FROM WRECKAGE OF CHURCH, A SALVATION

Prized stained-glass windows from collapsing Albany church delicately moved from walls for safekeeping

BRYAN FITZGERALD SPECIAL TO THE TIMES UNION
Section: Capital Region,  Page: D1

Date: Thursday, July 14, 2011

ALBANY -- In the basket of a cherry picker 40 feet off the ground, Dominic Ditonno raised a 10-pound sledgehammer and chipped away at the north tower of Trinity Church on Wednesday. Wood, wire, brick and dust tumbled to the street and past the South End landmark's shuttered stained-glass windows.


Sandwiched with plywood to protect them from falling debris, the windows, thought to be the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, will be carefully removed and placed in storage until it is determined whether they are worth hundreds, thousands, or possibly millions of dollars -- and to whom they belong.


On Tuesday, six of the windows were etched out of the brick walls and pulled from the church by the Ditonno and Sons demolition company, a possible consolation prize in the demolition of the 163-year-old house of worship that suddenly began to collapse Monday night.


"They were so delicate with the windows, it was amazing" said Harris Oberlander, CEO of the Trinity Alliance, a community outreach center next door to the church at 31 Trinity Place. "It was like they were delivering a baby."


Susan Holland, executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation, said an expert in antique glass, most likely an appraiser, will be brought in to determine whether the windows are indeed Tiffany glass.


Dominic Ditonno, head foreman for Ditonno and Sons, contracted by the city to raze the church, said a dozen windows remained inside the church on Wednesday afternoon, some as tall as 25 feet and weighing close to a ton.


Whether the building's owner, the city or the demolition company owns the windows will depend on their value and, possibly, ensuing litigation.


Albany Fire Chief Robert Forezzi said Ditonno and Sons legally owns all debris it pulls from the building, but if the windows are Tiffany glass, they may not qualify as debris because of their value. The Albany Episcopal Diocese could not confirm whether the windows are Tiffany.


"This is a very unusual situation. It's the first time we've had to deal with something like this," Forezzi said.


The chief said the building's owner, Amanda Indarpaul, may not be entitled to the windows because she never registered the church with the city's vacant building registry, a requirement upon its purchase. Indarpaul, of the Bronx, bought the church for $500 at a vacant-building auction this past October. The deal was closed in February.


The city sent Indarpaul a letter telling her to register the church, but she never responded, Forezzi said. Officials have not been able to contact Indarpaul since the demolition began and has asked the New York City Police Department to help locate her, Forezzi said.


The city is paying for the $141,000 demolition and plans to locate Indarpaul and compel her to pay the bill. Indarpaul could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.


Some two dozen people were forced from their homes because of the demolition. The Trinity Alliance relocated most of its programs to other parts of the city.


Tiffany glass revolutionized and dominated the American stained-glass business in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, introducing a new style of glassmaking based on creating a spectacular array of effects with glass alone, rarely using paint. According to the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Tiffany glass can be identified in several ways, including by a signature, the way clothing is depicted or the use of copper foil.


The church, completed in 1848, was designed by James Renwick Jr., a renowned architect who laid the blueprint for St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan and the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C. The church was shuttered in 1982 and turned over to Albany County after foreclosure in 2007.


County Executive office spokeswoman Mary Duryea said the church was inspected 12 times since the county took ownership. Duryea said that inspectors noted the building was in poor condition, but nothing indicated it was in danger of collapsing. Forezzi said the building had not been inspected by the city since Indarpaul closed on it. Indarpaul filled out a mandatory post-auction questionnaire about her plans for the historic site. Indarpaul wrote she was going to turn the church into a center to "promote cultural events." She said she expected the restoration to cost $30,000 and take nine to 12 months. The plan and transfer of property were approved by the county legislature.


Forezzi doubted the value of Indarpaul's plan, noting, "$30,000 worth of work would likely not be enough to even stabilize that building."


Forezzi said the careful, bit-by-bit demolition may continue into the weekend. Due to the church's thin, frail walls, its north and south towers must be taken apart by hand with a sledgehammer.


Reach Fitzgerald at 454-5414 or at bfitzgerald@timesunion.com.