Although not overly large in size or located in a prominent downtown Chattanooga location, Grace Episcopal Church on Brainerd Road still literally casts a big local shadow architecturally.
A key reason is that it has stained-glass windows designed and constructed by one of the nation’s premier firms – the Charles Connick Studio of Boston. Also, the church’s architect was one of Tennessee’s most prominent designers – Charles Barber of Knoxville.
Grace Episcopal is apparently the only church in Chattanooga featuring the famed Connick windows – although both St. Paul’s Episcopal Church downtown and St. Timothy’s Episcopal on Signal Mountain both sought bids from the Connick studio at different times.
And Grace is also apparently one of the few Chattanooga structures designed by Mr. Barber, who left as large an architectural mark on Knoxville during the early and mid-20th century as R.H. Hunt did on the Scenic City in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
But the Grace church’s connections to the two prominent artisans appear to have received little attention over the years, maybe even among the majority of Grace Episcopal Church members.
However, Mr. Barber and the Connick studio were quite familiar with each other, and that is why they are both connected with Grace. Mr. Barber had first developed a connection with the Connick studio back in the early 1940s, when a Connick window was first being installed at the large, gothic-style Church Street (United) Methodist Church between the University of Tennessee campus and downtown Knoxville.
Mr. Barber had been a co-designer of the Church Street building and was also a member there. Over the years, a number of churches he designed in the Knoxville area would often include at least one Connick window.
He likely wanted to have quality windows to go with his buildings he tried to design with equal care and craftsmanship.
Generally known for working one or more traditional styles into structures that were pleasing to the eye, Mr. Barber before his death in 1962 also designed such structures as Hoskins Library and the soon-to-be-razed University Center at the University of Tennessee, the YMCA and YWCA buildings in downtown Knoxville, Holston Hills Country Club’s clubhouse in East Knoxville, and a number of prominent early 20th century homes just west of the UT campus.
He also designed at least two churches in Knoxville that look like close brick-and-mortar relatives of Grace Episcopal – Second Presbyterian Church, which was completed on top of a hill off Kingston Pike just west of the UT campus in 1957, and the smaller St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, which opened in 1959.
Mr. Barber also designed St. James Episcopal Church on North Broadway in North Knoxville, which also features Connick windows.
He was a partner in the Barber McMurry firm still in business today and was hired as the Grace Episcopal architect after the church’s building committee recommended him.
The Grace nave and educational addition were completed in 1956 and 1961, respectively, near the site of a larger former home at Brainerd Road and Belvoir Avenue that the church had been using as its worship facility since 1941. The home was torn down after the 1961 addition was completed.
Mr. Connick and his firm’s famous commissions included the windows at Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, the Princeton University Chapel, and the Cathedral of Learning and the Heinz Memorial Chapel at the University of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Connick had operated a stained-glass window studio in the Boston area from 1913 until his death in 1945, and the firm continued producing windows in the same style -- using rich colors and antique methods -- until it closed in 1986.
The New York Times at the time of Mr. Connick’s death said he was “considered the world’s greatest artisan on stained-glass windows.”
Connick windows are often known for coming alive with vibrancy and varying colors when sunlight comes through them, but create an almost opposite calming effect for observers.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga art and architecture professor Dr. Gavin Townsend thinks the Connick windows have a French influence.
“Connick’s work strikes me as more French than English in style,” he said. “I know Connick went to France at least once, if only to visit Chartres. Though I do wonder what else he saw while in France. The lines of his angels are un-shaded and spare – more Matisse-like than medieval.”
The Grace Episcopal Church windows were installed from 1958 – when the large rear chancel window was put in place – until the early 1980s. Senior warden Stanyarne Burrows of the church worked closely with the firm during much of the construction of the windows, which were installed by either Hubbuch Glass or Foster Art Glass.
The Grace windows depict Feast Days and/or important characters of the Christian church, and were apparently based at least in part on a plan outlined by the Rev. Leon C. Balch.
Longtime church member Margaret Martin, who once met architect Charles Barber, said she remembers that Rev. Balch had met with Orin Skinner, who headed the Connick firm after Mr. Connick’s death.
To her, the Grace windows have much significance.
“They mean a lot to us because of a longtime connection,” she said, adding that some of the windows honor past rectors with whom her family had relationships. “And the windows fit the architecture of the church.”
Detailed information about the Grace Episcopal and other Connick windows can be examined online simply by going to the Connick Foundation website (www.cjconnick.org) and clicking on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology digital archive link.
While the windows often tell Biblical stories using somewhat formal scenes, Connick windows also occasionally have an interesting figure with which even young children can identify. One of the Grace windows, for example, shows a carpenter’s handsaw that looks just like a saw from Ace Hardware.
As Grace’s Connick windows were being installed, they apparently must have created interest among other Chattanooga Episcopal churches. Archival information at the MIT site said that St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had the Connick studio submit a sketch for a Gethsemane garden window in 1979, while St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church on Signal Mountain earlier was talking with the Connick firm about a window of St. Timothy.
Those churches did not hire the Connick firm, but their windows and building architecture are certainly pretty in their own ways.
Grace Episcopal Church, meanwhile, found a more than adequate stained-glass maker and church architect to give a handsome look to complement the aesthetically pleasing, tree-covered lawn at the corner of Brainerd Road and Belvoir Avenue.