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Hidden History: Tiffany Windows in Fraternity Memorial Headquarters

This blog is part of a series exploring the surprising places that we discover history. We often think of museums, historical societies, and libraries as the sole repositories of our past . Yet, they are everywhere! Stories are often buried away in the least likely of places and we at HistoryIT love unearthing and saving them. This week, we look at Tiffany windows.

In August 2019, HistoryIT began a fascinating project with Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) Fraternity. SAE’s national headquarters is housed in the Levere Memorial Temple in Evanston, Illinois. The building is first and foremost a memorial to SAE members who died in WWI and subsequent wars.

Stained-glass artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose family firm was deeply involved in the creation of various war memorials, designed the SAE memorial, a stunning two-story collection of stained-glass windows commemorating key historical periods. Construction for the Levere Memorial Temple broke ground on June 22, 1929, only four months before Black Thursday marked the beginning of the Great Depression.

By March 1930, Building Committee Chairman Judge Alfred K. Nippert was involved in detailed correspondence with the Ecclesiastical Department of Tiffany Studios about the stained-glass windows for the Memorial. Nippert took his task seriously, using his encyclopedic knowledge to ensure historical accuracy. In his correspondence, he outlined highly-specific plans for the 10 clerestory (upper-level) windows, known as the Indian Window, the Viking Window, the Discovery Window, the French Window, the Colonial Window, the Revolutionary Window, the War of 1812 Window, the Mexican & Civil War Window, the Spanish-American War Window, and the World War Window.  Unfortunately, a fire destroyed Nippert’s correspondence with Tiffany Studios. Only faint photocopies of the letters remain.*

In 2004, SAE unearthed a box of the original drawings for the stained glass windows from their archives and initiated an effort to restore them first and  then digitally preserve and share them.

The building was completed in August 1930 and the stained-glass windows were installed in December of the same year. Thus, December 2020 marks the ninetieth anniversary of both the Levere Memorial Temple and its magnificent Tiffany windows. To help SAE commemorate this occasion, HistoryIT digitally preserved the precious restorations of the original drawings as well as the photocopies of Nippert’s correspondence, photographs and architectural plans for the construction, and other relevant documents.

After completing the two-month project, we developed a digital exhibit as part of Chicago’s Tiffany Trail, a 14-stop interactive self-guided tour through the city. The Levere Memorial Temple was one of those stops. Organized by Chicago’s Driehaus Museum, the Trail underscores Tiffany’s impact on Chicago’s art and architecture as a result of his success at the Chicago 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

The Driehaus Museum also had an exhibition titled “Eternal Light: the Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany.”  The exhibition is now traveling to other cities, but you can take a virtual tour here.

As an historian, I consider all projects intriguing, but found this one particularly enjoyable because of the window it offered into the evolution of stained-glass design.

* Read my blog post on how to preserve valuable documents and protect them against fire loss.

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