Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of a New York jeweler, started his career as a painter, but in the 1870s he turned more toward decorative arts and interior design. His distinctive stained glass work and mosaics through the 1920s became famous worldwide. As tastes changed, more modern decorators felt it was excessively elaborate. But the artistic merit never lost favor with collectors, and even today, one can find Tiffany-influenced lamps in lighting stores.
Although not a particular fan of the style, I was interested to see how Tiffany decorated the Willard Memorial Chapel in Auburn, New York.
The Auburn Theological Seminary, proposed by a Presbyterian pastor in 1818, opened its doors with four teachers and eleven students in 1821. It prospered in the 19th century, but languished in the 20th. Low enrollment and funding difficulties resulted in a move in 1939 to New York City where it still exists.
Dr. Sylvester Willard was Secretary of the Seminary’s Board of Trustees for more than forty years. In 1892, his daughters provided $50,000 [nearly 1.3 million in today’s dollars] to build the chapel in memory of their parents. They selected the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company to design and execute the chapel’s interior. The building was completed in 1894.
It is the last surviving complete installation by Tiffany in its original location.
During World War II, the Auburn campus buildings were used for various training programs and after the war housed veterans and their families. But most of the buildings were demolished in 1957 except for the Willard Memorial Chapel and Welsh Memorial Building complex.
Under threat of demolishment, the buildings were rescued by a community effort in 1990, and the Willard Chapel was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
Sixteen original stained-glass windows, the mosaic floor, nine chandeliers, decorated oak pews and wainscoting, extensive stenciling, a wall mosaic and a large bas relief commenorating the Willards still remain. Most of the walls which were originally a deep red were painted a lighter beige when the buildings were purchased by the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 1959, but one can still see the original color on one wall.
The abstract geometric patterns of the vertical windows were typical of Tiffany’s work at that stage in his career. All the windows used Favrile glass, Tiffany’s trademarked term for a hand-made semi-transparent colored glass that was not painted on the surface.
Below the rose window on the north wall is a 19th century Steere and Turner tracker organ, one of the largest and best preserved in upstate New York. A tracker organ is a pipe organ with a mechanical connection between the pipes and the keys and pedals at the organ’s console.
Click on photos to enlarge.