The Gertrude and Robert Metcalf Collection of Images of Stained Glass

Gertrude and Robert Metcalf

Written by
Robert Rahm Metcalf

Robert M. Metcalf was a former faculty member of The Dayton Art Institute. He and his wife Gertrude were responsible for this slide collection of the stained glass windows of France and Germany, photographed in 1937 and 1939. It was their professional background and teamwork, each with a specific task, coming together to complete this very interesting project, that made it successful.

Bob was a native of Springfield, Ohio, and at his father's insistence, attended Wittenberg College in Springfield. He did rather well considering the minor effort he put into his studies. After a year, his father relented and allowed him to go to art school. Because he had such highly developed right and left brain hemispheres, he was able to store massive amounts of information and create his artwork with little effort, at least as was visible. He could hear a piece of music just once and never forget it.

He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In his first year, he spent considerable time at the Philadelphia Zoo, sketching various animals and birds. He entered them in a show at the Academy. They were not accepted because the school could not believe that he had the ability to create such quality as a first year student; however, in his second year, he was awarded a Cressin Scholarship to study abroad.

Gertrude was trained as a graphic artist and interior designer at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Arts and the Parsons School, in New York.

Bob and Gertrude, both born in 1902, met at the J.H. Kase Stained Glass Studio in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1926. They both served their apprenticeship in stained glass at that Studio.

After their marriage, they lived in New York, where Bob worked for a short time with John Gordon Guthrie, a Scottish stained glass artist. He then worked for the Henry Wynd Young Studio, and served there as Vice President and Head of the Firm. After Mr. Young died, he bought the Firm and moved the Studio to New Jersey. The Depression took its toll on their stained glass business. In 1934, Bob moved the stained glass studio to Dayton, Ohio, and took a position as Director of Decorative Arts, in the School of The Dayton Art Institute.

Bob was a photographer, as well as, a stained glass artist. He used many cameras with different film sizes, but favored 35mm and especially the Leica camera, because it had the versatility of interchangeable lenses. This allowed him much more latitude in changing the image dimension.

Two classical musicians, Leopold Godowsky, a violinist, and Leopold Mannes, a pianist, were the inventors of Kodachrome slide film. Eastman Kodak first marketed the film, as Kodachrome in 1936.

It was my father's interest and expertise in both stained glass and 35mm photography that allowed him to see the stained glass window in the new slide film. When it first appeared on the market, he immediately saw the tremendous value it had for recording the stained glass windows of Europe. There were black and white photos taken of them by others, before slide film, that necessitated hand painting with watercolors. With Kodachrome, it was possible to record them in color.

In the summer of 1937, my parents traveled to Europe, to see for themselves, about the feasibility of taking pictures of the stained glass in all of the cathedrals in Europe. After a trial run that summer, my father was convinced that this project was worthwhile. Bob then proceeded with a Proposal for a Grant to make it happen as soon as possible, considering the possibility of the coming of WWII. We now know it was just around the corner and closing fast.

After writing the grant for this trip, Bob went to see Mrs. Carnell, the Patron of The Dayton Art Institute, to discuss with her the details regarding the funding for the slide collection. She quickly approved and said, "Get your tickets." They immediately swung into action to leave for Europe, at the end of the school year, for a journey that would be hard to believe.

After all of the preparations were in order, Bob and Gertrude, along with my 13 year old brother, Jimmy, set off for Europe, in August of 1938, to start the photographing in earnest. I stayed in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, with my maternal grandparents to attend the first grade.

In early October, Gertrude and Bob were at Chartres Cathedral, but had not yet acquired the permission necessary to go up in the galleries. They were settling into a new environment, dealing with all of the obstacles that come with a new country.

Note: The following is an excerpt from one of Gertrude’s letter to Siegfried Weng, then Director of The Dayton Art Institute. "It was the Wednesday before October 18. We went to the cathedral to start work and were greeted by two policemen who informed us that the Church was closed and that the windows would be removed for safe storage and placed in boxes. It was then that we realized things were rather precarious so we hurried down to St. Pierre, a much smaller 14th century church containing beautiful 14th century glass and started to photograph them for all we were worth. We had to climb around dirty galleries after ascending a dark circular staircase. It was not a pleasant job as the triforium galleries were particularly narrow, dirty and filled with bats. While we were up there photographing, I heard some Americans talking down below about Hitler giving England and France one day to make up their minds about the Sudetenland. I called down to them and asked if it were serious, their reply was, 'We're going to have war'. With that reply, we packed up our photographic equipment and hurried to the hotel, checked out, and headed for the Swiss border to get Jimmy.

Along the way, we saw many soldiers headed for the borders and several times, we were stopped at checkpoints with barbed wire all-around. The soldiers looked at us in a puzzled way, thinking we must be crazy heading in this direction when everybody else was heading in the other. I thought so too."

They arrived in Basel, at about dinnertime that night, and heard that all of the bridges had been mined and the buildings blacked out. There were air raid drills being conducted as well. They talked to our relatives about the seriousness of these events, not knowing what was going to happen. The next morning, Gertrude's aunt called up the stairs saying there was not going to be a war and everything was settled. Her uncle said, "Let's not celebrate, we are not going to have war just yet, but this is the end of Czechoslovakia".

They drove back to France, and down to the Mediterranean coast for a couple of days of rest, and the warm sun. It was beautiful down there, but they had work to do. They headed back to the north to see what was happening about the closing of cathedrals. Many of them were closed, but in a few weeks, the scare subsided and they were able to continue the photographing, as though nothing had happened.

After leaving the south of France, Bob and Gertrude started working in the cathedrals of Begiers and Norborne. This is a quote from one of Gertrude’s letters: "Carcassonne interested us very much, it is a medieval city so well restored and preserved, that it gives one a wonderful idea of what medieval cities are like. Standing high on the hill and surrounded with two large walls, one within the other. It over looks the valley for miles. There are high towers at intervals on the wall and draw bridges at the gates. Inside, it is like any other French Village containing a cathedral with quite good glass."

"Traveling north to Clermont-Ferrand, we finally landed in Poitiers, which has some of the most beautiful glass in France, of the 12th and 13th Centuries. The Crucifixion Window, especially, is unsurpassed for its beauty and design. Le Man came next, which is equally as important as Poitiers."

"Since December of 1938, we have traveled about 3,500 miles and taken 1,000 photographs, which brought our total up to 4,000, which comprises one quarter of our work. If we keep up this pace, we shall reach our goal in two years."

After working long hours in uncomfortable surroundings, they would head for Paris, for rest and recreation. My mother talked about getting back to civilization and the comforts of the city and an English copy of the New York Herald Tribune. In one of her letters, she wrote, "One should be reminded that once out of Paris, time reverted to the medieval, and keeping track of current events was difficult."

This project was filled with long hours and long trips. They carried fourteen suitcases on racks, both carried on top of the car, as well as, a pull down rack on the back, behind the spare wheel. It was adventurous and exciting, but there were many frightening moments as well. Just crossing the German border in those days was concern enough. When I look at their passport of that time, I think it is a wonder the Germans didn’t take them to task because of their frequent crossings between France and Germany. The Gestapo did ransack their room in Germany, making it obvious they had been there.

There were humorous occurrences along the way, as well. One time while visiting Jimmy, at the Swiss relatives, my father went out to find a copy of the New York Herald Tribune. This was their lifeline to the happenings of the world. When he returned to the house, he put the paper on the stand by the door, while he hung up his coat. A few minutes later, it was nowhere to be found. Sometime later, he went to the bathroom and there it was, all cut up in squares. It took him quite a while to piece it back together to find out what was going on in the World.

Gertrude made sketches and floor plans of all of the windows in every church and cathedral they photographed. This was done to keep track of each roll of film so they could be sure that all of them could be accounted for.

Because Bob was using so much Kodachrome, Eastman Kodak, in Paris, made changes in the way they processed the film he was taking to them. They used his input to improve the color.

On July 6, 1939, my grandparents and I sailed on the Ile De France, for Europe, so that I could be with my parents for the remainder of their photographic project, which would take us to England, when the work in France was finished.

While traveling between France and Switzerland, it was apparent to me that something was afoot. One might assume that a six-year-old would not be aware of the situation. However, I would listen to the conversations of Bob and Gertrude and it was obvious that there was fearful concern about the daily events. I have vivid memories of looking across the Rhine, seeing German Anti-aircraft guns and Swastikas on their flags.

Everything was going along with guarded tranquility. We had just returned from taking my grandparents to the boat in Le Havre, and putting the finishing touches on the French portion of the photographing. We had gone to Chaumont-Sur-Marne to photograph there, before Jimmy was to return to school. Sitting in a café, my mother noticed a man across from us with a newspaper and she could see something about Russia and Germany making an agreement. This was Sunday, August 21. My mother said, "We better get right back to Paris".

On Tuesday, August 23, Hitler signed the Non-Aggression Pact with the Russians. Overnight, Gertrude was making hurried arrangements to return to the United States. At the time, we had an open return ticket on the French Line and my mother called them to ask about a ship leaving for the United States. They said they had no French ships leaving then, but the S.S. President Roosevelt was leaving in a few days and we could use our tickets for it. When she inquired about the accommodations on the Roosevelt, they said they had no cabin space available and they could not guarantee taking our car.

It was August 25. Driving along the road to Le Havre, we encountered hundreds of people moving in mass. They used baby buggies, small carts, and any other means that would hold their worldly possessions. Who knows where they were headed. It was just like a movie!

On the ship, every spare room and corner was turned into dormitory space; cots were set up to accommodate the overflow. All of the people who had no cabin space were assembled in the dining room to be assigned sleeping space. We found that one of the stewards had been instructed to assign us to a crew’s cabin.

On August 26, 1939, we cleared French Customs. Because this was an historic moment I was allowed to stay up until one o’clock in the morning, sitting at the bar drinking Coke-A-Cola, listening to the strange sounds of the short wave radio whistling and fading in and out. Many people were at the bar in rare and frantic form getting out of Europe. August 27, in a blackout, we sailed from Le Havre, for home via Southampton. Upon arrival in Southampton, workman set a PT boat on the deck in front of the bridge for transport to the United States.

The trip from England to the United States was very rough. Water was pouring in through the open doorways because of heavy seas, everyone was seasick, and dishes were flying across the dining room. The ship was packed with all kinds of people. My mother said half the people they met during their fourteen months in Europe were on the boat. We, clearly, had been refugees fleeing for our lives.

On September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, we were about one day at sea. On September 3 a German U-Boat sank the Athenia, a British passenger ship with 1,400 passengers. It resulted in the loss of 112 lives, including 28 Americans. This was announced on our ship when it happened. The presence of the PT boat sitting on the ship with both ends hanging over the sides caused considerable fear for the passengers.

On September 5, 1939, we arrived in New York. Upon returning to Dayton, Bob resumed his teaching and Gertrude started sorting the slides and cataloging them. During this time, they also created the History of Medicine Stained Glass Window for the Mayo Clinic, Rochester Minnesota.

In 1942, Bob and Gertrude went to work at Wright Field to participate in the war effort. Bob was able to put his photographic experience to good use there, as well. It was not until 1947, that Gertrude was able to complete the cataloging of the slide collection. The final total number of slides was 11,000

After the War, several people from various European Cathedrals came to Dayton, to look at the slides and the diagrams to see if they could find the key to where their windows belonged. The War caused the loss of records and some of the knowledgeable people responsible for storing the windows, at the beginning of WWII.

In 1946, Bob and Gertrude resumed their Stained Glass Studio in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and also joined the faculty of Antioch College, in 1947, were they remained until their retirement in 1967.

Together they authored a book, "Making Stained Glass", published by McGraw-Hill.

Robert M. Metcalf died in 1978, and Gertrude in 2000, both in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.


Robert M. Metcalf designed and made many stained glass windows in the United States, and covered the broad spectrum of murals, paintings, and portraits, as well.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York, NY.

St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church, Paul Smiths, NY.

Trinity Lutheran Church, Rochester, Minnesota.

Christ Episcopal Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.

One thinks of stained glass mostly, a a religious medium; however, the windows listed below are examples of two very interesting non-religious commissions, which he created.

History of Medicine, located at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota.

Figure windows of the early American Masons, including Lafayette.

National Masonic Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia.

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