John A. Riordan: SGAA Life Member
By: Virgina C. Raguin
Stained Glass Magazine Volume 81, Number 1
An advertisement in the 1840 city directory of Cincinnati, Ohio enticed customers with “Coulter and Finagin’s…keep constantly on hand a general assortment of cut and plain glassware which they will sell as cheap and on as liberal terms as any other Establishment.” This firm, which in a few years was to become G.C. Riordan & Company, is the oldest documented continuously operating stained glass studio in the United States.
William Coulter (Ireland) and Joseph Finagin (Maryland) advertised to have opened their “glass cutting establishment” along the banks of the Ohio River at Fifth and Pike Streets, Cincinnati, in 1838. Coulter soon became sole proprietor. His son, John, later joined the studio and it became known as William Coulter & Son.
Although the firm was the earliest Cincinnati establishment dealing in decorative glass, glass painting appears to have been introduced into the area by other craftspersons. Henry Burgund was perhaps the best known “glass stainer,” and was listed in city directories beginning with the 1855 issue. Twenty years later, the 1875-76 directory lists William Coulter & Son as glass stainers.
The increased demand for architectural glass during the opalescent decades compelled William Coulter & Son to offer a diversified range of stained glass art techniques. During the 1880’s, the firm was directed by John L. Coulter in association with E.V. Moore and M.C. Hutton. A catalogue notes that the company manufactured stained glass, embossed glass, ground and cut glass, enameled glass and sold colored, rolled cathedral, Venetian, antique and opalescent glass.
Gerald Collins Riordan (1855-1936) of Limerick county, Ireland, and the tenth of eleven children, was employed as manager of William Coulter & Son from 1884-1892. He purchased the firm in 1892 and in 1893 advertised as G.C. Riordan & Co., 30-32 East Fifth Street. Under his direction, the company developed an ever-expanding variety of decorative work.
Gerald C. Riordan cultivated a high profile in the Cincinnati art community in joining with a group of fellow artists to found the Cincinnati Art Club. Among Riordan’s friends was Covington, Kentucky native and internationally reknowned easel painter, Frank Duveneck (1848-1919). Duveneck, who founded and operated a vary prestigious and influential painting school in Munich, Germany from 1878 to 1888, rendered his friend Riordan’s portrait in oil. Duveneck also taught at the Cincinnati Academy of Art.
Gerald’s brother John became a partner in 1894 and represented the studio as a voting member in newly organized Ornamental Glass Manufacturers Association (now SGAA) in 1903. Due to his business experience, John became office manager and sales representative of G.C. Riordan & Co.
Company catalogues reveal numerous commissions throughout the United States. Works were noted not only in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana but also in California, Texas, New York and points between. From Bellevue, Kentucky, one of many testimonials that Riordan publicized stated:
“The stained glass windows furnished by your house for my new St. Anthony’s Church, of this city, give the greatest satisfaction and are admired by all who see them. People come from far and near to see them having heard others speak in such glowing terms of your work.
“I gave you some of the most difficult subjects to reproduce, such as Murillo’s Immaculate Conception, and you have given us representatives which seem alive and appeal to religious feeling and devotion. Your colorings have been worked with the glass to afford a remarkable brilliancy, transparency, purity and sharpness if finished with a soft, chaste and rich harmony of hues.”
A minister from Aurora, Indiana praised the workers as well as the work,
“I am also indebted to your men for their gentlemanly bearing, cheerful compliance with my every wish, and their ready accommodation to circumstances.”
Clearly, by the late 1800’s, the studio of G.C. Riordan describes Rudolph Frey’s employment with his father in 1908. “It was the year that Taft was elected president. Rudolph Frey had shown his designs in the studio. My father said, ‘Frey (he always called him by his last name) I like your work, but business has not been too good during the past years. They tell me that if Taft gets elected, we’ll see a change.’ Well, Taft was elected and Frey came back to the studio on November 13, 1908 and he stayed with us as cartoon artist and glass painter until June 11, 1959, taking two years off to serve with the Air Force in France during World War One.”
A 1912 catalogue shows some of Frey’s work and reflects the studio’s ability to compete with the increasingly popular Munich studios, which were especially vigorous in the Cincinnati area. Elaborate late Gothic and Renaissance architectural canopies framing three dimensional scenes, many taken from Italian or German paintings such as Hoffman’s “Christ With The Doctors In The Temple” or Guido Reni’s “Saint Michael” were the fashion of the day.
Religion In Light, a 1929 catalogue shows how swiftly tastes change. The designs illustrate a trend toward Gothic Revival windows of antique glasses, using medallion patterns, grisaille decoration (called tapestry ornamental windows), and simple quarries with emblematic medallions.
The 1930’s a period of economic hardship for most American studios, marked the beginning of John A. Riordan’s career. He was familiar with the family business before he graduated from high school and decided to study architecture at the University of Cincinnati and subsequently earned a business degree at Xavier University. Before returning to Cincinnati, he worked briefly with Charles J. Connick, the reknowned pioneer of Gothic Revival Stained glass in Boston.
John was married in 1933 to his wide Aileen, and in 1936, upon his father’s death, he assumed control of the family business. John’s brother, Gerald Thomas Riordan, was associated with him during these years as a journeyman draftsman. Gerald also spent two years with the Air Force as a machine runner in the French theater of action during World War One. “Saint William’s kept us going during the depression,” Riordan fondly recalls about the Catholic Church in Price Hill, Cincinnati. The shimmering alternation of red and blue tonalities and integration of symbolic image into the architectural design of these windows testify to John’s sensitivity to fine stained glass design.
Saint Williams’ not only displays John’s work but also designs by the late Stephen Bridges, former president of the SGAA (1968-1970), who worked for some time in the Riordan Studio. The priest’s sacristy is as complicated as the nave window program. The need for greater illumination demanded the use of much clear glass surrounding the central images. The series, although immediately appealing for firmness of design and clarity of tone, presents an erudite iconographic schema taken from the Great “O” Antiphons from Vespers for the Octave before Christmas.
In one casement, the image of “The Lord God and Leader of Israel” emerges from Moses’ Burning Bush. Flanking this figure, Gabriel is depicted announcing the glad tidings to Virgin Mary. Also in the vestry are windows of Bridge’s design depicting scenes from the life of Christ. The rectangular panels are set into lancets of clear glass.
The works of two other designers employed by Riordan are represented at the Seventh Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati. Professor Carl Zimmerman, of the Cincinnati Academy of Art, designed the “Te Deum” window, which was fabricated by the studio in 1953. This window displays a particularly vigorous draftsmanship in the detailing of faces and drapery patterns. Although the window achieves a coloristic and linear coherence, each element of the design can be easily read.
James Taylor, who studied for four years at the Cincinnati Academy of Art prior to working for Riordan designed the “John the Baptist” and “Angel Playing the Viol” windows in 1963. Taylor honed his talents during a time of great change in the craft after World War Two, and is equally at home designing for traditional leaded and painted windows as for the newer faceted glass windows.
In 1975, the studio’s ownership passed to Walter Bambach, who had worked at Riordan’s since 1955. Continuing with Bambach was James Taylor, designer and Joseph Raver, craftsman. Bambach’s training in the craft was initiated in Austria at the monastery of Kloster Schlierbach, still an important European center for the study of glass and glass painting. Bambach, who was accustomed to working with Medieval and Renaissance panels, was as interested in restoration as he was in supporting new designs. The studio then reflected this.
Bambach restored windows for the Lane-Hooven house of Hamilton, Ohio. This 1868 Victorian Gothic octagonal residence is an architectural gem then under the control of the Hamilton Community Foundation. Through the study of old catalogues of the Riordan studio, Bambach identified the designs as coming from the firm of William Coulter & Son about 1880. Thus, the firm then, located in Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati restored glass made by its previous directors.
The 1892 commission of “The River of Life” for the Meditation Room of St. Francis/St. George Hospital in Cincinnati, illustrates the firms’ contemporary faceted glass and its willingness to work with out-of-house designers. Sister Thoma Swanson of Albertus Magnus College New Haven, Connecticut, designed the window with the assistance of Bambach and Taylor. The simplicity and clarity of the design, and the balance of warm and cool colors in defining the image, make the windows particularly successful. ■
Now over 165 years later, the oldest documented continuously operated stained glass studio in the United States, merged with BeauVerre Studios in Middletown, Ohio. Formed in 1983 by Jay and Linda Moorman, BeauVerre Studios, began creating works using the same old-world techniques that the Riordan Glass Company set as the highest standard for all other glass studios. BeauVerre Riordan Studios is now located in the heart of downtown Middletown, Ohio and occupies a 24,000 square feet building.