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The Story of Stained Glass: Restoring Evans Chapel’s Historic Windows

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Emma Atkinson

Feature  •
Evans Chapel exterior

The life of DU’s Evans Chapel has been much like that of a college student: full of reinvention.

The Gothic chapel was a downtown Denver fixture before it was moved to the heart of DU’s University Park campus, where it has hosted weddings and interfaith gatherings for more than 60 years.

Evans Chapel large windows

The latest reinvention involves a restoration of the building’s instantly recognizable stained glass windows, which, to the trained eye, have long needed a little TLC. Keen observers will find that the patterns among the intricately designed glass are often not uniform in color or placement. This is likely due to discrepancies in the way the windows were reassembled after the chapel’s move to campus.

The Evans Chapel’s story begins in 1878, when it was first built at the corner of Bannock and 13th streets in downtown Denver as an addition to the existing Grace Methodist Episcopal Church. Its construction was funded by DU founder John Evans, who dedicated the chapel to his late daughter, Josephine. The chapel’s tenure at the downtown location lasted 80 years, until the University bought the parcel of land on which it sat.

Instead of demolishing the chapel to make way for parking, University leaders decided it should be moved to campus. The project was funded by John Evans’ grandson, who shared his name and love for the historic building. Workers famously disassembled the storied chapel by hand—stone by stone, as the story goes—and rebuilt it between what was then the Mary Reed Library and Mount Evans.

Throughout its long history, the chapel has seen its fair share of structural and aesthetic changes, DU architect Mark Rodgers says.

“The building is not exactly what it was when it was first built. …It wasn’t what it was when we bought it, nor when it got moved out here,” he says. “It has had some evolution.”

Poorly repaired stained glass window

Some of the chapel's windows had previously been repaired poorly.

Allison Haynes is a University architect and part of the team working to restore the windows. She says they have no intention of trying to correct the various mismatched colors and insignias.

“Now those idiosyncrasies are historic as well, because this has been here for 60 years,” she says. “So we didn’t try and take and replace all of the areas where things were put back wrong, we just wanted to stabilize everything.”

Rodgers, Haynes and the team are working with Englewood-based Watkins Stained Glass Studio to rehabilitate the chapel’s eight windows. The studio—a 260-year-old family-run business—holds a surprising personal connection to Evans Chapel and its windows.

A hand grasping a paintbrush working on a stained glass window

Kitt Watkins works on restoring a piece of the glass from the Evans Chapel windows.

Phil Watkins Sr. was brought in by the city of Denver’s architect to consult in disassembling and reassembling the Evans Chapel windows during the chapel’s relocation in the mid-20th century.

Now, nearly two-thirds of a century later, Phil Watkins Jr. and his daughter, Kitt, are leading the restoration of the same windows Phil Sr. helped move to DU’s campus.

Window by window, the Watkins crew disassembles the glass and transports it to their studio, where Phil Jr. and Kitt complete a process of more than a dozen steps to restore the glass and lead of the windows.

First, the glass is removed and the wood frame is sent to a contractor for restoration. Then, the team extracts any broken glass and replaces it with antique glass from a similar time period, a task made feasible by the fact that Watkins has at least 30,000 square feet of glass in inventory.

After the new glass is cut to the correct shape, nearly all the window glass will be painted or re-painted, save for some edge pieces. The re-painting process is lengthy; glass specialists must color-match the paint and brush strokes to the original pieces before firing the glass several times. Because of the windows’ age, much of the lead holding the glass pieces together is in bad shape and must also be replaced. Amazingly, Watkins counts 1880s-era lead among its studio inventory, so the replacement lead is as good as original.

Repaired stained glass window

The restored windows have been refreshed and reinforced.

Once the glass has been re-leaded and stabilized for transport, the windows are returned to their wooden frames and re-installed in the chapel. The windows’ exteriors are covered in new tempered glass sheets to protect them from the elements.

Jane Watkins, Phil Jr.’s wife, is a project manager for the family business. She says Watkins’ personal connections to the project go beyond Phil Sr.’s 1958 contributions.

“Two of our daughters were DU alumni: Kitt was a diver and Sally was a golfer,” she says. “Kitt is currently working at the studio as an apprentice and becomes the fifth generation of Watkins to be doing stained glass in Denver; and she’s continuing the 260-year family stained glass legacy. Kitt is quite honored to be part of the preservation of the DU Evans Memorial Chapel stained glass windows and is mastering the craftsmanship.”

The restoration is set to be complete by spring Commencement in 2023.

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