During the exterior restoration of a historic north Asheville home, the Hands of Sean Perry Co. called on the help of local restoration artist Alyssa Sheldon to return a beautiful stained glass window to its original state.
The home, built in 1915, originally belonged to Dr. Roswell E. Flack and his wife, Lola, and was situated on the grounds of the old Winyah Sanitarium, where Dr. Flack was a physician. When the current owners — who, coincidentally, are also physicians — contacted the Hands of Sean Perry Co. to upgrade the curb appeal of the house, the deteriorating stained glass piece was flagged for repair.
“It’s definitely not something that you’d want to take out and replace with a basic, single pane window,” said Sheldon. “It’s still a very functional, decorative piece, with orange textured glass that gives off this ethereal, lovely glow.”
Assumed to be an original feature in the house, the amber-tinted window cascades golden light onto the home’s stairwell, just as it has for more than 100 years. But over the course of the last century, the piece had fallen into disrepair — the glass panels shifting, buckling and bulging over time, no longer holding back the wind or rain.
“It’s normal to see this type of undulation a lot in 100-year-old pieces — likely from expansion and contraction over time and material failure,” Sheldon said. “The lead channels that held the pieces together had deteriorated to the point where it wasn’t doing its job as a window anymore. You could see light coming in [around the leaded panels], and it wasn’t keeping out air and moisture.”
When looking for a specialist to repair the piece, a member of the Sean Perry crew contacted Sheldon to gauge her interest in the possible restoration job. Though she hadn’t previously worked with the team, the project perfectly aligned with Sheldon’s specific skills and interests: stained glass artistry, historic restorations, and finishing work.
Growing up in a “handy household,” Sheldon recalls helping her parents refurbish and repair worn out items and feeling an overwhelming sense of joy as the rust and grit lifted away and the antique items began to shine like new. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” she said. “Then in high school, I learned how to create stained glass — something I picked back up as a hobby during COVID — and, in grad school, I studied historic preservation, working with a furniture restorer in Savannah.
“I’m a bit of a dabbler,” she continued, noting that she’s done freelance restoration work for the last 10 years. “I do a lot of different things. Though it’s not part of my primary job, restoration is a huge passion of mine.”
On this particular piece, the biggest challenge was to ease the glass panels out of their wooden frame without causing any more damage to the piece. After decades of shifting, settling and expanding with the seasons, the wood had a tight grip on the panels’ edges, seemingly reluctant to let go of its century-long partner.
“You’ll break something if you put in too much force,” Sheldon said. “That’s always the most challenging thing when doing a restoration: There’s the risk that, when trying to fix something, you’ll end up breaking it more. But that’s also the beauty of being a [trained] restorer:” Even if something goes awry, you’ll know how to fix it correctly.
Luckily, in this case, no extra damage was done during the restoration process. Once the panels were carefully removed from the sash, Sheldon got to work removing the old lead channels, chipping away at stuck-on cement and washing each of the 27 glass pieces — all while the Sean Perry team worked on restoring the frame, cleaning “a hundred years of paint layers, crud and grime” from the wood.
Sheldon then gathered her new materials, laid out the panels and began putting the century-old leaded stained glass window back together. “Lead is really soft — it’s almost like a wet noodle — and you have to stretch it so that it gets stronger,” she explained. “The more you work it, the more rigid it gets. After it’s stretched, it’s basically just about cutting the lead into the size you want to fit around each piece of glass, making sure to keep it within the existing parameters so it fits back into the sash.”
Once each piece was nestled neatly into place, Sheldon soldered the lead together at the joints, cemented the whole panel into place with stained glass putty, and carefully fitted it back into the now-restored wooden sash.
“It’s really cool: You see this style of stained glass, this pattern, in a lot of homes in Asheville, and it’s really indicative of that time period — around the turn of the century to right before the 1920s,” Sheldon said. “Stained glass really does communicate such an otherworldly vibe, so to be lucky enough to have a home that already has one in it is something really special. I’m so glad [the homeowners] decided to save it.”
Now comfortably back in its place above the historic home’s stairwell, the stained glass window can once again cast its radiant glow, albeit brighter than it has in decades.
“We all worked together to make it look as good as new,” Sheldon said of the teamwork between herself and the Hands of Sean Perry Co. “Restoration is just such a cool thing to me: Not only does it celebrate all this history of craftsmanship and artistry, but it also keeps things out of landfills — and that’s what makes it so important and fulfilling, for me personally and for the planet, as well.”