Visit the St. Louis County Public Library and you’ll see the angular stained glass figures of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacajawea set in a window, floating over the locals reading and browsing book titles below them. It’s one of the most famous pieces of artwork in the city, in a medium that was once on the decline but has remained a mainstay in the St. Louis’s tradition of art and craftsmanship.
Once a popular art form known for its place in churches and cathedrals, stained glass saw a decrease in demand in the 1970s and 1980s as secular tides impacted church budgets and cultural appetite for the traditionally Christian artform. In St. Louis, Emil Frei & Associates, a fifth generation family-owned studio, has weathered those changes through a combination of staunch adherence to the tradition of the artform, and, at the same time, an open minded interpretation of what stained glass can be in modern times.
Emil Frei, the founder of the studio, was born in 1869 in Bavaria, but immigrated to the United States and opened Emil Frei Art Glass in 1898. Over time, the studio developed a nationwide reputation for lifelike Biblical scenes. In fact, many of the artists at Emil Frei would spend their whole career painting only faces and hands. That meticulous attention to detail has never wavered, and neither has the studio’s mission of education about its craft.
In the 1960s, Emil Frei & Associates collaborated with artist Robert Harmon and architect Frederick Dunn, FAIA to produce the architecturally modernist Lewis and Clark Library. “It was a poster child of how mid-century [architecture] should have been done,” Aaron Frei — who just took the helm of the family studio in 2016 — says of the original structure. The library included natural light as a central feature, as is typical of mid-century buildings — perfect for a light-centric canvas for stained glass artists to play with and use. Visitors could see the stained glass depiction of Lewis, Clark, and Sacajawea from both the inside and outside of the building (a departure from the norm; traditionally, stained glass was meant to be seen only from the inside), but Frei’s unconventional commissioned piece for the library gave new meaning to public art.
Now, the original stained glass installation is on display in the windows of the new St. Louis County Library, thanks to local preservationists who fought to save it when the library was rebuilt in 2015. It can still be viewed from both indoors and outdoors, but the more elaborate background panes are gone, which makes Frei nostalgic for that piece and for its first home.“The original was so compelling because it set the characters of Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea in the context of a journey,” Aaron says. “Lewis and Clark were pioneers, and that was set within a very modern, pioneering attempt at a new kind of library. There was kinship between the patronage of the library and the style of art and architecture.”
You can find other work by Emil Frei Studio everywhere from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. But the studio has left its mark on its hometown: You can see its work at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, the Francis Xavier College Church, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, and St. Francis De Sales in addition to the library.
As for the future of stained glass, Frei is hopeful and positive, admitting he loves the way more modern architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright, incorporated the medium into their work. “There’s an ethereal nature to [stained glass] that almost defies our immediate understanding,” he says. “For some reason, it’s had a hard time pushing beyond that boundary of Christian art. I think stained glass has a place in the secular world. It can speak across time, culture, geography to people of all stands in life. All situations. Some of my favorite pieces are ones that don’t depict Christian iconography. That speaks to the power of beauty.”