himself, son of founder William Willet, who scribbled pencil measurements, notes, and drawings of the windows.

The company used photographs taken by third-generation Crosby Willet on a trip in the early 1980s with his wife, Gussie, to give a talk to the congregation. After being put up inside the church overnight, Crosby Willet took photos in the early morning rather than chitchat any more with church members.

"Gussie was really blown away by the English streaky glass," recalled Elaine Bell Susko, a current Willet artist. With photographs by church historian Michael Cohen and images from GoogleEarth, the company has been able to reproduce - almost exactly - the original windows.

All have seashore images - ship rope, wooden boats, sea horses, jellyfish, shells, and round circles that Susko thought long about before concluding they were bubbles.

Henry Willet noted in the original 1939 dedication program that the scene at the front of the church has Jesus preaching from a boat; the congregation itself serves as the flock on the riverbank.

He noted the use of seaweed instead of traditional leaf in the border, and in the background, boats and seagulls, though some assume they are doves.

Susko creates the designs on the windows through a reverse painting process that involves applying paint with iron oxide, then removing it like a scratch board to let in light and reveal the colors.

She also consulted her handy Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore for details not visible even with the original sources.

New Jersey Bishop George Edward Councell never questioned the rebuilding effort on such valuable land. The bill for the windows will be nearly $900,000.

No wonder. The process involves many hands in a studio set up like an old medieval artisan shop, an expert for each step.

There was Mike Leimberger, the patterner, who used computer programs to extrapolate from the drawings and photos and produce full-scale patterns detailing each piece of glass in the full design.

There was Amy Novak, the selector, who went to Germany and back to find the right colored glass. The original glass used was manufactured in England in a factory that shut down after World War II. Willet had purchased some of its inventory.

But much of the new glass was manufactured in Washington state to look like antique glass.

For one color, Novak ended up going all the way to Germany. This was the cobalt blue that forms the backdrop - the baseline, Powell says - to some of the scenes, a color so meaningful to the original parishioners, particularly Mayor Edwin Lavino, who paid for them, that he sent back the large circular rose window for a deeper blue.

Although faithful to the original, the hand of an artist and practicalities mean they are new creations.

Will a young child note the addition of a sea horse that was a whim of Susko? Will a loyal parishioner look up and tell that only eye level and down is from antique glass salvaged from the English factories after World War II?

"The English glass is unbelievable," Crosby Willet, 84, said by phone from Vero Beach, Fla. "It's not the same, what they're doing now. It's beautiful, and it's going to be very effective. It won't have the softness and detail they created in the '30s and '40s. To me, it won't be the same."

The same could be said for the building itself. Instead of wood trim, it's the synthetic Azek. The building has been raised for flooding, so there will be additional steps once you enter through the red door. It has been pushed back slightly from the edge of the property, so the tower no longer sits on the original brick base.

The wood exterior is cast in concrete - made to outlast a fire during a derecho, whether ignited by lightning or by an unsteady electric pole (a theory never proven; the pole fell against the structure during the storm). The roof is terra cotta tile, but lacks the original's variety of hues.

Getting architect Terry Wray on site immediately after the fire to take measurements from what was left was key to extrapolating dimensions, comparing with photos and window measurements, and creating new plans. (The tower is a wee bit taller.)

But the building is so close to the original that some who come down for the first time since before the fire are certain there has been no fire after all, or that it was quite small.

The roof cross was salvaged from the fire.

Four new bells for the tower are to be cast in France with the name of a donor yet to be determined. (See Tom Subranni on 11th Street; he's also accepting donations.) There will be a new organ.

Standing outside the church the other day, Subranni and Wray noted the differences but marveled at the restoration of a landmark that also served as the town's lighthouse, the bell tower's light guiding boats into Seaview Harbor, visible for miles.

Though cherished from the outside by thousands, as a 12-week seasonal chapel it has just 50 families as members.

Subranni said he was grateful that the Episcopal Church kept up its support (and the insurance policy), and he urged people to fill the church's mahogany interior on opening day, to reassemble as Jesus' flock at water's edge, to fulfill the vision of Henry Willet and Edwin Lavino, improbably brought back by devoted caretakers.

"The way I see it, we had a wooden church that was 100 years old," Subranni said. "Now we have a church that is going to last for centuries."


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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