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Ecclesiastical Art Institute, Kaletta Statuary and Emil Frei Art Glass Company (3715-3717 California Ave.). Photograph unknown, early 20th century. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections. N41039. (click for larger version)
April 11, 2012
In the late afternoon of a sun-drenched day, a kaleidoscope of colored pieces of light plays over the pews of a local church. Worshippers are bedecked in multicolored sprinkles and seem to become more prayerful in this heavenly wash. Whatever your religious beliefs, or if you have none at all, such an ambiance creates a sense of peace and contemplation that both stirs and refreshes the spirit. All of this beauty comes through the window the stained glass windows that enhance many a place of worship.

Here in St. Louis five generations of one family have crafted stained glass windows and sent them literally throughout the world. Such disparate places as Chile, India and Norway can boast of the work of the Emil Frei Company, and Frei windows enhance buildings in at least 33 states.

Emil Frei was born in Bavaria in 1869 and came to America as a young man. When an invitation to design and produce art glass windows for a church in St. Louis, he and his wife packed up for the midwest. That church was delayed for many years, and it was Emil Frei Jr. who eventually completed the commission for the magnificent church at Grand and Lindell.

St. Louis must have felt like home. It was as German as any American city could be. The Freis' native language could be heard everywhere. German language newspapers were widely available. Turnvereine for gymnastics, sangerbund for singers, kaffee klatches, and the ever popular corner tavern gave St. Louis a German flavor.

Emil Frei set up his art glass business in 1900 down on Broadway, then west to California Street, finally to South Grand Avenue where the company remained until its move to Kirkwood in the 1970s.

The Frei company took its artistic output beyond traditional church windows. Murals, sculpture, even altar design were included in the repertoire. In the 1920s they were working on the mosaics in the new Cathedral on Lindell Boulevard.

Their commissions extended from the liturgical into the secular. A residence in Ladue and the German Room at Principia over in Elsah, Ill., for instance, boasted stained glass by Frei. Somewhat to my surprise, I found a listing that identified Lucky Strike Bowling Lanes as a client. But then I reflected that art has no natural barriers. Through the crashing noise of a bowling alley or in the hushed atmosphere of a cathedral, the search for beauty is an irrevocable instinct of the human spirit, well met by Emil Frei and his descendants.

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