Saved From the Sledgehammer

June 27, 2023

Written by Art Petrosemolo

As many of my friends here at Garden Spot Village know, I write for several local and regional newspapers. A few years ago, I met Paul Brown, a Lancaster native who grew up in Florida, and returned to the area to work for Tait Towers to build stadium and show staging.

I was told Paul was a salvager but he told me to call him an architectural treasure hunter. I have written about him several times including his acquisition of the Manheim, Pennsylvania Kready Geneal Store’s century old inventory as well as his find of 400 vintage sleds two years ago including hundreds of the iconic Flexible Flyers.

Well as good as the Kready collection find was, Brown’s recent rescue of original (Louis) Tiffany designed stained glass windows from the sledgehammer in a historic West Philadelphia church building has been the capstone find of his long career.

I have always wanted to go on a pick with Paul when he looked for architectural treasures in old churches and homes that were scheduled for demolition in and around Philadelphia. Paul had always told me there was and is a huge market for vintage windows, doors, lights and hardware. The demand comes from homeowners restoring historical residences and restoration contractors.

In November (just before Thanksgiving), Paul asked me to accompany him to West Philadelphia as he had a call that some stained glass windows in a 100-year old church were going to be sledged into oblivion to make space for new windows. Sadly, I was recovering from (new) hip surgery at the time and wasn’t up to climbing around an old church. I certainly regret now not sucking it up and making the trip!

Paul tells me that he beat the sledgehammer by an hour and was overwhelmed by the number of stained glass windows in the former St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church (now Emmanuel Christian Center). The church minister, Rev. William Brownlee, Jr., was in the midst of converting the sanctuary space for multiple uses and new windows were in his plan.

Church stained glass windows date back to the 7th century in France and although the 1800s were the golden era of stained glass in Europe, stained glass did not arrive in the United States until the mid-19th century.

Brown recognized that the St. Paul’s windows weren’t ordinary stained glass, especially the two eight-foot diameter rose-shaped windows. Unable to remove them himself, Brown hired contractors to pry them from their sandstone frames. He took them to Freeman’s, a well-known Philadelphia auction house, for an appraisal. “I was overwhelmed to learn these windows were designed by Louis Tiffany in the first years of the 20th century,” Brown said. “Their provenance was listed in both the Tiffany Company’s registry of windows and the St. Paul’s archives.” The bonus for Brown was the windows’ connection with John Wanamaker of Philadelphia department store fame whose name was in the church records as contributing to their purchase.

Explains Brown, Louis Comfort Tiffany was well-known for his designs of richly colored works of glass in the art nouveau style and also a type of iridescent glass called Favrile. “I had a rare find,” notes Brown, “and was in unchartered territory.” Brown worked with Freeman’s to get the windows cleaned and prepared for an auction that took place in mid-May.

Brown had contracted with the Emmanuel minister for the purchase of all the windows, lights and some pews in the church. When Rev. Brownlee learned he had sold the Tiffany windows literally “for a song,” he asked for more money. After a “brouhaha” in early May, an agreement was reached where the church received a percentage of the net sale of the rose windows.

The feel good rescue story, along with the squabble, was picked up by the national print (New York Times) and broadcast (ABC, CBS, NBC) media and

is thought to have kept bidding interest down for the windows. Ultimately Freeman’s $200,000 each estimated sales value for the windows wasn’t realized and they sold for $126,000 each to a single bidder who remained anonymous.

“Sure I’m disappointed the rose windows didn’t fetch what I think they could have and probably should have,” Brown says. “but I hope they’ll eventually end up in a location, possibly a church, where they can be viewed by the public.”

Fortunately for Brown, assorted other church windows he also salvaged can be repurposed and restored to sizes that will be purchased by home owners restoring historical homes or restoration contractors.

“The find certainly was the highlight of my career,” Brown says, “and it put me into a spotlight that I like to avoid in my work.”

Read Art’s recent story on Paul Brown and the Tiffany church windows that was published Sunday, June 4, 2023, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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