Wednesday, February 17, 2016


     “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas."
     "That is because you have no brains," answered the girl. "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home."
     The Scarecrow sighed."Of course I cannot understand it," he said. "If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.”                       ~L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

As noted in a previous post, the Oz books were my life when I was in elementary school, and I must confess that everything I have ever thought about Kansas came from their pages.

Boy, was I mislead. I suppose Kansas can be hot and dry, and most likely I would feel differently if I had visited during a cyclone, but now that I've been there, I think Kansas is full of art and culture and lots of surprises. We ran across one of those surprises in Topeka.

Topeka's First Presbyterian Church, built in 1884, is relatively simple as far as churches go. The original building had a wooden steeple that stood 160 feet high. It was damaged by lightning in 1888, repaired, and then damaged again in 1910. Can you blame the church leadership for deciding to permanently remove the tower?
Photo from here

The church has a large sanctuary with a beautiful hand-carved altar:

However, the real glory of the church and the Big Surprise referred to earlier is on the surrounding walls: ten stained glass windows designed by none other than THE Louis Comfort Tiffany and installed in 1911 at a cost of $14,000. The church calls them "Windows of Comfort," a nice play on Tiffany's middle name.
(These are terrible photos, but they give a good idea of how the windows are placed in the church.)
Tiffany developed a process for infusing the glass with color and texture rather than using paint to create that effect, which is how stained glass was usually made at the time. His work is especially noted for the use of "opalescent" glass, or pieces of glass in which more than one color is present, as can be seen in these windows:
The Call of Matthew

The Call of Matthew detail

Psalm 42: "As the hart panteth after
the water brooks, so panteth my soul
after thee, O God.
Tiffany patented what he called "favrile glass" in 1892.  The color of the glass comes from additives such as cobalt, copper, and gold, rather than from paint, enamels, or stains. It has a kind of shimmer or iridescence that comes from mixing different colors of glass together while they are hot, "like the wings of certain American butterflies, the necks of pigeons and peacocks, [and] the wing covers of various beetles," according to Tiffany.
Christ and Nicodemus
In addition to the stained glass types listed above, Tiffany developed several other forms of glass, making his windows very distinct.
Christ and Nicodemus, detail

Christ and the Valiant Woman

Christ and the Valiant Woman, detail

Christ and the Valiant Woman, close-up

Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall
not want; he maketh me to lie down in green
pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters;
He restoreth my soul."

The Baptism

The balcony has a triptych window below and a large window above:

The triptych is a luminous depiction of Christ blessing the little children:

Mark 10:14 says, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of Gid."  In Tiffany's version, it looks as if the kingdom of God is actually present in the form of angels:

Christ Blessing the Little Children, detail

Christ Blessing the Little Children, detail

Christ Blessing the Little Children, detail

Christ Blessing the Little Children, close-up

In the balcony area above the triptych, an almost incandescent Christ ascends to heaven:

Two more Tiffany windows behind the north and south balcony stairs are known as the Medallion Windows or Jeweled Windows. The style is quite a bit different from Tiffany's portrait and scenery windows, drawing more on the traditional style of windows from the 13th century:

As we admired these gorgeous windows, I kept reminding myself that I wasn't in New York City or Boston or even San Francisco; I was in Topeka. TOPEKA. And the Tiffany windows weren't the only things to see in this church.
In 1948, an addition was built that included a beautiful little chapel with some more stunning stained glass windows. These were created by the Jacoby Company of St. Louis. Kudos to the Topekans who didn't rest on their Tiffany Laurels, but had the vision and artistic sense to fund these additional gems.

The largest and most dominant window is a detailed nativity window that is so lovely that Hallmark has used it on Christmas cards:

Joseph is young and tender in this version of the Nativity. I like Mary's toes peeping out from under her robes:

The shepherds' faces show care and concern for the Christ child:

The Three Kings all have rather aquiline noses, don't you think?

The row of small windows beneath the Nativity show the Annunciation: 

. . . Simeon in the temple with the Holy Family:

. . . and Christ as a child in Joseph's carpentry shop, his mother watching:

Another wall has images of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, each with a book and a pen, which represent their roles as the writers of the four Gospels:

The final window shows Isaiah exhorting his people and Moses holding the stone tablets:

Topeka, between your capitol and this exquisite church, you convinced me that you are a cultural mecca. I never would have guessed it.

Based on historical events and people, this novel focuses on the women's division of Tiffany's studios and those women who likely had a significant impact on Tiffany's designs. Along with discussing how Tiffany's exquisite lamps and windows came to be, Vreeland details how women artists were treated at a time when women's rights were beginning to become an issue in American society. The "women's studio," let by Clara Driscoll (an actual person, along with many other historical figures in the book), usually comprised 27 women, give or take one or two.

 This is historical fiction, not biography, but Vreeland does a good job of weaving in a lot of culture and history, including political issues, clothing styles, popular past-times, attitudes towards mental illness, and even the advent of the bicycle. Clara’s circle of friends were very interesting people, and the author includes a postscript that tells what happened to some of the main characters.


  1. In addition to the gem of a capitol and church, we found a gem of a restaurant, as well as a decent civil rights museum. I agree, that I will never view Kansas the same. You don't have to be insane to live there.

  2. But alas - no mountains. I always felt a bit lost in places I lived like Zurich, Melbourne, Chicago, and Accra. I love to be cradled by mountains on all sides. Vegas has mountains - even though they look quite pitiful compared to the Wasatch where we grew up. Kansas is far too flat for this mountain boy. But it appears that Topeka would be worth a visit.

    1. You are so right, Russ. Part of the appeal of where we live is that we have tall mountains surrounding us. They are a touch of my youth and make living in California bearable.

  3. Is there anything more beautiful than Tiffany stained glass? I think not. I could easily talk myself into a visit to Topeka just to view it. I love the eager faces of the children in the depiction of Christ blessing the children, but really, every single window is lovely.