DENVER (AP) – Phil Watkins estimates it will take about four months of painstaking labor to restore the six historic stained glass windows damaged last month in the fire at the Church of the Ascension.
“They have to be totally taken apart,” Watkins said as he and his workers removed six windows from the sanctuary to transport them to the Watkins Stained Glass Studio in Englewood.
The century-old windows were heavily damaged in the fire. One was almost shattered, and the others were badly cracked or broken.
His wife, Jane, gathered up three small bags filled with fragments of glass that the firefighters carefully collected after putting out the fire.
“We will try to piece this back together,” she said.
Sitting over a light table, they will study the colors and the pattern, slowly piecing it together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
It’s not the first time they’ve restored these windows. About 25 years ago, they worked on them after they were damaged by stones thrown by a vandal.
“But this is much worse,” said Phil.
Luckily, the Watkins Stained Glass Studio still has a large supply of the same rare glass that was used to make those windows, back when the 107-year-old church was built.
It’s very rare Blenko stained glass, “handmade and mouth-blown,” said Jane, “made the same way as European antique glass.”
This jewel-toned stained glass represents a crossroads of American history, one that blends master craftsmen with early church history.
William Blenko, born in London, apprenticed himself to an English glass craftsman trained in old-world traditions of stained glass, then emigrated in 1893 to the U.S., where he opened his first stained glass window factory.
By that time, Watkins’ ancestors had already established themselves making stained glass windows in Denver. They’d worked as master craftsmen since 1761 in London and Liverpool, following the same stained-glass traditions used in the Middle Ages.
Like William Blenko, Clarence Watkins left England and sailed to America with the tools of his trade. He studied further in New York and Boston, and in 1868 left St. Louis in a covered wagon bound for Denver. By 1881, he had his own shop, making stained glass windows in the old-world style for Denver’s mansions and grand churches.
By the early 20th century, when builders erected the Church of the Ascension in Denver, they made sure to use Blenko stained glass for the windows — which may have been made by Watkins’ grandfather, Frank Watkins.
“It looks like his style,” said Phil, sitting in a pew Friday and gazing up at the windows that were not harmed.
While restoring the windows, Phil and Jane hope to determine whether his grandfather made them.
They’ll also take apart each window, piece by piece, and find the exact shade of glass to replace it — which isn’t easy because handblown glass varies in thickness, creating different shades of the same color.
Phil, who made his first stained glass windows at age 12 for a church in Boulder, uses his vintage supply of antique glass only when absolutely necessary.
“I’m a squirrel,” said Phil, who has worked on more than 380 church windows over his career. “I waited 40 years to use a piece of red that was just perfect for the robe of Jesus in the Last Supper.”
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