Illuminating Baltimore’s stained glass
When author, anthropologist and human rights activist Linda Rabben moved to northeast Baltimore in 2021, she wanted to get to know her new neighborhood better.
On her daily walks, she noticed that many houses had stained glass windows. Rabben, who grew up in Philadelphia and lived for 30 years in Takoma Park, Maryland, became curious.
“I really hadn’t paid any attention to them” before, Rabben said in an interview with the Beacon. “So, I was seeing this with new eyes.”
“The first thing I wanted to find out was, who made these windows, when were they made, and where were they made,” said Rabben, associate research professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland.
That is how the idea for Rabben’s new book, Through a Glass Darkly: The Social History of Stained Glass in Baltimore, came about.
Published in November, the illustrated book connects “the evolution of this decorative art form to the reality of racial, ethnic and religious segregation and discrimination in the city,” Rabben writes in her 11th book.
Delving into the past
In researching the book, Rabben came to focus not on architectural details but on the people of Baltimore’s past.
“What I started to think about was why did people want these windows in their houses? Who decided to install them? When did this fashion start? Why did it end?” Rabben said.
“To answer those questions, I had to learn more about Baltimore’s long, rather sordid history of segregation, especially residential segregation.”
That’s because the records of stained glass made and installed in Baltimore from the late 1840s onward were incomplete, Rabben found. Many records have been lost, and most windows were not signed or dated.
So Rabben began reading histories of Baltimore, like Eric Holcomb’s The City as Suburb: A History of Northeast Baltimore Since 1660 and Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, which ultimately led to her broadening her focus.
“It was totally unexpected and kind of serendipitous that I would come across this topic — and that it would become a book and a whole new direction for my research,” Rabben said.
As a result, Through a Glass Darkly is unlike anything she had written before, she said.
Many contributed to the project
Baltimore historians, city planners, architects and museum curators helped Rabben when she was working on the book. “It’s been the best research experience of my career,” she said.
Of course, Rabben also consulted some of the half dozen well-known stained glassmakers in Baltimore today.
“They were very interested and eager to talk about their craft,” Rabben said. “They were thrilled that somebody was paying attention to their work and wanted to know more about it.”
Some have been involved in high-profile projects, like restoring the stained glass panels for the Maryland State Senate in Annapolis or Clifton Mansion in Baltimore’s Clifton Park, or creating the stained glass window in the Benton Municipal Building downtown.
Researcher and activist
Rabben earned a Ph.D. in urban anthropology for her research in Brazil. She returned there many times from 1980 to the early 2000s, to do research on human rights and social change.
She worked for Amnesty International before becoming interested in international migration issues and, in particular, sanctuary and asylum as cultural, religious and political institutions.
For many years, she helped asylum seekers and refugees as a volunteer and human rights activist. This led to a job at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore.
Although Rabben worked as an anthropologist, activist and editor, above all, she considers herself a writer.
“When I hit age 70, I wrote a memoir to try and make sense of my professional life,” Rabben said. The memoir, which she self-published in 2021, “is all about my life as a writer, which I’ve been since I was nine years old.
“I wanted to talk about all the different career paths that I’ve gone down and how they’re related to writing.”
So far, the best response to her latest book has been readers who have told her, “You know, now I’m seeing stained glass everywhere I go. I never noticed it before. And it really changed the way I look at the decoration on houses.”
To Rabben, that’s high praise. “I can’t think of a better, more satisfying response to my work,” she said. “I’ve changed the way people are seeing something.”
To find out more about Rabben or her other books, visit her website, wordworker.net.
To see a free exhibit curated by Rabben that features works by local stained glassmakers, visit The Peale, 225 Holiday St., Baltimore. Hours are 3 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The exhibit runs through February 4th, but will be closed from December 22 through January 3. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (667) 222-1814.