Fort Wayne courthouse’s stained glass dome undergoes repairs

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Art Femenella's job is all about defying gravity.

Wednesday afternoon, that was apparent as a crew of three attached cables to a 20-foot-long, 200-pound stained-glass panel and hoisted it more than 100 feet from the lobby to the top of the interior dome of the historic Allen County Courthouse.

But what might not have been apparent is that gravity also was reason the panel – and 19 others like it – were removed in January so they could be restored by Femenella's business.

After spending nearly a century adorning the apex of the courthouse ceiling, the panels had begun to suffer from a phenomenon known as deflection. The condition results from gravity invisibly acting on the lead holding the glass in place.

Though it seems solid, the lead is actually malleable, Femenella explained. It stretches and shifts – deflects – over time, he said, and that can compromise the whole panel's structure.

As deflection progresses, shards of glass can come loose. If a piece were to fall to the lobby floor, "it could literally kill someone," Femenella said.

Yeah, gravity can do that.

Femenella, who has been in the business of stained-glass restoration for 44 years, knows quite a bit about the physical forces behind his craft.

He was majoring in physics at the City College of New York when he went to a craft fair and became entranced by stained glass.

Physics suddenly "didn't excite me," he said. So, instead of graduating, Femenella "went around New York City knocking on doors" to get a foothold in the field of stained glass – soon finding out his background was unusual.

"Most people working with stained glass come at it from an art background," he said. But knowing science has helped him earn work on many large and prestigious projects, including the restoration of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

"It was really his resume that got us to hire him," said Robyn Zimmerman, executive director of the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust, which oversees the ongoing restoration of the Beaux Arts-style building dating to the turn of the 20th century.

Femenella and his company, Femenella & Associates of Branchburg, New Jersey, came highly recommended by other preservation contractors who had worked on the courthouse, she said.

Zimmerman said the stained-glass panels were not leaking – they are not exposed to the elements because there is an attic-like space above them. Other parts of the courthouse, including exterior clock faces, have had recent water damage, she said.

But maintenance workers and trust officials had noticed they could see through cracks in the panels, she said.

Femenella said the panels are made largely from opalescent glass, a technique dating from the 1870s that produces translucent glass with a marble-like appearance. The panels also are studded with large glass beads known as jewels, he said.

Replacing the panels, which also were reinforced as part of the restoration, began Monday and should be finished by the end of the week, he said.

Femenella called the courthouse impressive.

"It's amazing," he said. "Everything is big. Everything is decorated. This is one of those cases where more is more."

He added he's happy to make a preservation contribution – one that should last 50 or 60 years.

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