Rowan LeCompte never forgot the day his life was changed. It was July 1, 1939, he was 14 years old and was visiting Washington with an aunt.
“It was a gorgeous day,” he recalled in a 2008 interview with The Washington Post. “The sky was blue. The air sparkled.”
Through the window of a taxicab, LeCompte saw a building that left him transfixed. It was Washington National Cathedral, with its slender Gothic spires ascending to the heavens.
Under construction for 32 years, it was far from finished. Scaffolding lined the walls, columns were incomplete and temporary buildings were covered with tar paper.
But within the cathedral’s walls, LeCompte found a world of wonder. The darkness was brightened only by flickering candles that gave off the scent of wax; an organist was playing Handel; and the north rose window, LeCompte recalled, appeared to be “floating in the dark.”
“It was a magic, marvelous, dim, ravishingly beautiful place, and I was stunned,” he said in a 2009 NPR interview.
The cathedral became nothing short of an obsession. LeCompte began to study its stained-glass windows, then went home to Baltimore to read everything he could find on the subject. In October 1939, he made a watercolor study for his first window.
A little more than two years later, he approached the cathedral’s architect, Philip Hubert Frohman, with a design for a small window in an out-of-the-way chapel. The design was approved on the spot, and LeCompte was paid $100. He recalled the meeting with Frohman during a 2001 lecture at the cathedral:
“He said, ‘By the way, Mr. LeCompte, how old are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m 16, Mr. Frohman.’ And he just said, ‘Good God! I thought you were older.’ “
From that day, LeCompte devoted his life to stained glass in general, and to Washington National Cathedral in particular. It was the only job he would ever have.
He went on to design more than 40 of the cathedral’s windows, including its largest and most spectacular, the “Creation” rose window above the western entrance facing Wisconsin Avenue NW. When the circular window was dedicated in 1976, Washington Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt hailed it as “surely one of the masterpieces of Christendom.”
LeCompte, who lived in recent years in Waynesboro, Va., died Feb. 11 at a hospital in Fishersville, Va. He was 88. He had pneumonia, his stepdaughter Susan Arritt said.
As a child, LeCompte had hopes of being either an artist or an architect. A life devoted to stained glass allowed him to be both.
There was no school to study an art that was more medieval than modern, so he learned on his own, with occasional tutorials from other masters. He lived in New York for several years and, early in his career, designed windows for churches in Baltimore and Hartford. His windows are in the New York governor’s office, churches across the country, medical facilities and the Princeton University campus.
But from the time of his first, fateful visit to Washington National Cathedral, LeCompte knew that is where he belonged. He designed more of the cathedral’s 231 windows than any other artist, including the 16 clerestory, or upper-level, windows lining the full length of the nave.
Stained glass may have been an ancient art, but LeCompte saw his windows as an expression of his time. In one window he included small images of ballistic missiles as a quiet protest against military proliferation.
In a depiction of the childhood of Jesus, LeCompte slyly included a self-portrait, modeling the face of Joseph after his own.
Rowan Keith LeCompte was born March 17, 1925, in Baltimore. His father was a baker, and as he began his career, LeCompte heated some of his early glass designs in an oven.
He served in the Army during World War II and participated in the Normandy invasion and the liberation of Paris. He received the Purple Heart.
His first wife, the former Irene Matz, helped with some of his designs before her death in 1970. She is buried in a crypt at Washington National Cathedral.
LeCompte lived in Waterford, Va., for many years before settling in the Shenandoah Valley town of Waynesboro. A documentary about his life, “Let There Be Light,” was completed by filmmaker Peter Swanson in 2012.
Survivors include his wife of 39 years, Peggy Money LeCompte of Waynesboro, Va.; four stepchildren, Susan Arritt of Fishersville, Deborah Arritt of Kearneysville, W.Va., Jennifer Groh of Stuarts Draft, Va., and Daniel Arritt of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and five grandchildren.
LeCompte was not simply trying to re-create a lost art. As early as 1955, he said, he wanted to have stained glass “assert itself as a great modern art.”
He aimed for three qualities in every window: clarity, richness and sparkle.
In 1972, he received the commission for his greatest work, the west rose window. His theme was nothing less than creation, based on the passage from Genesis: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep . . . And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ “
LeCompte chose an abstract design, using colored glass to refract light in all the hues of the spectrum. It took more than three years to complete the project. The cathedral’s glass fabricator, Dieter Goldkuhle, who died in 2011, inserted more than 10,500 pieces of colored glass in the window, which is 26 feet in diameter.
At its unveiling in 1976, viewers were astonished at how the eye was drawn from one cluster of light to the next, as if viewing a painting by Helen Frankenthaler or Jackson Pollock. The colors sparkled, faded and glowed, changing by the hour and imparting a sense of mystery and, in the eyes of many, the divine. Von Eckardt, the Post critic, called it “a glorious hallejujah in colored light.”
“It just sings, Rowan, sings a ‘Te Deum,’ ” the cathedral’s dean, Francis Sayre Jr., told LeCompte. “Oh, ye little pieces of glass, praise ye the Lord!”
In 1990, construction of the cathedral was finally completed after 83 years. But LeCompte kept going, creating new windows and replacing others. He designed his final window about four years ago, but it has yet to take its place in the cathedral’s firmament.
Quiet and modest, LeCompte seldom spoke of his religious beliefs, except to say, “I believe in kindness and love, and there are those who say that those are God.”
He seemed more content to consider the movement of light as it filtered through his windows. He recalled that when his rose window was unveiled, a young girl danced in the colored light that poured onto the floor within the cathedral.
When asked what she was doing, she said, “I’m dancing because I found the end of the rainbow.”