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Stained glass master lets the crystal speak.

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By Patty Andrews and Mary La Costa

Ursuline prior to Emil Frei renovation

Ursuline Chapel prior to Emil Frei, Inc. restoration and preservation of the windows

In the 1920s Emil Frei ventured down the Mississippi from his studio in St. Louis to produce stained glass windows for the Ursuline Chapel in Uptown New Orleans. Now, two generations later, Stephen Frei is in town to restore his great grandfather’s work. 

After more than 75 years, the stained glass windows in the Ursuline Chapel on State Street were ready for a face-lift. Small pieces of glass were missing, and water was trickling into the chapel through gaps between panes and around the edge. Stephen Frei was called to restore the windows to their youthful beauty.

Frei knows about the quality of the original workmanship, as the studio that produced these windows in the mid-1920s was headed by his great-grandfather, Emil Frei, Sr. The Frei Studio, of St. Louis, Missouri, has created windows for about 25 houses of worship in New Orleans, including Mater Dolorosa, the Poor Clare Monastery, Rayne Memorial, St. James Major, and St. Vincent de Paul. The Ursuline Chapel–also known as the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor–is one of their largest undertakings in New Orleans.

Emil Frei, Sr., studied art in Germany and probably spent time as an apprentice in a large workshop there before emigrating first to San Francisco and then to St. Louis, where he settled because of the large German population. In 1898 he founded a studio specializing mainly in stained glass but also in mosaics for religious buildings. The tradition was passed along to his son, Emil Jr., to his grandson Robert, and now to his two great-grandsons. Stephen has five children. He says whether they follow in the family’s illustrious path is their decision.

At the Ursuline Chapel, Frei and his assistant, Jeff Govro, have spent almost three months on ladders and scaffolding, repairing the seams where leading, stone tracery and frames meet glass. They shipped broken lites (individual pieces) back to St. Louis to be matched and repaired, and they washed the glass on the north side of the building so that it now matches the other windows in color. According to Frei, the Ursuline Chapel windows are among the darkest that the studio has ever produced because of the glass itself and the thickness of the shading–the small dots of powdered iron oxide fired onto the glass. This iron oxide is also used to delineate facial features, folds in clothing, and other lines and nuances. These windows are unusual for the dappled appearance of the stain, which was applied with a sponge-like technique. Frei speculates that the darker windows were selected because the Ursuline nuns were still cloistered when the chapel was built or possibly to match the ones brought over from the Ursuline Chapel on Dauphine Street.

Over the decades, Frei windows have changed in style, and Stephen Frei welcomes such change. It’s important for each generation to leave its footprint, he insists, whether in architecture or in other kinds of art. The Frei Studio never repeats itself and has no catalog of designs. In the 1950s the German Expressionist Siegfried Reinhardt worked actively with the Frei Studio. A striking example of this partnership is visible at the Christian Bible Fellowship, formerly Redeemer Lutheran Church, on Alvar Street in New Orleans. St. James Major Church in Gentilly also shows the influences of this angular expressionism.

If a church wants to install new windows, Frei has many meetings with its committee, helping to determine the content and then select themes important to the particular congregation. He must constantly overcome committees’ fears of treading on new artistic ground. Frei emphasizes that although modern windows usually incorporate simpler designs, partly because of the economics of the labor-intensive art, aesthetics do not suffer. “Let the crystal in the glass speak,” he advises. Once the committee has selected the subjects, artists in the studio design the window. Rarely are these designs rejected.

Frei says good windows incorporate many subtleties. Some of the symbolism and messages in the windows should be understandable only after hours of contemplation.

“We work hard, even today, to make the window individualistic, to give it soul and life,” Frei explains. Similarly, even windows created as a set incorporate subtle differences in color and design to produce greater interest.

The Frei Studio uses only mouth-blown glass, selected from different countries for varying textures. Most comes from Germany and has a relatively high lead content, producing vibrant colors with exceptional clarity and sparkle. Other glass is produced in France, Poland, England, and at the Blenko Studio in West Virginia. Mouth-blown glass includes small bubbles and imperfections, in contrast to the less expensive rolled glass. Early in the 20th century, many studios surrounded central European-style figures with American-made glass as an economy measure, but the Frei Studio did not.

The studio has not been stubbornly rooted in Munich-style techniques. It was a leader in introducing dalle de verre, or faceted glass, to the United States. This art form, discovered by accident in France during World War II, takes advantage of the ability of angular fractures to make glass sparkle when light passes through it. Chipped pieces of extra-thick colored glass are set in a special mortar, rather than being held in place by lead as in traditional stained glass. Striking dalle de verre windows can be seen at Algiers Methodist Church or at the New Home Full Gospel Ministry, formerly Congregation Chevra Thilim, at 4429 South Claiborne Avenue. Two chemists at the Frei Studio developed the mortar that permitted this form of window, replacing earlier cements that were too brittle to accommodate changes in temperature.

Like the Ursuline Chapel windows, many of the windows produced by the Emil Frei Studios are aging, and repair work is a growing part of the studio’s work. Repairs, like construction, require an understanding of the relative strengths, flexibilities, and needs of the materials. Glass and lead are heavy but flexible–to a certain extent. To prevent buckling, zinc-covered steel rods cross the windows horizontally at intervals. Of course, the differential settling in New Orleans complicates the challenge of making windows watertight. To verify that the windows are now well sealed, on a dark night Frei’s assistant hosed down the windows from outside while the master craftsman used a powerful light to detect minute leaks inside.

Does Stephen Frei find repair work tedious? Not at all. He’s learning about religious history and symbolism of the windows from Ursuline Alumnae Association Heritage and museum chair Poppy Tooker Mouledoux, as well as preserving what three generations of his forebears have done: bringing the religious experience to congregations through the art of stained glass.


Published in Preservation In Print, Vol. 29, no. 3 (April 2002), 30-31.