On September 20th, the League will host the 2014 Beaux Arts Ball at Weylin B. Seymour’s, an event venue next to the Williamsburg Bridge that was the former headquarters of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. As part of an ongoing feature in anticipation of the event and in celebration of its theme of Craft, we visited the studio of Ernest Porcelli of Ernest Porcelli Art Glass to discuss the process of restoring leaded glass and the techniques practiced in his workshop. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
I’m a self-taught stained glass artisan. I’ve been doing the craft for 43 years. I still have no problem going to work every day; I love it. My son, Ernie, works with me, as does his friend Sean. We restore existing stained glass, duplicate missing pieces, and then also create new pieces — there’s so many different things you can do with glass, besides restoration. It’s a magical craft.
I’m a Vietnam veteran and attended the School of Visual Arts. At the recommendation of a friend, I took a stained glass class with Jean-Jacques Duval on a whim. In the class, cutting my first piece of glass I said, “I can do this.” I saw it as a way to not be part of corporate America, to set up my own shop. Six months after I opened I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing — I had no business experience and minimal leaded glass experience at the time. But I kept learning, in part just by figuring it out. This was 1974 in Park Slope and there was nobody doing that kind of work, so I got to do a lot of restoration. One of my first projects was the restoration of some windows at the Montauk Club.
Right now we’re doing restorations at both the Methodist Hospital and Brooklyn Hospital chapels. We’re also rebuilding the two front doors for a house on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. It’s an extremely ornate Tiffany piece with crackle glass and jewels. We did a nice project for Société Générale when they opened up an office on 47th Street and Park Avenue. We did a 9-foot-by-8-foot elevator wall of leaded glass that had a center circle panel with 686 total pieces of glass. This panel took us five weeks to cut and lead up, it was massive.
I was brought into the Williamsburgh Savings Bank restoration when I got an e-mail from owner Juan Figueroa asking if I could repair some windows — but the job was about a lot more than just some windows. He said it was about 120 square feet of glass that was originally set up as a skylight. So I went to see the pieces, which were then in the basement, and we wound up on the roof, taking a look at the whole project.
I wanted this project — I’ve been around a lot of brownstones, a lot of big buildings, but this building, you look at the staircases, all of the details and you feel the significance. There are so many different details to look at. There’s a circular staircase that goes up to the second floor balcony when you walk in. To the left, underneath all of those frosted windows, there’s a little piece of glass in a cast metal frame. It’s a detail that nobody sees, but it’s an amazing piece of artwork.
The skylight in the 1906 dome was our focus at the Bank building. It’s 22 feet in diameter and the center piece was completely busted. The remaining glass pieces had been removed and partially repaired at some point, although there was still a lot of damage and they were extremely dirty. They had been sitting in the basement for 30 years! Moving them was difficult, because so many were damaged in certain areas. So to start, we had to evaluate each one to see what we needed to do.
I immediately realized that the original pieces were incredibly well built because they all had double lead on the outside borders, which was a craftsman technique done for structural strength. All the rebar was on top — normally it’s on the bottom, but because of the frames they could get away with putting it on top. Whoever repaired them previously had put lots of lead lines on all the cracked border pieces, which is standard practice in our industry. But Juan did not want any of the lines to be seen so those pieces had to be replaced. When we cut the lead lines off, we left the cracks, because if it’s a single crack the glass is not going to fall out of the lead — it’s still buried in a 3/16-inch of lead on either side. When you look at glass, the eye sees color, not line, so you don’t see the cracks.
For old work, the best first step is to take a rubbing of the original window before taking it all apart. Once you take it apart, sometimes you realize that the people who put it together cut the glass wrong, or flipped pieces over by accident. Sometimes a window has already had several replacements. Then you try to build the window to size from the rubbing, using the old glass and making a new frame, replacing glass when needed. With knowledge and through experience you learn to recognize what needs to be done. Still, whether it’s a simple or ornate piece, the basic practice is all the same.
To build a new piece, you need a mechanical drawing and a pressing. You cut a pattern, with patterns shears, in a way that allows space for the heart of the lead. Then you can start to build, from a corner, each piece in support of the next. Once it’s all assembled and squared up, then it’s soldered at each joint, flipped over, and soldered on the other side. Finally, the window is puttied. All windows 2-feet-by-3-feet or larger need at least one rebar on them, usually two, for structural strength and integrity over hundreds of years of use.
That’s one of the amazing things about this craft: these windows are 95, 100 years old that we take apart and make new again. And, for a 500-year-old industry, there are very few things that have changed: the introduction of lead dykes, water jet laser cutters, and metal grinders. That’s about it. Everything else is pretty much done the same way, by hand with the same chemicals and the same lead.
For the Bank building skylight, we couldn’t make a complete rubbing because we only had a part of it and it was already dismantled. So we looked at the patterns in the pieces we had and worked from there. Then we just started to build it.
Three of us worked on this project over the course of a year and a half. It would take us a day to clean each side of each panel, and another day on each panel to replace all the pieces that were broken. When we finished, we crated them and kept them out of harm’s way until they were ready to install them. To repair the whole skylight, they didn’t just have to replace the glass, they had to strengthen the frame that was underneath it, scrape it all down, and re-paint around it.
By the time we came back to install, the space was completely platformed out so you could walk around the whole dome. It was amazing crawling around in that old space. You could see that there used to be a pulley system to turn the oculus, the center panel, in the frame. But we went to put that piece in and realized that it was half-an-inch too small, so we had to take it out and rebuild the whole outside border. So the project started small and then got a bit bigger, but it was such a great project to work on and to be a part of. And I think we did right by it.
Ernest Porcelli has been a stained-glass artist for more than 40 years, creating original designs and restoring historic pieces in homes, churches, businesses, and landmark buildings throughout the tri-state area. He has received attention in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Historic Preservation Magazine and Home Magazine, and his work has appeared in several major motion pictures, including Sabrina, Big, and Brighton Beach Memoirs. He set up his first stained-glass workshop in Brooklyn in 1974. Today, working out of his Industry City studio, Porcelli uses a variety of techniques, such as painting, acid etching, and sandblasting. He employs glass fusion to create his unique line of bowls and plates, and incorporates fused pieces into his leaded windows and screens.