Trinity Methodist Church glass mystery is finally solved

Tom “TJ” Mumord, and his wife, Fran, spent the past 10 years trying to verify the story that eight stained glass windows in Trinity United Methodist Church in Salisbury were authentic works of art created by Tiffany Studios of New York about 1905. (Brice Stump Photo.)

A story has been around for decades that Trinity United Methodist Church in Salisbury has stained glass windows made by the world-famous Tiffany Studios of New York.

Many have tried to find a Tiffany name or seal on the eight windows that are 10.5 feet tall and 42-inches wide. A name could not be found. If the famous art studio of the early 1900s did not make them, who did?

This past Sunday, church historian Tom “T.J.” Mumford and his wife, Fran, told the congregation that after 10 years of research, they have cracked the case of the mystery maker of the windows.

Members of the congregation have long-thought the panels were Tiffany-made because two mosaic panels — that flank each side of the altar — are attributed to the world-renowned New York City artisans

Even to the trained eye, the mosaics look every bit the legendary quality of work by the New York glass company.

In 2014, Mumford said, noted Tiffany glass expert Diane Wright, of Chesapeake, Va., visited the church and examined the mosaics. Her research confirmed they are genuine Tiffany pieces.  She was able to solidly establish their authenticity because she had discovered a photo of the mosaics being created in the Tiffany Studio.

Mumford’s research suggests they were placed in the church about 1910. One honors the memory of Gov. Elihu Jackson, who died in 1907, and his mother-in-law Margaret Anne Rider. Jackson, a Salisbury businessman of the time, funded the building of the church in 1904.

It had long been believed the mosaics and the windows were both Tiffany masterpieces. With the authenticity of the mosaics confirmed, many in the congregation assumed the windows, too, would be the real deal.

There are “generic” stained glass windows and then there are Tiffany windows, the difference in value between the two for insurance valuation is huge.

There are so expensive and so sought after that some churches, which had authentic Tiffany windows, have sold them to stay afloat.

“Our church has been very proud that these windows were considered Tiffany’s,” Mumford said. “But, I thought, if they are genuine, we really need to know that as a fact, to document them for insurance purposes.” Thus began a ten-year project to solve the mystery. “We had a mystery but we didn’t know how to solve it,” he said, laughing.

Wright was again contacted.

She undertook research, and her opinion, Mumford said, was that the windows were not crafted by Tiffany. Wright, then curator of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk has a master’s degree in the history of decorative arts from the Parson’s School of Design, specializing in glass studies. She had also undertaken research projects for the Yale University Art Gallery and was co-curator of the exhibit “Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion.”

“She knows Tiffany glass windows,” Mumford said. “She said she didn’t know the maker of our windows, but felt confident they were made by a high-quality studio.”

Mumford and his wife began the independent search for the identity of the mysterious maker. What they discovered surprised both.

“Fran and I visited churches in Ocean City, Cape May because they had known Tiffany windows, and we were  trying to see if we could find similar characteristics,” he said. “Shared artist elements,” Fran said, “in the windows would indicate they were done by the same studio.”

Subtleties in the artistic execution, like the draping of clothing, size of individual glass panels and coloring, the style of angel wings, even the presence of cherubs, would help determine the identity of the designer and maker.

Even to their layman’s eye, the two could tell that the windows in Trinity were not like the Tiffany examples they studied. The two had also gained some experience in learning what to look for in comparing one artist against another and the “style” of an artist in determining their work from commissioned window to window.

Hoping to find clue as to the identity of studio that created the Trinity work, the Mumford’s researched collections in the Maryland Historical Society and The Nabb Center, in Salisbury, without luck. Local newspaper articles of the day only noted that “the beautiful windows” were being installed.

Then they got a clue from an unlikely source.

“Our friend Gordon Gladden, also a member of our congregation, told us he was ‘surfing the net’ and found something that might help us. He asked us if we had ever heard of Flora MacDonald, of the Donald MacDonald Studios of Boston,” Fran explained. “ I had put in the same (MacDonald) name in my internet search earlier and found nothing, but we traced his link and it opened it,” she said.

Trinity United Methodist Church historian Tom “TJ” Mumford examines the detail of one of eight stained glass windows made by the Donald MacDonald Studio in Boston. The windows were designed and painted by sisters Flora and Ruby MacDonald. (Brice Stump Photo.)

“That gave us a new burst of energy,” he said. “It was the key that opened the door.”

The two found an article about Lance Kasperian, researcher of the MacDonald Glass Works Studio, and it mentioned that The First Presbyterian Church  in Knoxville, Tenn., had MacDonald windows.

The Mumford’s took a special trip to Tennessee to confirm their speculation the windows were made by the same studio. “There is no doubt, our windows and their windows were made by the Donald MacDonald company,” she said. “Two of their windows are exact replicas of two windows in Trinity.”

“Flora MacDonald, Donald’s daughter, of Boston, was the one who designed and made our windows,” she said. “Ruby MacDonald, Flora’s sister, specialized in flowers in the windows, and both painted them.”

“Apparently Flora traveled the East Coast soliciting window artwork, and we think that’s how the connection was made between the Jacksons and the MacDonalds,” she said.

The windows, Fran said, were made at a time when Maryland’s glass work designers are on strike. As the MacDonald firm was a family operation, they worked without interruption.

While the Trinity windows are not signed, there’s ironclad evidence they are genuine MacDonald artwork.

“In the Nov. 10, 1904, issue of the “Boston Globe,” Fran said, “an article reads, ‘MacDonald is now at work on a commission from ex-governor (Elihu) Jackson of Maryland for four memorial windows for the Methodist Episcopal Church in his native town.’ At the time they also called the church ‘Gov. Jackson Chapel.’”

Elihu Emory Jackson had been born in Delmar and lived in Salisbury when he became governor in 1888. He was a part owner of Pemberton Hall and a Lower Shore lumber magnate. He died in 1907 and is buried at Parsons Cemetery in Salisbury, just up the street from the Trinity church.

Finally the mystery was solved.

Tiffany Studios of New York made the mosaics about 1910, but the heavenly windows, made in 1904, are the work of two ambitious, pioneering women artists from Massachusetts.

“Somehow these women won the Jackson commission over Tiffany and other studios,” Fran said. “We think the commission was awarded in part because MacDonald could guarantee the windows would be promptly done.” Mumford said the windows were installed in 1905.

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