A tale of two windows

In 1970, Yale's stained-glass Tiffany masterpiece disappeared. Or did it?

Richard Conniff ’73 is a past recipient of the National Magazine Award and the author of, most recently, Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals.

Mark Morosse

Mark Morosse

Yale's Louis Comfort Tiffany window as it appears today, in Room 102, a lecture theater in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. View full image

When students came back to campus in the fall of 1970, they found that a large stained-glass window in Linsly-Chittenden Hall was gone. Its 12 panels, previously high over the main entrance on the Old Campus side of the building, had been replaced with clear glass. The once warmly lit landing of the huge old stairway inside now looked strangely naked. A student magazine, The New Journal, sent me at the time to ask a senior administrator at Woodbridge Hall what had happened. He told me the panels were the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, easily worth $100,000, and in need of protection. From us.

The previous semester had been marked by student unrest over the war in Southeast Asia and the New Haven murder trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale. With dissidents from around the country descending on the New Haven Green for a May Day protest, university officials had hit on a risky strategy: instead of barricading the campus and antagonizing potentially violent demonstrators, Yale would open its gates to house and feed the masses. But first, it meant to lock up the silver, literally.

This was no doubt a sensible precaution. Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57, then a young assistant to President Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41, recalls racing around the campus in the weeks before May Day carrying out Yale’s plans to minimize damage. The shotput-size Belgian block pavers on Wall Street got removed. The manhole covers were welded in place. Plywood went up over the windows in Battell Chapel.

Yale’s strategy paid off. The May Day weekend passed more like a party than a riot. (See “The Panther and the Bulldog,” July/August 2006.) In hindsight, that September, the removal of the windows at Linsly-Chittenden seemed like overkill, and I wrote a story brimming with adolescent outrage. Gently, my editor suggested that I try again, and maybe tone it down a little. He sent me away after my second draft, too.

Each time, I went back to Linsly-Chit and stood in front of those blank windows trying to work out just what it was that I was missing.

The more I looked, the more puzzled I became. I figured the administrator must know what he was talking about. His own office had published a pamphlet in the 1960s called “Yale Memorials,” which described the Tiffany. He had written the preface himself. The pamphlet said that the window depicted “four groups of figures, representing . . . Art, Science, Religion, Music.” But what I couldn’t understand was why it called the Tiffany a “stained-glass window,” singular—not 12 separate panels.

The Yale University Art Gallery had handled the removal of the panels and packed them for safekeeping in the Linsly-Chit basement, then used for Art Gallery storage. A staffer showed me the wooden crates, prominently labeled with the gallery’s accession number and the word “Tiffany” (misspelled). We didn’t look inside. But the crates obviously held windows, plural, not the single Tiffany panel described in the pamphlet. I didn’t get it.

Then one day I feel asleep during a lecture in a classroom on the other side of the building from the great stairway. I woke up alone, with my head still down on the desk. During that bleary moment of re-entering the world I noticed for the first time that there was a tall shelf on the High Street side of the room, with two ornate stone columns, and behind them a blackout curtain caked with dust. I climbed up on a desk and lifted one corner of the curtain, then pulled it a little to the side.

The surface behind was black with decades of street grime. But here and there dim patches of liquid color shone through, like wine in an old bottle. I reached out to touch the folds and layers of the glass surface and suddenly had goose bumps on my arms. This was the real Tiffany. I lifted the curtain like a skirt and began to make out the figures of Art, Science, Religion, and Music.

My university administrator had removed the wrong window.

The pamphlet, on further consultation, offered some answers. In its original incarnation, the building had served as the university library, so the décor had featured great authors of the ages, most visibly in the window on the stairway. The pamphlet said: “The George Park Fisher Memorial Window . . . , designed and executed by Messrs. Clayton & Bell, of London, consists of twelve large panels of stained glass. Each panel portrays a group of men of letters, while each group represents an epoch in the literary history of the world. . . . It supplies light to the great stairway leading to the Library.”

With my editor’s guidance, I wrote a dispassionate little article that merely provided the pamphlet’s descriptions of each window, then said, in effect, “Oops.” It was the best lesson in journalism I ever got (and thank you, Dan McIntyre ’71). Afterward, the embarrassed administrator told the Yale Daily News that I had misquoted him. We all had a good cackle about that.

Then I mostly forgot about the window, until my eldest child was accepted into Yale 31 years later and we came back to campus for an introductory weekend. We settled on a promising lecture and found our way to Room 102 in Linsly-Chittenden, which had just been lovingly restored. And there, illuminating the entire room, was the Tiffany window, my Tiffany, with the curtain removed and the grime all carefully washed away. The window was a pantheon of angels in opalescent glass, all solemn, all apparently thirsting for knowledge—except perhaps for the figure of Art, who seemed to be having trouble suppressing a smirk. I nudged my son and started to tell him the story, and though he listened with interest, I could feel myself at that moment sliding into the supernumerary role of college parent.

I consoled myself by gazing around the room, soaking up the newfound splendor of the building I remembered as tattered old Linsly-Chit. My gaze settled particularly on a bronze plaque I had never noticed before. A father had donated the Tiffany window to commemorate his beloved daughter, and he had chosen a biblical quote on the gift of education: “Through wisdom is a house builded, and by understanding it is established, and by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”

There was (and remains) only one thing wrong with the Linsly-Chittenden restoration: the 12-panel window on the other side of the building is still largely blank. During the 1997–98 restoration, a construction worker stumbled across a crate in the basement that turned out to contain a stained-glass window. But it was just one crate, and one panel. At the time, Linda Peterson was chair of the English department, which has its offices in Linsly-Chittenden, and she sent the Art Gallery the accession number from my 1970 article and asked where the other 11 panels had gone. After further unsuccessful searching, the gallery reported that it had emptied out its Linsly-Chit storage area in about 1988 and deaccessioned some items. But it had no record that the panels were among them, or that they had been sold. They were simply gone.

I had a theory of my own. The price of Tiffany has been climbing ever since the late 1960s. The New York Times published a story in 1999 about an art market thief who had made a long-term career of raiding cemeteries and pulling the windows out of mausoleums. Wooden crates labeled “Tiffany” in a poorly secured basement could easily have given somebody dreams of great wealth—at least until the lid came off the first crate and the dishonest buyer’s shoulders collapsed in dismay. Then, no doubt, they would have bickered over price. (I like to imagine loud shouting, followed by a hailstorm of bullets.) Windows by Clayton & Bell are well made and well known, says stained-glass consultant Julie Sloan, but they’re not valued in the art market.

The one panel that survived now hangs in the office of the English department chair, on the first floor at the foot of the great stairway. It shows Homer, with his lyre, surrounded by other Greek poets and playwrights. Sappho holds a scroll and looks content, her brow smooth where all the others’ are furrowed and melancholy. “Thank God, she’s intact,” says Peterson. “She has a reputation for surviving only in fragments.”

Other lost or forgotten treasures locked up before May Day 1970 still occasionally resurface. A few years ago, an administrator happened to come across paperwork on “college silver” that had been stored in 1970 in a warehouse somewhere in the suburbs. Suddenly, the masters of a few fortunate colleges found themselves serving tea and coffee and cookies on handsome old silver.

So in 2007, when I first decided to write about all this, and again in 2008, I contacted the Art Gallery to see if the windows had turned up, without much response. Finally, in the course of getting this article ready to publish, I made one more try.

This time, somebody went and looked. Just before this magazine went to press, a gallery spokesperson phoned to say that some windows moved during the recent renovation and mislabeled might be the Clayton & Bells. The crates have to be brought out of storage and opened, and a curator has to inspect the panels. If the gallery is right, this May Day weekend, marking 40 years since the windows went on walkabout, would be a perfect occasion for making the restoration of Linsly-Chittenden complete.  

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