Just beyond the south Napa County line in a small church is the largest collection of Tiffany glass in the western United States.
“The collection is worth over a million dollars … and nobody knows about it,” Barbara Davis, volunteer docent at St. Peter’s Chapel on Mare Island in Vallejo, where the collection is housed. “I look at it as an art gallery.”
St. Peter’s Chapel opened in 1901 and its first Tiffany window was installed in 1905, Davis said. Between 1905 and 1930, the chapel purchased 29 windows, 25 of which were selected from the Tiffany catalog. Sixteen are signed, she said.
Whether or not the Tiffany Studios of New York designer, Louis Comfort Tiffany, signed them or not depended on when they were ordered, Davis said. He went through some periods when he signed everything and others when he didn’t, she said.
While giving a tour on Saturday, Davis pointed out the differences between the Tiffany windows and the non-Tiffany windows.
Although the non-Tiffany windows look pretty, they don’t compare to the level of detail that the opalescent Tiffany glass has, Davis said. The Tiffany windows are made from colored glass, but the other windows are painted glass. Details on the Tiffany windows are separated by a black border where the pieces of glass were soldered together. The other windows, she said, are flat.
Tiffany used many layers of the glass to make the desired effect, she said, so the glass isn’t visible from the outside. Just looking at the church, she said, no one would know how “spectacular” the windows really are.
The benefit to seeing the windows at the church is that visitors can get “up close” and really see the detail, Davis said. Anywhere else, she said, and the glass would be high up on display.
The church also serves as a naval museum, Davis said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of history here,” she said. Davis said that the thing that gets her about the church is thinking about “how many girls came from how many places in the U.S. to marry sailors here without having any idea whether they would come back or not” during World War II.
The Mare Island Navy Yard, which was in operation for more than 140 years, reached its peak productivity during WWII when there were 41,000 workers there, including 9,000 women. About 10,000 people worked on Mare Island in 1988 when it was the second largest Navy Yard in the U.S. Downsizing began the following year.
The last regularly scheduled service at St. Peter’s was Christmas Eve 1995, just months before Mare Island Naval Shipyard closed in April 1996, but Davis said, the church is available for tours and rentals.
Davis said that as long as someone calls a day or two in advance, the volunteers can accommodate tours any day except for Sundays. Tours cost $5 per person.