Lighting the Ascension Window 1947-2007

1947 Design
1947 Design

2007 Design (scaffolding  temporary)
2007 Design (scaffolding temporary)

On December 8, 1947, a young Rev. Thomas Faulkner in his second year at St. George’s completed a letter to attorney (and future federal judge) John Butzner and prepared that an affidavit that explained an embarrassing situation that had surfaced involving the Ascension stained glass windows.

The Ascension Windows are the oldest stained glass windows at St. George’s. Made in Heidelberg, Germany, they were presented in 1885 in memory of the Reverend Mr. McGuire who preached for 45 years here. The center window, depicting the Ascension of Christ, is flanked on the left by the Apostle Peter and on the right by the Apostle John. The windows are located on the east wall of the Church.

Mrs. John Pratt, wife of noted resident of Chatham in Falmouth and director of General Motors, provided funds on Christmas Eve, 1946 to light the Ascension Windows so they could be seen from inside the Church at night. The windows were clearly visible from the outside when the Church was lighted from the inside during services. However, during evening services they were black from the inside.

The firm of Owens and Hancock in Fredericksburg was hired for the job. By December, 1947 the next Christmas was approaching and the lights were not ready and Faulkner found there were extra costs involved. Apparently the issue had been discussed with the Vestry during Feb, May , June, and December. Hancock put lights at the bottom of the windows with three flood lights on each bracket.  It was found the tops of the Ascension windows were inadequately lit.  Also, as soon as the church lights are turned on from the inside they also overpowered the exterior lights.

W. (“Ruter”) Embrey, then Chairman of the Property Committee, forerunner of the Buildings and Ground Commission, had suggested that floodlights be put above the windows. The firm of Owens and Hancock electrician was not willing to do this because of the high powered electric line in the alley in the rear of the church was too close to the windows, within eight feet.

To eliminate the strong light inside the church, the Gray-Bar Electric Company of Richmond proposed to turn the inside lights over the pulpit  to be reflected down over the choir and that a spotlight on each side be focused on the altar. At the same time, strong lights would be placed above the three windows on the outside to light the tops of the windows. These would be designed to be disconnected and lowered to the ground so that bulbs could be changed. This would eliminate the need to climb above the high powered line except to install the lights. They also contacted VEPCO to see if they could re-arrange the electrical wiring so that they would be one above the other rather than extend out from the church.

The original expense from Owens and Hancock to place the original floodlights was $170. The additional work outlined in a November 20th letter would be $1,074 reflecting the Gray-Bar idea which would cover 3 ratchet hangers, 3, 1000 watt flood lights on the outside and 2 flood lights inside the Church and to be implemented by Owens and Hancock . The outside floodlights were be installed on the outer end of supporting rack  attached with a special chain and lock grip making it possible to lower the lights to the ground The affidavit was to consult with Pratt before the extra expense was incurred. As reported to the Vestry on Feb 6, 1948, the Estate of Mrs. John L. Pratt paid in $1,000 to the Property Committee for this purpose.  There is no evidence that the work was ever done, except perhaps the inside portion but the original Hancock lights remained from the failed attempt.

Servicing the lights was a continual problem. A letter from Vepco (later Virginia Power) on  July 3, 1949 indicated they would be unable to service the light bulbs or fixtures since they had not the proper tools and equipment.  Pete Myers has told me that Hancock was brought in again to re-aim the lights in the 1950’s. The lights worked but the interior lights still interfered with the outside lights.

Fast forward 60 years.  In late 2006, gift was made by Bev Thompson  to finally light the windows.  This time a taskforce looked at various options. One solution was to repeat the 1947 experiment without knowing it. An electrician from our Nave contractor Daniel and Company brought his ladder, examined the Owens and Hancock lights and found them to be in good shape. He changed some bulbs and then switched on the lights. Guess What? They didn’t work any better in 2007 than they had in 1947.  The windows were not uniformly lighted. 

Another solution was to construct a steel platform in two, eight foot sections below the windows to add proper lighting and to provide the mechanism for changing the lights. This was approved in January, 2007 by the Architectural Review Board in Fredericksburg and designed by Church architect James Wollon. It would be of

mill-finish aluminum, a dull silver gray to blend in with the wall.  The cost turned out to be prohibitive ($41,000) just to install the steel platform and did not count the light fixtures. The aesthetics of a platform outside the east wall were not appealing.

Still, another solution, similar to what was proposed in 1947, was to have a pulley system to change the window lights . This was designed by Retrople, LLC that  manufactured a light lowering device that enables the property owner or manager to replace a lamp or ballast from the ground. Aesthetics would not be comprised  

Finally, Earl Baughman, chairman of the Nave Renovation Task Force, found a solution at St. Paul’s in Petersburg. Ironically, the Color Committee had gone to the Church not to view the lights but the color scheme.  To enter the Church that night they had to go outside from the Church office to the inside of the Church. It was at that point Earl noticed the solution they had used to light up their stained glass window which was created by Rudy Hawkins Electrical. The lights used were fluorescent, not incandescent mounted vertically outside the windows. The lighting would not be overpowered by lights from the inside, and they provided a uniform lighting scheme.

Scaffolding appeared in the Church in early December, 2007 and the job was completed over two weeks by the  Hawkins firm.  On December 22, 2007 in a ceremony after the greening of the Church, Rev. Jim Dannals provided the prayers acknowledging Cameron Thompson’s contributions to the Church and the light switch was turned on. All agreed the results were impressive.

Several lessons are apparent. Always consult past records on projects that have an origin in the past. We do not have an adequate history of the church from World War II onward so that is difficult. Thus the experiment in 1947 was missed. Also, nurturing talents in the Parish is equally as important.  The job could not have been done without the talents of the Nave Task Renovation Force, especially Earl Baughman as well as the financial support of the Thompson family. A solution was found to light the complete window, with an aesthetically pleasing design and the committee did it within the budget.