The hand-painted face of a sheep peeks out of an assortment of colorful glass fragments on a wooden worktable at Stanton Studios, in Waco. The weathered visage, its details hard to decipher against the scuffed, unlit pane, is the only indication of what this stained glass window will portray once it is fully assembled. Even the man responsible for the job can’t bear to tally up the exact number of glass pieces it entails. “Thousands,” studio founder Bryant Stanton tells me. Even in an uncountable number of pieces, the window is gorgeous, its deeply hued fragments reflecting light to catch the eye like so many two-dimensional jewels.

Waiting to be soldered together in the Waco workshop, the glass shards are 240 miles from their home church, in Galveston, and much, much farther from where they were created, in New York City, 136 years ago. To reach this studio, and this century, the window has withstood decades of floods, hurricanes, Gulf Coast humidity, changing aesthetic trends, and poor upkeep. For its trouble, it now has the distinction of being Texas’s oldest known stained glass work by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the master craftsman who heralded the American art glass movement and set this young country’s stained glass oeuvre apart from the gothic-leaning masterworks of the Old World. 

This particular window arrived at the studio from Galveston last April. Before I visited, a sixteen-person crew worked to disassemble the piece in a process known as “unzipping.” More than a century of grime had accumulated around each shard of glass; the craftspeople pared away hard-stuck cement and putty applied during makeshift repairs. Before the disassembly, every inch of the window was carefully photographed. Those were pictures blown up and printed so the restorers could now work to place each glass piece exactly on top of its corresponding shape, like a game of high-stakes puzzling. At any moment, Bryant Stanton tells me, the whole thing could succumb to pressure and pop. His son Samuel is soldering an area of the window made up of glass chips no larger than my knuckle. “You’d be an idiot if you weren’t nervous,” he says. 

This month, after a year of tedious restoration by the family of stained glass workers in Waco, the window will be returned home, to the chapel of First Presbyterian Church of Galveston. When fully assembled, with its mosaic of glass pieces in place, it will depict a shepherd, robed in red and caring for two sheep and two lambs, set against an Edenic background of leaves and trees. It will rise 180 inches high by 44 inches wide, roughly the size of a Honda Civic standing on its rear tires. Polished, restored, and gleaming as it once did so many decades ago, it will be nothing short of glorious. 

Restoration of the oldest Tiffany stained glass window in Texas
A historic photo of First Presbyterian Church of Galveston. Signal Photos/Alamy
Restoration of the oldest Tiffany stained glass window in Texas
The artist, Louis Comfort Tiffany. AP

When Jesus and his flock initially gazed down on the congregation at First Presbyterian, Galveston was the second-richest city in the country per capita, bigger in size than Houston, and the premier port west of the Mississippi. Huge mansions lined Broadway, funded by the banking, railroad, and shipping fortunes of new-money millionaires. A Gulf Coast gilded age had taken hold.

In the thriving young city, the First Presbyterian Church of Galveston, established just one year after the city itself, in 1840, was rallying funds to complete the chapel interior in 1888. The room had languished untouched since the building budget last ran out, eighteen years prior. 

Sarah Catherine Perry Ball, or Mrs. George Ball in her day, was one of the church’s most affluent stewards and a member of the committee overseeing the renovation. An East Coast native and the widow of a successful banker and investor, she often had occasion to travel to the East Coast during the hot Texas summers. It was on one such trip, in June 1888, Stanton tells me, that she is thought to have walked into Tiffany’s studio. She would have seen the glass artist’s “new method of work . . . carried out in a manner that is entirely novel, and gives effects never before attained,” according to a description in an 1881 issue of Scribner’s recovered by Galveston’s Rosenberg Library. 

The son of the famed jeweler, Tiffany had at that point already made a name for himself as an interior designer, working in churches and such esteemed American buildings as the White House and Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. When he and Ball crossed paths, he was on the ascent of a storied career in stained glass. As described in Scribner’s, he was experimenting with new techniques, including a process of stamping, rolling, and pressing glass with texture, and elsewhere molding it, “giving a great number of facets like a cut stone.” Most notably, he colored whole sheets of glass using tiny pieces of other glass, rather than simply painting on it as in the traditional method. The resulting patchwork of pieces makes a Tiffany window look unlike anything else.

At the artist’s studio that summer, Ball would have encountered at least one existing Good Shepherd window, created for an East Coast house of worship. The theme of Christ as a shepherd tending to his flock of sheep was and is a popular one, re-created across centuries and artistic media. But Tiffany’s treatment was “as far as possible from the conventional while preserving the dignity of the subject,” reads a New York Times account of one of his exhibitions. “The effect of this window as the sunlight falls through it is one of beautiful simplicity.” Mrs. Ball apparently agreed: she commissioned a window of her own, featuring a memorial plate in remembrance of her late mother, to hang in the in-progress chapel. Though it’s not known how much she paid for the work, Tiffany quoted a fellow congregant $1,000 (almost $33,000 today) for a design. He bowed out at the steep price. Ball, with her extravagant wealth, forged on.    

Though made of the basest materials—lead and sand—stained glass windows have made the sense of God more tangible for centuries. It’s easier to believe in a higher being, perhaps, with light wafting prisms of color into your pew. For glassmaker Bryant Stanton, it was a sign from the creator, witnessed in a crucial moment when he was a young, aimless student at Texas Tech, that moved him to work with the material. 

“I said, ‘Lord, show me something to do with my life, because I have no idea why I’m even in college,’ ” says Stanton. He walked for about a mile near campus and, “lo and behold,” encountered a stained glass shop with a man “tapping out windows.” He learned to make a glass butterfly that day, and he was hooked. 

A year later, after transferring to Baylor, he dropped out of college and started his own stained glass business. Professors at the university told him his then–business plan would never succeed in Waco—at least not if he continued to do every aspect of the work himself. But 45 years later, he now employs sixteen glass-, wood-, and metalworkers, including his four sons, and serves clients throughout the country. Stanton is also the president of the Stained Glass Association of America and, as the father of a second generation of glassmakers, is working to keep the art of sustainable craftsmanship relevant in the present day.

How One Waco Family Resurrected the Oldest Known Tiffany Stained-glass Window in Texas
Wear and tear on the window. Bryant Stanton
How One Waco Family Resurrected the Oldest Known Tiffany Stained-glass Window in Texas
Installing hurricane protection and storm windows. Bryant Stanton

In 2006, a committee at First Presbyterian, not unlike the one Ball sat on more than a century ago, convened to address the longevity of the church’s five memorial stained glass windows and numerous ornamental windows. An audit of the glass was commissioned, and the full scale of the damage became apparent. “Some of the windows were very distressed, and we were worried about what would happen with the next hurricane,” says David Salyer, a Galveston attorney, local historian, and congregant. “Sure enough, Ike hit.” When that hurricane touched down, in 2008, the damage to the whole church made a more general renovation project more urgent than ever. Stanton was conscripted to help with the stained glass effort and, over the past decade or so, has been slowly triaging the most badly affected windows. The Good Shepherd window, the church’s oldest and most renowned, is the second-to-last in need of repair. (The final memorial, depicting the trope of Christ at the door, is next on the Stantons’ sacred objects to-do list.)

In Stanton’s studio on a February afternoon, countless stained glass works are in various stages of completion: a pencil sketch, the first step in the process, is pinned up at one station; a final step, the application of grout, is undertaken at another. For a studio specializing in such a fragile medium, the shop buzzes with activity and purpose. Two shop dogs roam the office area, and a SpaceX rocket test can be heard from some thirty miles away in McGregor.

Among drawings, panes of glass, completed works, and failed experiments, craftspeople are engaged in the tedious but meditative work of scrubbing, assembling, and painting glass. Two Stanton sons, Timothy and Samuel, are reassembling the many, many pieces of the Good Shepherd window, one at a time. At one table, Timothy is laying out the fragments of the window’s lower left quadrant, readying them for assembly. Here is where I see the sheep’s hand-painted faces, metaphorical windows into the past and the only recognizable clue that this is a Tiffany piece. Without lighting backing them, the features are dark, even though they will appear white when the sun shines through. At another workspace, Samuel is soldering the window’s bottom half, a section made of tiny portions of sea glass–like pieces that will border the memorial plate bearing Ball’s mother’s name.    

In Texas, with the climate such as it is, the average life expectancy of the lead used to bind stained glass is one hundred years, without taking into account the storm surges and gale-force winds typical of an area like Galveston. The window was also a functional hopper window, designed to ventilate the church in the absence of modern air-conditioning, which meant that it was frequently jostled when opened and closed. 

“We see the scars in this one,” Stanton says. When he and his crew originally inspected the window in situ at the chapel, it was buckling in places, folding in on its own weight. On the bottommost pane, which was submerged underwater for a period during the 1900 hurricane, almost every piece of glass was broken and had to be glued together with epoxy. At least one of the panes needed to be replaced completely, in a process that required the restorer to match not only Tiffany’s original coloring but also the glass density—Tiffany’s glass pieces can have a huge diversity of thickness, and he often stacked multiple layers of panes atop one another. 

It is clear from their “nerdy” repository of stained glass knowledge that the Stanton men have a reverence for their work, and for the Good Shepherd window especially. But what’s less clear to me is whether that reverence affects the work as I look at it, or if the piece gives off an aura all its own. The hand-painted faces of the shepherd’s flock evoke the same feeling you might get looking at the brushstrokes of a Renaissance-era painting in a museum—a common humanity peeking through centuries.

“The ghosts are there, right?” says Stanton. “When I’m restoring a window, I’m thinking about the man that built this. The region of the country he came from. I’m thinking, ‘I wonder what he was thinking.’ Did he have a fight with his wife that day? Is he trying to remember to bring home the eggs and the milk? What about his kids?”

Louis Comfort Tiffany was forty years old when he made this window, already widely known and well respected for his interior design abilities. He was still in the earlier stages of his career in stained glass, still honing a process that resulted in thousands of windows, some 3,800 of which still remain in the U.S. The Good Shepherd window is special, then, not just for its Texas superlative of oldest known in the state, but also because it is among the early class of works in Tiffany’s glassmaking career. 

How One Waco Family Resurrected the Oldest Known Tiffany Stained-glass Window in Texas
The Stanton Studios team waterproofs and cleans the window.Bryant Stanton

Prior to Tiffany and his onetime partner John La Farge’s entrée onto the scene, stained glass was the provenance of European masters, created by painting on or staining a hue into the glass before assembling the work. As a studied Hudson River painter fascinated by light and shadow, Tiffany wanted to emphasize those elements and create a greater depth of field in his glassworks. He employed a technique of plating, layering glass pieces on top of one another so that “in some cases, you could look at a piece and think it was almost a hologram, because of the way that it moved,” says Jennifer Thalheimer, director of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art and an expert on Tiffany glass. “So he really innovated and changed the way that stained glass was perceived by people.” American glass in the vein of Tiffany became the modern style of the era, whereas European glass imported from Germany or England was seen as more traditional.

To create his layering effect, though, the craftsman required specific types of glass that simply didn’t exist. So he set out to create the materials himself, founding the Tiffany Glass Company just three years before the creation of the Good Shepherd window. The work thus features irreplaceable shards from some of Tiffany’s earliest experiments, made in his own studio and by contracting with existing glass companies on the East Coast. “It was a very experimental time period to push the limitations of glass,” says Thalheimer. In Texas, where none of the studio’s windows had yet been installed, few would have seen anything like a Tiffany in person before: a collaged patchwork of glass, richly eclectic in texture, density, and color. When installed in the adolescent church, in an affluent and thriving city at its peak of success, the Good Shepherd window would have felt avant-garde and bold, a sign of the congregation’s good fortune and modern tastes. “It would have been a bold statement because you’re using the best of the best,” says Thalheimer. “Everybody recognized the Tiffany name.” 

But, as with all things culture, the new became old again, and the trend turned. The modernist movement of the 1950s, as well as the razing of many churches to make way for the new interstate highway system, meant that some of Tiffany’s works, once prized for their innovation, were ripped out and tossed. 

“They were Grandma’s windows” at that point, says Stanton. “There’s an untold number of windows that have gone missing.” 

When he started working with glass, Stanton was college-aged, unmarried, and childless. Now he’s been in the business long enough that some of his own work is getting ripped out of houses. He was watching Fixer Upper, set in his home city of Waco, one day when he saw one of his pieces removed from a house and tossed into a dumpster. He felt violated. “A part of my life was in that,” he says. And so, when he restores any window, the Tiffany included, he is working against that feeling, protecting another maker’s work from the ravages of time, neglect, and, of course, hurricanes. 

How One Waco Family Resurrected the Oldest Known Tiffany Stained-glass Window in Texas
The interior of First Presbyterian Church of Galveston after the reinstallation of Good Shepherd.Bryant Stanton

Last week the window, finally finished with its primping over in Waco, was reinstalled in its home church. The congregation is appreciative. “The windows are one of the things that members of the church are most proud of,” says Salyer. “We’ve enjoyed them for over one hundred years, and hopefully they’ll, God willing, still be there for generations to come after us.”

With the window newly resurrected, members of First Presbyterian will see an immediate difference come Sunday. Congregants sometimes tell Samuel Stanton, “Now I need to bring sunglasses to church because it’s just too bright.” 

More importantly, the many, many details of the window will be illuminated in a way they haven’t been for decades. After the restoration of one of the church’s other Tiffany windows, created in 1908, the “landscape popped,” says Salyer. Scrubbed, polished, and repaired, the sheep’s faces will appear as fresh as a lamb’s coat. The blues and greens of the background will brighten adjacent pews. And church members will finally see the window, says Salyer, “as Tiffany intended.”