Diocese of Lake Charles
When it comes to designing stained glass windows, the artisans at Emil Frei & Associates don’t believe in taking shortcuts. That is why they don’t allow design by computer when it comes to their works of art.
“For a window to look like it has a soul, it has to be created by something that is attached to a soul, a human hand,” said Stephen Frei, who is a fourth generation Frei. “Maybe it could be more efficient, but there are things that are such when you take shortcuts, they show up in the final product.”
Stephen and his crew recently completed the restoration of the windows at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. They definitely did not take any shortcuts during the project that began more than a year ago at the national historic landmark in downtown Lake Charles.
“My guess is that we replaced more than 250 different pieces of glass,” Stephen remarked about the extensive work that was done. “There were usually three people on site, but there were a lot of people at our St. Louis (Missouri) studio remaking pieces, matching glass and colors and patterns, and doing all the kiln firings.”
This was only the second time such a project had taken place since the stained glass windows were installed in the Cathedral in 1939 as far as Stephen is aware. He said about 80 percent of the work they completed was “undoing” past repairs by other people over the years.
“Once a piece of stained glass is damaged and the information (lite of glass) is thrown away, then the new piece gets put in by someone who doesn’t have the mouthblown German crystal to match it with, so they end up putting in some other type of glass that doesn’t match,” said Stephen citing the past repairs as one of the biggest challenges of the project.
“We are very possessive of Frei windows,” he said, noting that his great-grandfather, Emil Frei who started the family business in 1898, played a role in the installation of the windows as did Stephen’s grandfather, Emil Jr., and father, Robert Frei. During the tenure of Emil Sr., the studio became known for some of the highest quality Munich, Germany, pictorial stained glass windows in the world, according to the company’s website.
“No other church in the world has these same designs,” Stephen said of the Marian-themed windows. While the subject matter may be the same in other churches, Stephen said the Cathedral’s windows are unique.
Aluminum being a rather new metal in 1939 that didn’t rust or seem to age was used to broadly outline each scene depicted in the large windows. The grills of woven aluminum are filled with Kokomo glass.
Charles Eames, widely known for his design of the Eames Lounge Chair in 1956, also played a small role in some elements of the Cathedral windows. An employee at Emil Frei in the early years of his career, Eames was among many artists at Emil Frei Studio.
“I suspect that Charles Eames was involved in the design of the aluminum grill that's both on the inside and the outside,” Stephen said. “I’ve never seen any filigree design that’s been used like this before.”
Because of the time investment, the Cathedral project was always planned to be done in two stages. The first stage, which lasted from January through June 2019, was to tackle all the high windows so there would be no leakage in the future that would damage walls or the painting in the apse or other things. All of those windows are completely sealed from the outside, said Stephen.
During the early planning, Stephen made two trips to inspect, analyze and provide detailed reports of each window along with an appraised value. The project involved the windows being reconditioned, inventoried and documented, broken stained glass replaced and thorough cleaning performed.
After arriving back on the scene at the beginning of 2020, Stephen and his crew remained busy replacing the old rusted and deteriorated steel frames in the bell tower and installing aluminum frames with provisions for future stained glass. They finished the stained glass repair in the four terra-cotta windows and installed hurricane tempered protective glass. They also ran new framing on the rest of the Nave windows and installed hurricane protective glass on those as well as the two smaller sacristy windows.
“With the material we put on now that is tempered, you can come back in about 50 or 100 years and wash it, and it will look brand new again,” Stephen said of the exterior protection. “It will never look cloudy. And other than bullets, basically almost nothing else will break it.”
But if a lite of stained glass is ever broken, Stephen offers this important advice: “Do not ever throw away the broken glass. It might seem worthless, but it carries a magnificent amount of information and makes the repair work half as hard.”