by Susan Taylor Block
The Gothic Revival building that houses St. James Church in Wilmington, North Carolina was designed by architect Thomas U. Walter who is better known for designing the cast iron dome of the U. S. Capitol building. Mr. Walter may also have designed the clerestory windows for St. James, for there is no documentation available that credits any other artist, and the windows are very similar to others installed in Mr. Walters’ church designs.
From 1839 until 1891, little was done to change the interior, with the exception of repairs made after the Civil Ear. The 1891 enhancements were significant. E. J. Street of New York City served as decorator and Charles Brunner, Jr. was the chief artist. The changes took place during the pastorate of Robert Strange, a rector with many ancestral local ties who would be consecrated bishop in 1904.
Gold must have been the theme color and substance for it pervaded the interior. Highlights were painted in gold on yellow. Gold-colored glass gilded new stained glass windows in the narthex and a large gold and brown and window that was installed on the east side of the sanctuary, as the altar window. The pipes of the church organ, which sat in the arched space now occupied by the Murchison Chapel, were painted gold as well.
The contractors installed “gas jets” that brought vivid light to night services and rhapsodized the entire visual experience as flickering flames caused the gold paint to sparkle and dance.
The 1891 changes called for a new floor of oak and red carpet for the altar floor. After the pews were stained the color of dark red wine, they were sealed by a process that had been recently discovered by Wilmingtonian R. L. Hutchings. Second level galleries, still in place from their antebellum installment, were restored and beautified.
Local stained glass artist E. V. Richards designed the “transom” glass and other similar but smaller windows that pleased church members. However, the gold and brown window did not sit well with the congregation. Not only was it sort of chunky, but it had replaced a stained glass window for which there was much affection that depicts young Jesus with his hands outstretched in a gesture of welcome and blessing. Most likely, it is the oldest stained glass window at St. James. The Young Jesus window had been moved to the east altar wall, where it still sits.
Ironically, the chief purposes of the gold and brown window were to provide symbolism and to bring the varied hues within the building into “harmonious coloring.” The result was disharmony amongst some of the people. Very soon after its installation, the announcement was made that it may be replaced by a grander window. That did not take long. The present altar window, designed by Charles Booth, was in place in 1892.
E. V. Richard’s gold and brown window was moved to the south wall of the transcept, but stayed there only briefly because parishioner Pembroke Jones replaced it in 1893 with the “Christ Blessing the Children” window that is still there. Shortly before that, the gold and brown window had been moved to an exterior front wall of the brand new Robert Rufus Bridgers Building that was dedicated November 27, 1892. Today, that same wall is an interior one and forms one side of the Bishop Wright Room. The gold and brown window sits over the room’s entrance.
The entire cost of the 1891 restoration was only $3,000, but that would have equaled a good years’ salary for a professional in those days. A local journalist exulted over the change it wrought. “It will require a large amount of piety and most extraordinary and touching preaching to keep the eye from wandering when the gas is lit,” he wrote.
But as Episcopalians say frequently, “Light from Light.”
Sources: St. James Episcopal Church archives; Special Collections, Randall Library, UNCW; Block, Temple of our Fathers: St. James Episcopal Church (1729-2004); Wilmington Messenger, October 3, 1891.