“Lost” Artifact from DC Discovered at MDAH

A search for lost works of art from the United States Capitol led a Pennsylvania scholar to Mississippi’s capital city—and eventually unraveled a decades-old mystery at the Department of Archives and History.

For more than thirty years Jean M. Farnsworth has studied stained glass, from methods of manufacture to repair and restoration. At the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation she oversaw a project that surveyed 3,600 stained glass windows throughout the city. Farnsworth has examined windows across the United States, taught courses, developed workshops, lectured, and published extensively on stained glass.

Her current work focuses on America’s stained-glass pioneers. In 2008 and 2012 she was granted a United States Capitol Historical Society Fellowship to study stained glass in the U.S. Capitol. In February Farnsworth emailed MDAH in search of a painted glass seal—known as a roundel—representing Mississippi that formerly hung beneath a skylight in the House of Representatives Chamber.

roundel_02When the skylight and ornamental glasswork were dismantled in 1949, Mississippi governor Fielding Wright wrote to David Lynn, architect of the U.S. Capitol, and requested his state’s seal, which featured an eagle. Records show the glass panel and its original frame were shipped to Mississippi secretary of State Heber Ladner on February 13, 1951, and that receipt was acknowledged on March 1, 1951, along with a note that the panel had broken in three pieces during shipping. But Farnsworth had no idea where the seal might be some sixty years later, or if it existed at all.

“One morning I sent an email to MDAH in the hope that someone there might know about the roundel,” Farnsworth said. “By that afternoon I had received a reply.”

Nan Prince, assistant curator of collections at MDAH, had received the email, and Farnsworth’s description made her think of an object in the collection with a mysterious provenance. Records showed a circular piece of painted glass had been brought to MDAH in 1980 by Heber Ladner. But notes from the time indicated it had been removed from Mississippi’s Old Capitol during a renovation of that building—not from the U.S. Capitol. That story would have been confusing to staff, but with no other information forthcoming the glass seal was accepted into the department’s collection, carefully packed, and stored away. Prince pulled the piece, photographed it, and attached the image to her email response to Farnsworth.

“Wonderful news—It is the same seal without question,” Farnsworth quickly replied. She proposed a visit to see the piece in a few weeks when she was traveling to New Orleans. “I could also bring you additional information about the history of the seal. Thank you for responding so quickly—and with good news!”

On March 5, Farnsworth drove to the Charlotte Capers Archives and History Building and met Prince, who was able to show her the artifact, which Farnsworth verified as the missing Mississippi seal. “The seals were created for each state,” Farnsworth said. “Most were fabricated circa 1857-58, with others being added as additional states were admitted to the Union.”

Sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century several of the roundels were damaged. Mississippi’s was deemed irreparable, and in 1907 the Barvarian-born glass artist Maria Herndl was commissioned to recreate it and two others and repair eight more.

The roundels recreated by Herndl were easily identified, because the kilns available in her hometown of Milwaukee were not large enough to fire a twenty-inch piece of glass, so she fired smaller pieces and used the traditional method of lead to join them. Herndl was paid $50 for her work on the Mississippi piece. The new and repaired roundels were re-installed in the U.S. Capitol until they were all removed decades later.

“We’re delighted to know the story of this beautiful glasswork, which had been such a conundrum before,” said Prince.

With the artifact’s provenance cleared and documented, the department is looking into ways to repair the damage to the glass and painted image.

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