Handle with care: Stained-glass restoration adds luster to synagogue retrofit

After 105 years, the stained-glass windows at Congregation Sherith Israel are going to look young again.

A window restoration expert and his crew of 22 are refurbishing the San Francisco synagogue’s iconic rose window and the five stained-glass windows in the sanctuary’s foyer depicting the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah and Malachi.

The project is being done in conjunction with Sherith Israel’s long-awaited seismic retrofit work, which began in April.

“These things just don’t fall into the street,” explained Art  Femenella, president of Femenella & Associates in New Jersey. “However, with the complications in San Francisco — earthquakes and windows exposed to wind — the synagogue was at a point where it needed to address the windows.”

Kevin Hershey works on the rose window at Sherith Israel. photo/ellen newman

During his initial assessment, Femenella, who has restored stained-glass windows for more than 35 years, noticed an atypical characteristic of Sherith Israel’s: They depict figures, such as the five prophets and Moses with the Ten Commandments, as opposed to design elements.

Other “unusual” elements he spotted were the opalescent glass used to create the windows and the use of plating, an innovation developed by Louis Tiffany that layers multiple pieces of glass to add depth to images and create an artistic effect.

Each prophet window is 3 feet by 7 feet and weighs 150 pounds. The rose window is 16 feet across and weighs 1,000 pounds. Nearly all of the stained-glass windows are plated, Femenella said, except for the rose window, making the job complicated.

“When a window is plated, you can’t even lay it on the table, or its own irregularity and weight can start to break things,” Femenella said. “Sometimes we’ll set the windows standing up and start disassembling them in a vertical position until we get to the base. Then it goes on the table.”

Before Femenella and his crew removed and dismantled the windows — each rose window panel weighs about 80 pounds — they took photographs and documented every existing crack. The windows were then carefully extracted, placed in crates and shipped to a studio in Milton, Iowa, for restoration. Femenella relies on a network of studios, depending on location and complexity of the job.

“It’s been an absolute pleasure,” Femenella said of the work so far. “I am very lucky because I only seem to work on the best stuff. To bring something like the rose window, which is falling apart and has holes, back to what it was is rewarding.”

Femenella arrived in San Francisco June 8 and set up a temporary office in the sanctuary, amid yellow hard hats and caution tape. He left on a red-eye back to New Jersey June 10. Window delivery is expected in September.

The stained-glass window restoration on the south side of the Pacific Heights structure is part of phase one of the retrofit project.

Sherith Israel’s building, which survived the 1906 earthquake and includes the iconic golden-domed sanctuary, has been in violation of seismic regulations since San Francisco approved stricter codes for unreinforced masonry buildings after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Phase one also includes removing the building’s exterior pink paint, reinforcing the sandstone walls and returning the building to its original sandstone color (a greenish gray).

The bulk of the work is called center coring. The construction team will drill through the brick and stone exterior, adding steel rods and resin to the interior to strengthen the walls.

Floor-to-wall ties will tether the two elements together more securely to increase the building’s resistance to the forces of a major earthquake.

The estimated cost of phase one, expected to be completed in January 2011, is $8 million. The Reform congregation of 635 households has so far raised slightly less than $6 million. Stained-glass window restoration will cost approximately $180,000.

San Francisco native Emile Pissis created most of the stained-glass windows, including a modern Moses at the gateway to Yosemite and the five prophets.

It is believed that Pissis, a Paris-trained muralist and painter, modeled the Prophet Micah after renowned artist John Singer Sargent’s interpretation of the Prophet Hosea in “Triumph of Religion,” which is displayed at the Boston Public Library.

Pissis’ brother was prominent San Francisco architect Albert Pissis, who was commissioned to design Sherith Israel.

Nancy Drapin, the synagogue’s executive director, contacted Femenella about two years ago, suggesting he come to San Francisco and assess the stained-glass windows. She explained the details of the seismic retrofit and how the congregation wanted to take care of the windows.

Femenella, whose studio executed a stained-glass restoration at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, told Shereith Israel’s building and grounds committee what the windows needed to be in good shape, acting primarily as a consultant for the restoration. But the committee wanted Femenella to do more than just advise.

Femenella’s firm, in addition to two others, was asked to bid on the project based on a specification created by the Architectural Resources Group. His firm won the bid.

Restoring the rose window, which has sustained 176 cracks during its 105 years wedged into the synagogue, was designated as a top priority because of its condition.

“It has horrible leaks, which have caused a lot of damage to the building,” said Craig Etlin, board vice president and chair of the building and grounds committee. “To address all of these other building issues and leave that in place was unthinkable.”

He continued: “The rose window is part of the image of what people think of when they see our building. You see it from the street and even across the street. I don’t think it will look different, but the leaking will stop.”

As for the five prophet windows in the sanctuary’s foyer, Etlin said those had to be removed regardless because of the seismic retrofit, providing an opportunity for restoration.

“One of the great things about the project is that the inside will not look different,” Etlin said. “We have such a magnificent interior, and what’s great about the design is that it doesn’t require us to open up any of the walls to do work within the sanctuary.”