This past week we took a bit of a field trip. We wanted to settle a lingering mystery surrounding Edgar Miller’s work from 1926-27 on a set of stained glass windows. Just out of Alfonso Iannelli’s Park Ridge studio, Edgar was still in touch with his mentor, and our understanding is that Iannelli was asked by his friend, the architect Barry Byrne, to create a set of stained glass windows for his art deco church in the booming oil town of Tulsa, Oklahoma. For unknown reasons, he turned to Edgar for help. Perhaps he was just overwhelmed with other commissions for other projects. In Miller’s writings on the subject, he also hinted at the ongoing marital distress Iannelli was suffering due to his wife Margaret’s mental health issues (she had been in and out of a sanitarium through the 1920s and the prognosis was pessimistic that she would ever fully recover).
In any case, it has always been portrayed in the scant writings on the subject of these windows that Alfonso Iannelli was their chief designer, and that Edgar helped him with three of them. However, from Miller’s own recollection, the history is somewhat less cut and dry. For one, there were two other artists, Ruth Blackwell (a longtime employee of Iannelli's) and Olive Rush, who created four of the windows between them. According to various records, there were three done by Iannelli, three by Miller, three by Blackwell, and one by Rush. Again, though, there has been so little writing on the subject, and in spite of these windows’ unquestionable artistic value, we believe their tucked-away location has been one reason academic review has been sparse.
So we went to Tulsa, to both investigate this mystery of who designed which windows, and also just to see them in all their glory. It didn’t hurt that Tulsa remains a rich collection of art deco architecture since most of its older building stock was developed in the early 20th century, so we had other sites to visit and view in our spare time. (For example, we also checked out Bruce Goff's landmark Boston Avenue Methodist Church, completed in 1929 -- and quelle surprise! -- Alfonso Iannelli did sculptural work there too)
The church in question is called Christ the King, and the parish still operates today quite successfully. We were kindly welcomed into the space and given time to inspect and photograph the windows, and we learned a little bit about the building's history. The structure has been updated and expanded several times, all within the art deco style of Byrne's original design. Even new stained glass windows in a smaller chapel were designed based on the windows in the main sanctuary.
Byrne’s architecture itself is stunning, and while it reflects some influence of his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, who he worked for two decades before, it is mostly Byrne’s own particular expressionistic style of art deco, which was radically new for church construction at the time. If you don’t know much about Barry Byrne, we suggest you check out the book The Architecture of Barry Byrne. His work is wonderful!
© David Halpern www.davidhalpern.com
For us, the windows were the main attraction, and they did not disappoint. They depict on one side several kings of the Old and New Testaments, and on the other side many famous saints. Stylistically, they are all very similar, hinting that they were all designed by the same person, though we know this not to be true. In this case, we assume that one person, or perhaps two, came up with the style to be employed and then the rest were modeled on the first drafts. This is where Edgar’s writing on the subject throws the provenance into question:
I proceeded to make designs, which Iannelli saw as soon as possible. He delayed his designing for a very long time and as I always had things to do, paid little attention. At long last, Iannelli’s glass was put on an easel in the glass factory. It was strangely like in design to what I’d made for the three kings. It might be mistaken for my design.
Of course, Edgar’s memory could be wrong, as these recollections were written in the 1980s. For instance, upon inspection, we are fairly certain Edgar was incorrect in his memory of which kings he designed and fabricated. He wrote:
I’ve forgotten whether my window was “Caspar” or “Melchior”, but my second was Balthazar, and after that, St. Steven of Hungary, who stopped the invasion of the Turks.
When we studied the windows in detail, we were able to spot three signatures of Miller’s, upon the St. Stephen, Balthassar, and David windows. We also spotted an Iannelli signature for the Caspar window, but no others had Iannelli’s signature upon them (although we are fairly certain his other two were Melchior and Melchisedeck). Only one, St. Louis, bore the signature of Olive Rush, and Ruth Blackwell’s name was completely missing from any. This left us five windows to carefully inspect for slight variations in painting technique and pattern design, and in this way we are reasonably certain Edgar was limited to the three he signed; just by the 1980s he seemed to have forgotten which ones exactly.
Of course, this is all making the assumption that none of the artists helped the others to paint the many individual panes of glass needed to complete the windows and ship them off to Tulsa on time. That is entirely possible, but based on Edgar’s memories of the process, it at least seems unlikely Iannelli and Miller worked together at all:
For many days in succession he did not appear at the factory. I called his attention to paint on his glass that had so much gum that it would “fry” in the kiln, most of the paint coming off altogether. His answer was simply, if the paint comes off, “I’ll run it through the kiln a second time.”
He never had a craftsman’s sense of the nature of his materials, either of glass or the applied oxide. After almost two months, he took down his glass and fired it. I doubt that he had spent six days in the painting of it. He had many private problems.
As soon as I had mounted my glass on the easel, he began to press me. He was in a hurry to get to his second window. In less than a week I had finished and he delayed three or four days before his second window was in place. If Iannelli had the idea that pressure would cause me to make mistakes or lower the quality of my work, I paid no attention.
This was the last job I had with Iannelli, although he called me several times afterward. I think from his irregular treatment of me that Iannelli was jealous. To him I seemed to do things easily. I could never understand jealousy. The explorations and development of the possibilities in your unknown interior will occupy a full lifetime. Art, I’m sure does not come from outside.
There is a certain artistic arrogance in Miller’s historical accounting, yet it does not seem particularly vindictive or mean-spirited. If anything, his words are almost detached of emotion, and because of that, we take Edgar at his word, more or less. It seems to reflect his personality as an artist who cared more about getting the work done than getting into disputes with the other people on the project. Of course, we have little way of knowing if there were many verbal disputes between the two men that Edgar conveniently leaves out, but he hints at one, above, over the use of too much paint, and it seems as if Edgar’s reaction was to leave Iannelli alone. The “private problems” he alludes to were mainly Iannelli's trials with his ill wife Margaret, mentioned above. One can only imagine the stress Alfonso was facing as he worked tirelessly to keep up with work at his bustling studio while also trying to care for his deteriorating domestic situation.
We may never get to the complete bottom of this mystery as no one who was there remains living. The records of the church, as far as we have read in their history documents, speak of Iannelli and Miller, but favor Iannelli, undoubtedly because Iannelli was the main contact in Chicago through Barry Byrne. It is likely the church’s archival information is somewhat partial because of this. For example, at one point in a text on the history of the church’s construction, it seems to suggest Temple Art Glass Company, where the windows were fabricated, was a part of Iannelli Studios, but they were in fact separate businesses. To the church leaders in Tulsa, this confusion is understandable considering the limited communication methods they had at the time.
What we do know for a fact is that these windows are sensationally beautiful and some of the best figurative art deco stained glass windows we’ve ever seen. It would also be difficult to deny that Edgar was heavily influenced by Iannelli over the five or so years he worked directly under him in his Park Ridge studio, so that even if the designs were conceptualized by Miller, the fact that it was a collaboration initiated by his mentor meant that Edgar was designing based on sculptural forms he sensed Alfonso would appreciate and approve.
We may need a whole other blog post to cover the intricate details of these windows, but for now, we hope you enjoyed a little history and some gorgeous eye candy.