The Case of the Missing Philosopher
by Roberto Rosa
As library officials went through their routine inspection of the renovations taking place in the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy, Massachusetts, they knew something was wrong. Something was missing. Where there should have been a stained glass window, they found nothing but a large opening in the wall. Somebody had stolen not only the window itself but also the wooden frame that held it in place. Authorities were quickly notified, and a search was underway the following day. Quincy police, Mass. State police, and the FBI were all working to find the window as well as the culprit responsible for its theft. Now, you must be wondering, "Why the FBI, for the theft of just one old window?" Because this was The Old Philosopher, a priceless masterpiece by arguably the greatest innovator of American Art Glass, John La Farge. "Irreplaceable" would be an understatement, and the loss of this window would be a blow to the stained glass art world as a whole.
In 1883, La Farge installed three windows in the Crane Library, which was designed by renowned architect H.H. Richardson. The windows were dubbed The Alpha Window, The Old Philosopher, and The Omega Window. The windows seemed destined for mystery and controversy from the beginning. First, and the reason for their incomparable value, there was the way in which they were created. La Farge was unrivaled in his quest for innovation and experimentation creating new and unproven methods of working with, and developing, art glass.
Next, there was the strange disappearance of The Alpha Window. During the library's major renovation in 1939, the window vanished without any clues or explanation. The whereabouts of the window remained unknown for fifty-nine years. By then it was considered tragically lost forever, and the clear glass in its place a painful reminder of the loss. Fast forward to 1998. As library officials were preparing for the next renovation of the library, they found something sandwiched between two clear leaded glass panels and wrapped in newspaper tucked in the back of a closet under a remote stairwell. Not until workers noticed that the newspaper was dated March 11, 1939 did it occur to them to unwrap the item. In an instant, The Alpha Window was found. Said reference librarian Mary Clark, "We just never knew what happened to it until, lo and behold, the mystery was solved."
The Alpha Window was sent to us (Serpentino Stained Glass) to be restored. Having been in storage for 59 years, the lead was in remarkably good condition. However, some of the glass along the borders and in the background had cracked. The window was partially and selectively dismantled in order to repair the cracked pieces. We felt that, under the unusual circumstances of having a 115-year-old La Farge window, with lead in such good condition, that the intrinsic value was very important, so all of the original lead was reintroduced in the window.
As preparations were being made for the reinstallation of The Alpha Window, another heartbreaking discovery was made. The Old Philosopher had disappeared. No clues, no leads, and no evidence. Why was the loss of The Old Philosopher so devastating? Because of its creator, John LaFarge. La Farge invented opalescent glass and used its textures, striations, and opaque characteristics to create unique effects that could not be achieved with ordinary pot metal glass. Still unsatisfied, La Farge toiled for years with the fact that it was impossible to render figurative form without paint. That is, until he created The Old Philosopher.
The window measures 16" x 33", and is based on the carved ivory diptych, The Muse & Poet, now located in the Monza Cathedral in Italy. This was the first significant window in which he applied his own variation of cloisonné. He invented a method in which he joined together tiny pieces of glass by fusing thin filaments of metal to the glass. This gave him the ability to produce faces in great detail without any lead and minimal paint. La Farge said, "I have been able to model faces in such detail, bringing together pieces so small that many of them could be placed on the nail of the little finger, and several thousand could be joined together on a surface less than a foot square." Unfortunately, this process was extremely time-consuming, making the work so prohibitively expensive that he used it only two other times (once in his well-known Peacock and Peonies now in the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and again in a series of panels privately commissioned by author and publisher Edward W. Bok). He quickly abandoned this approach due to its lack of practicality. But it's these unique methods that make The Old Philosopher truly priceless and irreplaceable.
Every search for the stolen window lead to a dead end, and the FBI was baffled. The search seemed hopeless when library director Ann McLaughlin got off of the phone with FBI agent Jeff Wood. The phone rang again. McLaughlin answered, shocked to hear an unidentified man's voice say, "Write this down: Willow Street, under the Curtis tomb. You'll find your window." McLaughlin was confused and didn't know if it was a joke or a serious lead. "What?" she replied, hoping for clarification. The man repeated what he said and hung up without another word. McLaughlin quickly notified the authorities.
Police and FBI searched Willow Street and Willow Avenue in Quincy and found nothing, so they went to Willard Street thinking that Ann may have misunderstood the name. Back at the library, the McLaughlin sisters were doing some investigating of their own. Ann received a phone call from her sister, Patricia, who had come up with her own theory. They followed through on her hunch, which led the sisters to the Mount Wollaston Cemetery. Patricia had remembered that, within the cemetery, all of the streets were named after trees, and sure enough, there was a Willow Street. On Willow Street they found a tomb with the name "Curtis" on it, and pushed under the door at the tomb's entrance was a green trash bag.
"I have to admit I was terrified," McLaughlin later told reporters, "What if somebody was still there watching us? We grabbed the bag, hopped in the car, and took off. We were afraid to open it in the cemetery." When they arrived back at the Library, they inspected the bag and found The Old Philosopher heavily wrapped in brown paper. She called the police with the good news, and in the spirit of childhood idol Nancy Drew, the mystery was solved.
The authorities are still searching for the thief, but the most important thing is that the window is safe and in the hands of its rightful owners. I had the honor of examining and restoring the window after its ordeal. Fortunately, the window suffered only minor damage. Some of the glass had cracked and these cracks were repaired by an infusion of tinted epoxy. Structurally, the window was sound - it had been restored by Art Femenella and Jack Cushen in 1988. The Alpha Window and The Old Philosopher were re-installed in their original locations in October 2001, and, for the first time since 1939, the triptych is again complete.