MMOFA Preserves a Piece of Stained Glass History
Lake Oconne News, August 28, 2008
Posted August 28, 2008
On a recent trip to New York City, on behalf of the Madison Museum of Fine Art, Madison residents Sean and Debbie Gallagher received the gift of eight stained-glass panels from the famed abstract mosaic facade of American Airlines Terminal 8, popularly known as “the Cathedral,” designed by the late Modern stained-glass artist Robert Sowers and unveiled in 1960 at Idlewild Airport (now John F Kennedy) in New York, NY.. From the time of its installation until 1998, the Guinness Book of World Records proclaimed the work to be the largest stained glass window in the world, and it became a JFK airport trademark.
Widely considered America’s greatest stained-glass artist of the Modern era, Robert Sowers combined artistic virtuoso with functionality in his design of the massive abstract glass installation that adorned the face of Terminal 8. Composed of over 30,000 red, sapphire and white glass tiles organized in 900 panes, the 317 foot by 23 foot translucent mosaic window provided aesthetic pleasure and much-needed insulation on the south-facing wall. The installation won Sowers worldwide fame and made a bold public statement about the expansiveness and creativity of Modern American architecture. Sowers also authored several books on the history of stained glass and how to understand the language of glass.
When American Airlines began construction of its new terminal at JFK in 2007, former American Airlines employee, Eileen Vaquilar Clifford began a national campaign to save the Sowers Window as a single work of art. Yet, the size of the work and the expense of removal and reconstruction proved prohibitive. In February 2008, museum director Michelle Bechtell learned of the iconographic window's fate, and she contacted American Airlines. Said Bechtell, “We felt strongly that a fine art history museum needed to preserve the legacy of Sower’s stained glass masterpiece and its place in art history. And the Museum’s sculpture garden seemed to be a perfect place to display some glass panels. American Airlines agreed.”
Over the past months, the Museum worked with Don Smith, retired Facilities Manager of American Airlines, who selected 8 glass panels for the Museum. Joe Daly, current Facilities Manager, supervised the transfer of ownership. And Brian Troy, Managing Director of Operations at JFK, formally presented the panels to Sean and Debbie in New York.
Smith treated the Gallaghers to a personal tour of the new facility and the old Terminal 8 still undergoing demolition. Sean recalls, “Don explained that it took him and others a long tome to decode the ingenious system that Sowers used to attach the fragile glass panes to the framework. And the safe removal of the glass panes was a tedious and slow process. In testament to Sowers' mastery of his craft, Don noted that despite the window facing the brutal elemental punishment of a southern exposure, enduring the sometimes caustic New York air, and being subject to the constant vibration of jet engines, for half a century, the massive stained glass window never once leaked. It was amazing to see!”
American Airlines' donation has now arrived at the Museum and efforts are underway to design the structure to display this piece of American art history in the Museum's sculpture garden. The Madison Museum of Fine Art was the only art museum selected to receive a donation of glass panels from the Sowers window. Other glass panels will be displayed at the American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum in Dallas and the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York. All remaining glass panels were donated to Olde Good Things, an architectural salvage firm, where proceeds will benefit mission work in Haiti.
The Madison Museum of Fine Art is a non-profit educational institution that collects, preserves, interprets, and imaginatively displays original works of art by historically significant visual art masters for the education, edification, and spiritual nourishment of all persons living and traveling in Georgia’s Lake Country. The Museum with sculpture garden is located on the courthouse square at 290 Hancock Street in Madison. For further information on the project, to make a donation toward the cost of the installation of the Sowers panels in the museum’s sculpture garden, or to become a member of the museum, call 706-485-4530 or visit www.madisonmuseum.org .