LOCAL LIGHT: Conrad Pickel
GERMAN-BORN CONRAD PICKEL SPENT A LIFETIME MAKING LIGHT COME ALIVE THROUGH THE STAINED GLASS ART HE CREATED IN CITIES AROUND THE UNITED STATES. IN THE LATE 1960s, HE LIVED AND WORKED IN POMPANO BEACH, LEAVING HIS CULTURAL IMPRINT ON THE CITY, AND SOUTH F
By Marie Puleo
Every week, thousands of people all over America see his works, yet many don’t know his name.
Conrad Pickel, who for a time called Pompano Beach his home, designed stained glass windows for more than 800 churches throughout the country and is credited in the Guinness Book of World Records as having created the largest stained glass window in the world.
“He always had one project after another,” said his son Paul Pickel. “If he were still living, I just can’t imagine the different projects he would have come up with or designed, because he was always, always working.”
Born in Germany in 1906, Conrad Pickel grew up in Munich where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, then worked as an apprentice at the prestigious Franz Mayer Studio, learning the art of stained glass.
At the age of 21, Pickel came to the United States to visit an uncle who had settled in Pittsburgh. The artist intended to stay for only a year, but ended up staying the rest of his life.
For the next two decades, Pickel worked as a glass painter for studios in various locations around the country, including Los Angeles, New York, Boston and New Jersey. In the early 1930s, while working in Columbus, Ohio, he married Joan Friedlemaier, whose father was a glass painter and Pickel’s co-worker.
Around 1937, Pickel moved to New Berlin, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, with his wife and their young daughter Erma. He worked for a prominent studio there, but had always wanted to start one of his own. So he eventually began working out of his home, looking for commissions.
His big break came in 1947 when he learned that St. Helena Catholic Church in Minneapolis was bidding a project for stained glass windows. Pickel met with the pastor, who liked his work, but was refused the job because he didn’t have the backing of a large studio.
As Pickel was walking out the door, the priest told him that the windows he really liked were in a church in Owatonna, Minnesota.
“My father turned around and said, ‘I designed them,’ ” recounted Paul Pickel.
The priest asked him to come back in and agreed to order one window, 20 feet high and four feet wide, for $2,300. He told Pickel that if he liked the window, he would give him the order for the others.
Pickel returned to New Berlin, converted a factory loft into a studio, and hired several people to help him. When the window was completed, the priest came to look at it. Happy with what he saw, he gave Pickel the commission.
“They’re still some of the finest windows I have ever seen in my life,” said Paul Pickel.
By the early 1950s, Pickel had moved his rapidly growing business into a three-floor building he built next door to his other studio. He now had one of the leading stained glass studios in the United States.
Conrad Pickel (known as “Connie” to his friends) is noted primarily for his figures, especially faces and hands, and for his color. His trademark is his “Pickel blue,” which he used often.
“It’s a soft cobalt blue with a bit of gray in it, so that it’s calming,” said Paul Pickel. “It was probably his favorite color.”
“He was amazing too in the way he designed with the line work,” noted Paul Pickel. “When he would paint lips or eyes, he was able to create this fantastic expression with just a very simple, beautiful crisp line. I think he was a genius at that.”
In 1956, Conrad Pickel opened a branch of his studio in Vero Beach, Florida, which his son Paul now runs. Pickel had visited friends there and liked the area so much that he bought some property, designed a house and moved down with his wife and then 12-year-old son.
The house, which he built with an architect friend, featured “Pickel” qualities, including his stained glass windows and mosaic tiles.
Unfortunately, the waterfront home, which was eventually sold to another family, was flooded by two hurricanes and had to be torn down.
The next stop on the artist’s itinerary was Pompano Beach.
In 1965, his daughter Erma Obermayr moved there from Wisconsin with her first husband Russell, who was a periodontist. Conrad Pickel and his wife soon followed.
Pickel, who was looking for an area where he could build another house, found a waterfront property in the Santa Barbara Shores neighborhood.
“He loved the lot,” said Paul Pickel. “Once he had that, he designed the house to fit it, because it narrowed at one end.”
He wanted to make the house, which was completed in 1967, a prototype that incorporated his various ideas of stained glass, including one of his inventions, a stained glass block called decralite.
At that time, there was a type of decorative white block that was made in Florida and used for balconies. These blocks had openings, so Pickel decided that he would fill the voids with faceted glass – one-inch thick pieces of rich-colored glass held in place with epoxy – and create a stained glass building block.
“His motto was ‘Let your walls be your windows,’” explained Paul Pickel.
One outstanding example of Conrad Pickel’s use of these stained glass blocks is the enormous north window in the Advent Lutheran Church in Boca Raton.
During the period that Pickel and his wife lived in their Pompano Beach home, the artist worked on numerous projects in the area. The house included an upstairs studio. Pickel would create his designs there and send them back and forth to the main studio in Wisconsin. He also rented a studio in west Pompano, and hired someone to help him do some of the fabrication there.
In addition to using faceted glass, which came into vogue in the 1960s, Pickel used traditional leaded glass (pieces of painted glass joined together using a framework of lead strips) for his windows.
His most important works in the area, according to Paul Pickel, are the steeple of St. Clement Catholic Church in Wilton Manors; the large window behind the altar of St. Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church on 14th Street Causeway in Pompano Beach; the side and south windows of Christ Lutheran Church in Fort Lauderdale; and the large sanctuary windows of St. Bernard Catholic Church in Sunrise.
All were done with faceted glass, a technique that uses an epoxy resin to hold the colored pieces of glass together, with the epoxy becoming part of the design. When the window is seen from the outside, the epoxy is light in color. But when it’s seen from the inside in dim light, the epoxy appears black, which creates a striking contrast with the rich-colored glass, an effect that Conrad Pickel loved and used skillfully in his work.
“I think he was one of the best faceted glass designers anyplace in the world,” said Paul Pickel, who is an accredited member and past president of the Stained Glass Association of America, and was the recipient of the association’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.
The project that landed Conrad Pickel in the Guinness Book of World Records was the faceted glass window he and his studio created for the mausoleum at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, Illinois, outside of Chicago. Constructed from 1968 to 1972, it measures over 23,000 square feet, and is the world’s largest stained glass window.
Another of his father’s most important works, said Paul Pickel, is a faceted glass window that was commissioned in 1981 by the Union Congregational Church in West Palm Beach (the church is now the home of a Spanish-speaking Seventh-day Adventist Church).
The Window of the Radiant Christ, which depicts Jesus standing over the New Jerusalem, was once listed as an attraction in the American Automobile Association travel guides. At 75 feet wide and 27 feet high, it is one of the largest stained glass windows in the country.
A much smaller example of one of his faceted glass windows can be seen in St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Lighthouse Point. He crafted the narrow, vertical column of stained glass that can be seen behind the altars of both the main church and the adjacent chapel.
In his Pompano home, one of the most striking features was the vertical stained glass louvers in the walls that enclosed the pool, which was inside the house, and covered with a screen roof. Each louver was two feet by six feet, and there were ten louvers in each wall. They opened and closed with hinges, and had an abstract design made of faceted glass.
“That had not really ever been done before,” said Paul Pickel. “It was experimental.”
Today, one louvered wall remains, and can be seen from the front of the house.
The façade of the house also features a rectangular faceted glass window that is in what used to be Conrad Pickel’s upstairs studio. Over what is now the entrance to the house, the artist installed a circular leaded glass window, which has numbers underneath it, and is a working sundial.
Other stained glass elements include a musically themed decralite wall on the outside upper deck, and a light box at the top of a staircase. An Asian-inspired leaded glass window in an upstairs bedroom was installed by the artist at the request of the family who owned the house after he did. It is one of only a few windows that he ever did in this style.
Downstairs, in the walls of what used to be the TV room and master bedroom, the artist used decralite blocks filled with pale blue glass. He also used decralite blocks done in various colors in the pool area.
The patio and the inside of the pool were covered in one-inch by one-inch tiles. Pickel designed a mosaic for the bottom of the pool that includes a series of fish, and he spent many hours, along with some people from his studio, laying down the tiles.
“He loved the pool area,” said Paul Pickel, “It was so inspiring to him, to sit by the pool with the sun coming in and the stained glass around. I think that was the part of the house he enjoyed the most.”
On the upper sun deck, he had a putting green. At one end of the pool, a winding staircase leads down to what was once his wine cellar. From a small window in the former wine cellar, you can see into the pool.
“He had a lot of fun designing different elements for that particular house,” Paul Pickel said.
The tile floor in front of the fireplace in the dining room included mosaics of a backgammon board, a chess board and a tic-tac-toe grid.
“He enjoyed that house so much,” said Paul Pickel, “because it had his character in it. It wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill house. It had the glass and the color and the little whimsical additions that he put into it, and was a welcoming and fun place to be.”
But in 1970, it was time to move on.
Conrad Pickel had always dreamed of opening an art gallery where he could display his stained glass, paintings, sculptures, and mosaics. After driving up and down the coast from Pompano to Palm Beach, he found a house on Federal Highway in Boynton Beach, a location he liked because it was on a main thoroughfare. He purchased the lot, tore down the house, and built his gallery there, which he named Gallery Fantasia. He sold his house in Pompano, and he and his wife moved to Boynton Beach.
The gallery was a cultural gathering place where Pickel organized free concerts and lectures, but it proved to be too expensive to run, and he closed it in 1983. The two-story building, which is filled with stained glass windows created by Pickel, is now home to a real estate firm.
In 1977, his entire studio operation was relocated to Vero Beach, and soon after, he closed the studio in Wisconsin.
Pickel continued to live and work in Boynton Beach until his death in 1994, at age 88.
In 2014, to honor his contributions to the city, Boynton Beach created an annual Conrad Pickel Celebration, which it holds on the third Saturday in May. It includes a tour of buildings that contain examples of his stained glass work, as well as lectures and an art exhibit.
Gloria Jacaruso, who with her husband Anthony has owned Conrad Pickel’s former Pompano Beach home since 2002, is a participant in the celebration. She gives a video presentation highlighting the Pickel features that make her house unique.
When Jacaruso and her husband were house hunting in Pompano, they had narrowed it down to a few choices. She knew she wanted the one built by Conrad Pickel.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter house,” said Jacaruso. “We lived in a brand-new house before this, and it was like a big box. Where else could you have a house with all these unique things?”
The Pompano Beach Historical Society has expressed interest in preserving the house, and told Jacaruso that because of the artwork, the mid-century modern architecture and the history of the artist it is a good candidate for the National Register of Historic Places.
“We didn’t know anything about the artist when we bought the house, but because of the City of Boynton Beach’s efforts to educate the public about Conrad Pickel, we have come to appreciate it even more,” said Jacaruso. “It’s surprising that such an internationally acclaimed artist has so many works here in South Florida.”
“He was always a dreamer, and he dreamed big,” said Paul Pickel. “He had an energetic body and an energetic mind, and was always trying to create the next project.”
“I think the long-lasting contribution of his art work,” Pickel continued, “is that many thousands of people see it every week in churches around the country, and even though they might not know who he is, they are inspired by it. The spirit that he created with his windows touches something in their soul.”