On the Trail of Emil Frei: New Orleans’ Stained Glass

Benjamin Morris travels the city and reflects on the local legacy of the stained-glass masters at Emil Frei Studio.

Photo at St. Stephen Catholic Church, New Orleans. Courtesy emilfrei.com.

With Easter Sunday drawing near, this milestone of the Christian calendar is a time when even those who are not habitual churchgoers may find themselves inside a house of worship. Regardless of one’s perspective on matters of faith, to enter a sacred space is to enter an evolving world of symbolism and visual references, the art of which has changed much over the centuries. Where ancient Christian churches likely had little to no decoration on the walls, nowadays, one of the most common elements of ecclesiastical adornment is stained glass. Usually depicting the principal figures in the Bible, stained glass has been used to showcase events in the lives of church fathers, to depict symbolic objects or places, or to remain abstract in deference to the ineffable mysteries of the divine (more often the case in Jewish houses of worship, as in Temple Sinai here in New Orleans). Given its diverse religious heritage dating back nearly three centuries, this city is a haven for stained-glass aficionados, with hundreds of examples representing a variety of studios and traditions in houses of worship across the city.

Chief among these studios is the Emil Frei Studio, whose founder emigrated from Germany to the United States in the late 1800s, moving first to New York and San Francisco before ultimately settling in St. Louis in 1898. Having first trained under the noted glassmaker F.X. Zettler, whose designs also appear in New Orleans, Emil Frei Sr. struck out on his own to establish one of the best-known glass houses in the country. That the Frei Studio has escaped critical attention in its New Orleans context is curious, given that the Preservation Resource Center has argued that it is locally the single most-represented stained glass studio, with examples in around 25 houses of worship in the city, a figure that new research for this article places at closer to 30.

What is not clearly understood is why: why one non-local studio would achieve this dominance over the course of the twentieth century, especially as New Orleans developed its own heritage of glassmaking studios. Like a play missing its first act, most research on stained glass, and Frei glass in particular, tends only to describe the examples rather than offer an account of why New Orleans enjoys so many of them. Physical geography—the longstanding links of trade and people between New Orleans and St. Louis—may hold part of the answer, as the Longue Vue House explored in its 2013 exhibition “The River Between Us,” which also noted that the sheer quality of Frei glass would have led to commissions around the United States. So, too, might have prior relationships, particularly within a close-knit Catholic diocese. Still, no definitive answer presents itself as to how the Frei Studio came to occupy such a prominent place in the Crescent City.

In the tradition of New Orleans’ greatest vernacular artworks being scattered across the city (e.g. Lester Carey’s hand-painted signs for businesses), searching out Frei glass resembles a treasure hunt, in that it requires visits to a number of different locations at odd hours armed with the tools of the glass-hound’s trade, namely a map or GPS, and binoculars. Though Uptown is home to the vast majority of Frei glass, examples can be found in nearly every neighborhood in Orleans Parish, from Lakeview to Holy Cross, reflecting the growth and development of the city and its congregations over decades.

For those on Frei’s trail, a few significant examples are worth pointing out. Of the most traditional examples, some of the finest are found at St. Vincent de Paul Church (now Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Catholic Church), in the Bywater, whose parish was established in 1838 but whose building was erected in 1866. Here the Frei windows—those that depict episodes in the lives of Mary and Jesus—stand out for the richness of their coloration, relying on full saturation of the lites (individual panels) and bold, clear contrasts. Particularly masterful is the shading of colors within a single frame, so that John the Baptist’s robe can progress from a sun-kissed yellow on his shoulder to a luxurious scarlet as smoothly as one note follows another in a minuet. Detail work on clothing is among the signatures of the Frei Studio; fine folds, threads, and patterns all lend the material the physical texture of fabric, fooling and charming the eye. Also significant are the facial expressions of the people depicted: a running theme throughout the Old and New Testaments is how God chooses ordinary people (prostitutes, tax collectors, fishermen) for extraordinary purposes, a theme that the recognizable emotions on the faces of those depicted shows expertly. Quiet joy on Mary’s face at the Adoration of the Magi, or a combination of pride and awe in Joseph presenting Jesus at the temple: hardly sculpting cartoon characters, the Frei artisans capture these details with remarkable humanity.

The glass at St. Vincent de Paul may well be the first commission the Frei Studio undertook in New Orleans; articles in the PRC suggest that its panels were in place by the beginning of the 1900s. The next decades would see an explosion in Frei glass, occasioned partly by a nemesis well-known for catalyzing new art forms in the city: hurricanes. The great unnamed storm of 1915 famously blew out windows in houses of worship across town, and with parishes eager to rebuild, the period following that storm saw what appears to be the most significant expansion of Frei glass in town. About 10 of the 30 modern-day houses of worship, primarily Roman Catholic, placed orders with the studio beginning in the 1920s, with the majority of those commissions executed by the 1930s.

Among these were Our Lady Star of the Sea in St. Roch, historically a church serving sailors and seamen, whose extraordinary windows (completed shortly after 1937) depict saints of the church and the motifs of family values. In keeping with the studio’s ethos of never repeating the same design twice, the Frei windows here—those along the sides of the church—exhibit a markedly different style to its Bywater neighbor. Clean lines, little to no internal shading, and geometric designs featuring a variety of different crosses lend the panels a distinctive form offering echoes of Mondrian. Its coloration, though flatter than that at St. Vincent de Paul, is no less vivid; indeed, the fully saturated cobalt background allows the images and designs to leap off the panes.

Photo at St.Vincent DePaul Church (BLESSED FRANCIS X. SEELOS Catholic Church), New Orleans. photo by Ellyn Orth-Meier. Courtesy NewOrleansChurches.com.

If the 1920s and ’30s saw the first and largest wave of Frei glass arriving in the city, the 1940s and ’50s saw a second wave wherein a number of houses of worship, this time Protestant as well as Catholic, reached out to the studio for its designs. Churches here include Christ Church Cathedral, St. Rose of Lima, and Grace Episcopal; leadership at the studio had by this time passed to Frei’s son, Emil Frei Jr., and a new team of designers who began to experiment with new techniques and compositional styles, including Siegfried Reinhardt whose work appears at Christian Bible Fellowship (formerly Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church) in the Upper Ninth Ward, Jackson Avenue Evangelical Congregational Church in the Lower Garden District, and St. James Major in Gentilly.

Known for the strong lines and distorted perspectives emblematic of German Expressionism, Reinhardt’s work occupies a unique place in the roster of Frei glass. At St. James Major (completed after 1945), a series of large central windows above the pews depict various individuals or scenes, with each large composition flanked by three smaller windows on either side. (The mural behind the altar is also Frei handiwork, but from later, in 1962.) Each of the panels, larger and smaller alike, exhibits distortions and reconfigurations. Here Reinhardt rearranges familiar elements not so much to destroy them as to construct an entirely new perspective, amending and exaggerating objects, faces, and limbs in order to cause us to linger on the forms longer than we otherwise would. The technique works: despite similar gestures in coloration (warm reds and yellows over cool greys and blues), nothing could be more different from the windows at St. Vincent de Paul. Given that the studio maintained a set policy of never keeping a catalogue so that designs could not be repeated, the result is fitting.

Other notable local examples of Frei glass include the enormous, intricate window behind the altar at First Presbyterian Church on South Claiborne Avenue, a set of windows that takes up nearly the entire viewshed behind the choir loft, or those at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Lakeview, whose frames depicting the Ascension of Christ are—according to the PRC—the largest stained glass windows in New Orleans. Unfortunately, a number of examples are today inaccessible to the public, as the churches of Our Lady of the Incarnate Word (Carrollton), Christian Bible Fellowship (Upper Ninth Ward), and Sacred Heart of Jesus (Mid-City) are currently closed. But perhaps the crown jewel of Frei glass in the city lies Uptown at the Ursuline Academy on State Street, open to the public every weekday.

Formally designated as the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, the Ursuline Chapel is an expansive, beautifully maintained shrine whose origins date to the city’s founding—as historian Emily Clark has detailed, Ursuline nuns arrived almost alongside the first French settlers in 1718. Though they no longer occupy their original convent in the French Quarter, the Ursulines’ present building (dating to 1924) remains an architectural treasure even independently of what it houses. Built when the cloister rule was still in effect, the shrine is divided into the inner and outer chapels set at a right angle to each other, during whose services the nuns would have worshipped in the former and the public would have worshipped in the latter, completely separated from one another.

Photo at St. Stephen Catholic Church, New Orleans. Courtesy emilfrei.com.

The Frei Studio completed two sets of windows, one for each chapel; those in the inner chapel chronicle scenes from the life of Mary, where those in the outer chapel mostly chronicle the life of Christ. (Interestingly, Ursuline also holds what may be the most recent example of Frei glass in town, a set of small inset door panels undertaken by great-grandson Stephen Frei, done within the last decade.) Enjoying a mixture of symbolic and figurative content, the windows here are traditional in their portraiture, but still have certain distinctive touches: forged with powdered iron oxide fired into the lites, the panels exhibit a dark, smoky character unlike any other in New Orleans, which visitors often wrongfully attribute to dirt or grime but which in effect lends texture to the glass. Elsewhere, the panels showcase an emphasis on Marian blue, for instance, dramatically offset from the neutral beige brickwork. Overall, with one of the highest numbers of certified Frei windows in town, dating to its first golden age of construction (the mid-1920s), with windows that are as large and intricate as they are closely detailed, the Ursuline Chapel may well hold New Orleans’ finest examples of the studio in one place.

Prevailing conjectures as to why the Frei Studio achieved such prevalence in New Orleans are reasonable enough, namely that as local parishes expanded and split over the course of the twentieth century, new buildings were required to meet the demand of growing congregations. Certainly the prevalence of Frei glass in Uptown churches (particularly Carrollton) reflects its twentieth-century growth charted by Richard Campanella in Geographies of New Orleans; the same can be said of parishes such as Lakeview and Gentilly that experienced prominent postwar development. In that context, particularly as the Frei reputation grew locally and nationally, ecclesial officers likely would have pursued new contracts for new construction. People talk; parish priests serving adjoining areas do the same, and it is not hard to imagine conversations that led to the Frei Studio’s name being shared.

Even so, those conjectures still do not fully account for why one studio would have become dominant over so many other noted glassmakers, such as Franz Mayer (Munich), William Willet (Philadelphia), or F.X. Zettler (Munich, and Emil Frei Sr.’s former teacher). The archives of the Frei Studio itself, still in operation, may in time reveal relationships that can illuminate the question. Until then, only a more sustained investigation will help to determine the answer—but for those on the trail of the Frei Studio today marvelous discoveries await, and it is to the credit and the beauty of this city that these priceless treasures still remain.

Editor's Note

More information on the Frei Studio can be found at Emil Frei. The articles in Preservation in Print cited for this research can be found at the Preservation Resource Center's website, and the PRC hosts a stained glass tour each year in the fall and spring. Visiting hours for churches vary by individual house of worship; interested visitors are urged to contact church or rectory offices ahead of time to ensure accessibility.