First Pres

     Rev. 4/25/05


First Presbyterian Church

by Warren Roberts

First Presbyterian Church, built in 1883 (Josiah Cleaveland Cady, architect), belongs stylistically to the Romanesque revival, a phase of American architecture initiated by Henry Hobson Richardson. After traveling in France in the 1860's, Richardson built Trinity Church in Boston in 1871, the key building in the Romanesque revival. It so happened when Richardson was designing Trinity Church he was in the fortunate position of being able to enlist the help of John LaFarge, View of Sanctuary - Henry Hobson Richardson, Architect who at this very time was making a breakthrough in the design and manufacture of stained glass windows. Some of LaFarge's finest windows are in Trinity Church.

That Richardson saw fit to give such prominence to LaFarge's windows is evidence of one of the important forces at work not only in the chemistry of his own artistic imagination but in American historicist architecture in general.

When Richardson designed Trinity Church, architects were increasingly willing to abandon the correctness that had been one of the features of the Gothic revival in its earlier stages. For Richardson, the Romanesque provided a vocabulary, so to speak, that he employed freely and imaginatively in buildings that at once looked to the past and drew from the forms and techniques of the present. And so it was when he collaborated with LaFarge in Trinity Church, for not only were the windows in the church brilliantly modern, but also they were stylistically anomalous.

The fact is that stained glass windows belonged not to the Age of Romanesque but rather to the Age of Gothic. This did not bother Richardson, for what he wanted was a building that answered the imperatives of his own taste and interests. So plastic were those imperatives that including stained glass windows in a Romanesque style building presented no difficulties whatever. He wanted the color and brilliance that LaFarge's windows were able to provide, and they are among the finest ornaments of this building.

The above discussion of Trinity Church explains much about First Presbyterian Church in Albany. This building is unmistakably Romanesque in the massed volumes of rusticated masonry that enrich the exterior, as well as in the use of round arches and the abstract stone carvings above the entrance portals. Yet when one enters the interior there is nothing except the round arches that suggests the Romanesque style, and those arches are done so freely and imaginatively that they have almost severed ties with the past. The interior (unlike Trinity Church in Boston) does not have walls of masonry, a medieval material, but rather walls of plaster, a modern material. Those walls are surmounted by round arches that only in the most residual way do obeisance to the Romanesque. The interior of the church is open, spacious, brilliantly lit interiors of Romanesque churches from the medieval period.

The church as we see it today is different than when Cady designed it. The now permanent wall with stained glass windows on the west side of the building was originally a sliding wall that, when raised, opened onto the adjacent meeting room. Cady did not try to be archeologically correct in designing a church in the Romanesque style but rather created a modern, suburban type church whose flexibility was appropriate for the uses of the congregation. The permanent wall took away that flexibility. At the same time that change was made, the 1930's, other innovations were also introduced.

Originally, a full set of organ pipes ran along the south wall, inside the chancel. Where the reredos screen now stands. Finally, the colors Tiffany Window are different now than in the original building, in every possible respect. The walls, now grey, were originally white, with the exception of woodwork since painted over, and the windows were completely different.

The clerestory windows, originally a light color, were changed to dark blue and red, then restored to clear glass. The windows on the east (State Street) side of the building as well as the north (Willett Street) side were once lighter in color. Those windows, in all of their expansiveness, in all of the area occupied by glass, reveal the same principle that was already in Richardson's Trinity Church: not only is stained glass an integral part of the design but it is used on a scale that not even Richardson employed in his landmark church in Boston. It is as if the logic of freely adding new and anomalous elements of design to an historicist building was pursued more radically than had been the case in the previous decade.

The windows of First Presbyterian Church are the glories of the building: they are among the finest artistic treasures of Albany; and they are of national and indeed international importance. They are not the original windows, and herein lies a story of real interest. Old photographs show that the original windows were of geometric design. The current windows are richly pictorial. In the central part of the church, the sanctuary, there are three sets of windows, two of them being identical in size. These are the large window ensembles that face State and Willett Streets. Those facing Willett Street were done by the Lamb Studio and those facing State Street (including the smaller windows adjacent to the large group) were done by the Louis Tiffany studio.

Tiffany also did three windows in the adjoining assembly room. The tour de force is the large Armstrong window, a brilliant evocation of the Sea of Galilee, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives. What is remarkable about this ensemble is that it is incorporated into the same openings as the Lamb window on the next wall. In both cases there were five panels in which windows were placed, but how Tiffany and Lamb designed the panels led to results that made for a fascinating comparison. Few people would believe that the windows by the different studios filled identical openings, but this is assuredly the case.

What Tiffany did was to design one scene that he fit into all of the openings, thereby creating a fully integrated tableau, whereas Lamb designed different scenes for each window. The contrast is stunning. As fine as the Lamb windows are, those of Tiffany are simply brilliant. When the windows left the Tiffany studios in 1915 his workers said to have commented that they were the finest nature windows that Tiffany ever designed. To say this is to say that they are the finest windows anywhere from that great age of stained glass windows, the period 1870-1920. All of Tiffany's virtuosity has been lavished on these windows - the plated glass, the etched glass, the drapery glass, the confetti glass, techniques that he took decades to perfect. Lamb Window

Interestingly, it was John LaFarge, Richardson's collaborator in Trinity Church in Boston, who led the way in developing the techniques that were essential to the brilliant stained glass achievements of the period 1870-1920. He and Tiffany were rivals and fierce competitors, and it was Tiffany in the end who got the most important commissions and set the stamp of his genius most firmly on the period as a whole.

The First Presbyterian Church has some of his finest windows, done towards the end of a famous career, creates a nice counterpoint between it and the church in Boston that launched the Romanesque revival style of architecture. Richardson saw fit to use stained glass windows freely in Trinity Church, and did so with the superb help of LaFarge. When Cady designed First Presbyterian Church in Albany, he opened up two walls to stained glass windows, a daring use of Richardson's own approach. Little did he know that some three decades later LaFarge's old rival, Louis Tiffany, would fill the spaces of those windows with stained glass as fine as anywhere in America.

Click here for a closer look at First Presbyterian's stained glass windows.