2016-08-25 / Front Page

La Farge's Masterpiece a Museum in the Making

By James Merolla


At Newport Congregational, renowned artist John La Farge (bottom left) created 20 abstract decorative windows which used patterns and colors inspired by churches in Cairo. On the ceilings over the galleries, he painted copies of an Islamic carpet that he purchased in Boston (bottom right). At Newport Congregational, renowned artist John La Farge (bottom left) created 20 abstract decorative windows which used patterns and colors inspired by churches in Cairo. On the ceilings over the galleries, he painted copies of an Islamic carpet that he purchased in Boston (bottom right). The few parishioners remaining at Newport Congregational Church could refer to the fading motifs on the walls, the cracked and dull paint, or the smoky glass windows as “the remnants.”

They have also used that forlorn noun to describe themselves.

The historic 1857 Romanesque Revival church at the corner of Spring and Pelham streets – a National Historic Landmark with an interior designed by American art legend John La Farge – has only remained open over the past two decades due to a dogged campaign to restore the 1,000-seat wonder to its original glory.

In fact, if the congregation had not deeded the church to the nonprofit La Farge Restoration Fund three years ago, its rapidly dwindling congregation would probably have given up the ghost to condo contractors by now.

But a new light shines in their supremely patient restoration drive, started in 1995 and helped immensely by generous local funders. The estimated $6 to $8 million campaign has measured its incremental successes in inches and feet, corners, and one refinished window at a time.

The fund’s representatives are thrilled to announce that major improvement projects in one area of the church will be finished by the end of October, thanks in part to grants from local foundations and a historic preservation grant from the State of Rhode Island.

The west interior wall and the three large windows facing Spring Street will be restored this year.

Having waited through the necessary roof, electrical and structural repairs that had to be completed before any of the cosmetic restorations could even be approached, the remaining congregants say it is exhilarating to witness the beginnings of the renaissance of the church’s historic 1880 appearance.

The windows – which date to the original construction of the building in 1857 – are being fabricated from designs remaining intact on other windows.

Referring to the conservators who are repainting the interior west wall, project manager Karen LaFrance said “When they are finished, we will have an example, a piece done that we can showcase. And when benefactors can actually see that section, it can inspire future donations and give a glimpse of what the murals in the sanctuary space can be again.”

Support from preservation-minded locals and the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission is critical to continue the fundraising efforts that will one day lead to the complete restoration of the La Farge murals on the ceilings and the one that commands the altar area, as well as the replacement of his decorative windows and repainting the chipped embers of a regrettable 1962 paint job.


Scaffolding at Newport Congregational Church has been erected for many months as the three main windows in the front of the church will be replaced by the end of October (upper photo). Once done, potential donors to the multi-million dollar renovation project will get the first true glimpse of what a piece of the projected interior will actually look like, once brought back to its original glory. In photo below, the magnificent interior of the church with the entire John La Farge altar motif, replete with modified imagery from many cultures, religions and continents. The La Farge design adorning the historic building received National Preservation status recently, which catapulted the restoration efforts. (Photos by Aaron Usher) Scaffolding at Newport Congregational Church has been erected for many months as the three main windows in the front of the church will be replaced by the end of October (upper photo). Once done, potential donors to the multi-million dollar renovation project will get the first true glimpse of what a piece of the projected interior will actually look like, once brought back to its original glory. In photo below, the magnificent interior of the church with the entire John La Farge altar motif, replete with modified imagery from many cultures, religions and continents. The La Farge design adorning the historic building received National Preservation status recently, which catapulted the restoration efforts. (Photos by Aaron Usher) LaFrance works with property manager Andy Long, who is on site most often, and a board of directors that includes Long, Paul Miller of the Preservation Society of Newport County, historic preservationist Ned Connors, designer Dorienne Farzan, architect Mohamad Farzan, historian and author Michael Kathrens, community leader Ginny Purviance, and ex officio Kathryn Leonard.

“The talent pool in Newport is astounding,” said Long.

“There is someone in Newport with the expertise to answer every question and a solution to every problem,” added LaFrance. “We have highly committed and competent people on the board. If not, there would be no way we could sustain this.”

La Farge’s 1880 installation at Newport Congregational is like none of his other works, with the sanctuary wall, ceiling murals, and decorative windows largely intact today. He imagined an entire space and created all the elements of one magnificent personal vision. He was able to model his invention – opalescent glass – in the church windows and experimented with pigment in his murals of Middle Eastern-inspired motifs.

In the words of local art historian Ron Onorato, La Farge created “a highly elaborate ensemble of color and light.”

In an essay on the restoration, Long said, “This important mission makes this National Historic Landmark part of another vision, that of a dynamic, vital city of Newport that builds on its past and its many historic structures and stories to create a new community for a new century.”

As a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational organization, the fund makes the sanctuary available to the public and the scholarly community, so that both may more fully experience and appreciate La Farge’s achievement.

“When La Farge first viewed the interior of the church in 1879 to conceptualize his work, he had spent a lifetime getting ready for this commission. His drawings from boyhood on taught him proportion, his paintings taught him color, his love of art history and travel gave him a broad cultural palette, and his native drive and curiosity gave him his mastery of glass. It was time to create his masterpiece,” said Long.

He was required by the congregation not to use any Christian iconographic images. Thus, his designs are patterned with a decidedly Asian feel, and his ceiling murals reproduce actual Oriental rugs.

La Farge's altar motif, a tribute to all of the world’s religions, needs a facelift and a cleaning to bring the designs back to their former brightness and hue, as do the opalescent glass windows, with designs and patterns unlike all other American Victorian glass work.

But first, the non-La Farge windows must be replaced and the work around them completed by the end of October.

“We will finally be able to say, ‘That’s La Farge,’ and not just invoke it. We can really see it,” said Long.

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