Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Light pouring through colored glass has been telling stories of people and events since the Middle Ages.
If the pieces of San Antonio’s history with stained glass came together, the Cavallini family – and the hands of some of San Antonio’s most gifted artists and hard-working craftsmen – would feature prominently.
Founded in 1953, Cavallini Co. is a San Antonio-based architectural stained-glass and mosaics business with business, residential, and religious customers across the Southwest.
Manlio Cavallini was 25 years old when he made the trek from his hometown of Monterotondo, near Rome, to San Antonio to attend the seminary. Soon, his brother, Publio, would follow by way of Mexico, where he had been working with artists Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias.
Four years later, in 1953, Manlio left school to marry and joined his brother in founding the Cavallini Bros. Venetian Mosaic Co. in San Antonio. Early on, they were hired to install what was the largest glass mural in the country at the time on the façade of the Sanger-Harris building in Dallas. The abstract mural by Carlos Merida, a 42×40-foot mosaic created for HemisFair ’68 at the Henry B. González Convention Center, is another early Cavallini project.
Their work in stained glass began in the 1960s, said Adrian Cavallini, Manlio’s son, who with his wife, Debbie, and their three sons runs the Cavallini Co. One of the oldest family-owned stained-glass studios in the Southwest, the company continues to create mosaics, like the compass mosaic at the locks and dam on the Museum Reach of the River Walk, as well as architectural stained glass, etched glass, and faceted glass.
In 2018, Cavallini’s long list of projects included leaded glass restoration work for Methodist Hospital, St. Gerard Catholic Church, and Temple Beth-El Cemetery. The company created an etched glass project for the Alstadt Brewery in Fredericksburg, a leaded glass project for a state prison chapel in Hondo, and a faceted glass restoration for the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell. Cavallini Co. is currently replacing and rebuilding massive glass panels for a revival of the landmark Plaza Hotel in El Paso.
Adrian’s youngest son, also named Adrian, 22, works in all aspects of the business, from sales to artistry. Joseph, 25, runs the company’s information technology and networking systems. Anthony, 27, is a purchasing agent. A nephew, Giancarlo Garza, helps run the glass supply store.
Manlio, at age 90 and widowed, still works in mosaics and regularly visits the factory on Blanco Road. The 28,000-square-foot showroom, supply store, and factory is a new home for the Cavallini Co. since moving from a cramped set of buildings on Fredericksburg Road last year.
Click through the gallery below to see more images of the space.
Adrian shows off the space – once a gymnasium and bowling alley – that he has retrofitted to the company’s needs and made wheelchair-accessible with ramps. “Another reason we renovated it is because our son [Anthony] is in a wheelchair and we wanted him to have access everywhere,” Adrian said. “We had to make the doors wider and knock out walls so the wheelchair could maneuver around.”
Behind the solemnity and fragility of stained-glass art is a process that involves craftsmen using hand tools like grinders, cutters, pliers, and soldering irons. The factory, with its kilns, sandblasters, shipping crates, and ventilation systems, is bright and neatly organized. Thousands of 32-inch sheets of glass are organized by color neatly along one corridor between the entrance and the spacious factory floor.
It’s here that Francisco Romero, a 25-year employee, is working on the framing for a set of 19 stained glass windows Cavallini designed and created for St. Paul’s Catholic Church in the Central Texas town of Smithville. Adriana Diaz, a 30-year Cavallini employee, joins the pieces of glass cut by Carlos Jorda for another commissioned project.
The stained-glass diptych will adorn a chapel in the Oblate School of Theology seminarian residence. Artist David Quintanilla works in the factory’s paint room to give pieces of blue and green glass fish gills and fins, painted in black, to form the “fishers of men” design.
The designs are the creation of artist Roch Banin, a native of Louisiana who has worked at Cavallini for 42 years and conceived thousands of stained-glass and mosaic works during that time. Banin does most of his work by hand at his desk, upon which sit bundles of colored pencils and rows of ink bottles and his latest work: small-scale designs for a set of stained-glass windows depicting saints and the virtues of faith, hope, and charity for a private columbarium.
“I wanted to be in graphic art since the time I was [young],” Babin said. “And this seemed like a good way of supporting yourself. It’s a pretty specialized thing. When you’re needed, you’re really needed. Plus, it was fascinating, the whole idea of illumination as part of a medium, and the history. It’s very romantic in a way.”
The process to build and install mosaics and stained glass, however, can be less about the creative process, and more about the physical work and skill of carpentry and assembly.
In December, Cavallini spent several weeks at St. Jude Thaddeus Church in Beaumont painstakingly installing a 30-by-30-foot mosaic mural, with images of saints and the words “I am the Bread of Life” on a concave wall behind a 9-foot-tall statue of Jesus.
“When we first went in there, I had [my son] and Francisco with me and we had this gigantic scaffolding going all the way up this gray wall and they both look at that thing … I could just see their eyes [get big],” Adrian said. “[My son] tells me later, when we’re about halfway through, ‘You know, Dad, when we first got there, I thought two things, that you were either real stupid or you had a whole lot of confidence.’ It was a little bit of both.”
Shipping is also tricky, Adrian said. Long ago, he shipped glass for a project in Houston and when the shipment arrived, 25 pieces of glass were broken. He repaired them in his hotel room and then began working on a new way to pack the glass, a method he uses to this day.
Cavallini has worked on projects as far away as a Methodist church in the British Virgin Islands, and Adrian also created and donated a small stained-glass piece for his father’s hometown in Italy. Adrian said he does not know if his family is related to the prominent Italian stained-glass artist Salvatore Cavallini or even Pietro Cavallini, whose work with frescoes is said to have given rise to the Italian Renaissance.
But the 66-year history of the Cavallini Co. is documented in albums full of yellowed newspaper clippings, letters, orders and receipts from high-profile clients, and vintage photos.
A 2007 letter from the pastor of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in McKinney calls the faceted windows Cavallini created a “masterpiece” that will “inspire the faithful for generations.”
Cavallini is an accredited member of the 115-year-old Stained Glass Association of America (SGAA), a trade association that will hold its annual conference in San Antonio June 3-4. The annual SGAA Sourcebook, used by architects and planners to locate stained-glass artisans, currently lists 97 studios and 920 additional members.
Whether traditional or contemporary, stained glass and mosaics have a long history with an appeal that remains strong to this day.
“I think the reason why [stained-glass art] still exists and is still flourishing is because of the visual arts and the impact it has in regard to telling a story,” Adrian said.