St. Petersburg stained glass artist Lenn Neff’s legacy lives on around Tampa Bay

Lenn Neff’s legacy is stamped on and inside buildings throughout Tampa Bay. His abstract stained and leaded glass work features geometric lines, redefining the notion of traditional stained glass art by making it contemporary.

His windows and doors are in the chapels at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and Mease Dunedin Hospital and in Congregation Beth Shalom’s synagogue in Clearwater. A multimedia piece titled Response adorns the side of a St. Petersburg fire and rescue station. He made reading-themed windows for the Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library in Tampa.

A stained glass doorway, designed and made by Lenn Neff, was featured in a 2007 exhibition at Florida CraftArt (then called Florida Craftsmen). [ Tampa Tribune 2007 ]

Mr. Neff died in hospice on Aug. 18. He was 72.

“One of my underlying themes is man’s relationship with nature,” Mr. Neff told the Tampa Bay Times in 1998. “I use a circle to represent nature, while the square is pretty much a man-made object.”

Mr. Neff worked in St. Petersburg from the late 1970s until 2017. His doors and windows are collected in residences, businesses and public art throughout Tampa Bay.

A series of strokes in 2017 forced him to stop working. As his health condition worsened, he moved to the Gainesville area to be cared for by his brother Noel Neff and his sister Lucille Overstreet.

Born in Rockville, Conn., in 1949, Mr. Neff came to St. Petersburg with his family in the late 1960s. (He was born Leonard Neff but changed his name to Lenn Neff.)

Noel Neff is 10 years younger than his brother and remembers him always designing and fabricating things. He made one of Noel’s first Halloween costumes: a cigarette box.

“I was probably the only student at Tyrone Junior High School who wore shirts that were designed and made by his older brother,” Noel Neff said.

Mr. Neff graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1971 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in fashion design with a concentration in menswear.

While in Europe on a fashion design fellowship, he met German stained-glass artist Ludwig Schaffrath and made a career switch. He studied under Schaffrath at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Wash.

“I think he felt that designing clothes and designing glass windows kind of went hand in hand in some odd, peculiar way or that they really weren’t that different,” Noel Neff said.

After returning to St. Petersburg in the 1970s, he established himself in the art community and committed himself to it for decades. He got residential and commercial commissions for his doors and windows. He also made lamps and other decorative items.

Lenn Neff displays leaded glass in his studio in the 1980s.
Lenn Neff displays leaded glass in his studio in the 1980s. [ Times (1980) ]

In 1988, he got into public art. Mr. Neff told the Times, “stained-glass panels in a building should feel like they’re interwoven into it in some way. Either it should pick up the lines and textures of the facade, or it should consider the colors, the overall feeling of what is inside — as well as the kind of light the room gets.”

Lenn Neff's door for the chapel of Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.
Lenn Neff’s door for the chapel of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. [ FRANK BAPTIE | Courtesy of Frank Baptie ]
Lenn Neff's window from the chapel at Dunedin Mease Hospital.
Lenn Neff’s window from the chapel at Dunedin Mease Hospital. [ FRANK BAPTIE | Courtesy of Frank Baptie ]

For 15 years, Mr. Neff created the Friends of the Arts Award handed out by the Pinellas County Arts Council.

A collaboration with artist Susan Gott is installed at the Municipal Services Center on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg. It’s titled Earth Sign Chandeliers and features three cast glass and steel light fixtures.

Gott said Mr. Neff was great at collaborating. She praised his design sense and called his aesthetic “superior.”

Mr. Neff and Gott worked together to bring the Glass Arts Society conference to Tampa Bay for the first time, in 1999. This was especially important at the time, when the glass art community wasn’t as expansive here as it is now.

Mr. Neff didn’t marry or have children, so the arts community became like his family, his brother said.

Friends describe Mr. Neff as kind, the type of guy who would help out at the Arts Center (now the Morean Arts Center) and Florida Craftsmen (now Florida CraftArt). They remember him as witty and well spoken, yet quiet.

“He would listen a lot and then come in with a zinger,” said longtime friend Frank Baptie.

Every Christmas, Mr. Neff and a friend would make dozens of biscotti to give to friends. His favorite flavors were Turkish saffron pistachio and orange almond.

He was known for wearing a beret to art openings, a fashion choice that started when he was six months old and his mother dressed him in one for a photo.

Mr. Neff never expected to make much money from his art. Baptie said money wasn’t all that important to him. But the work was.

“Light, not glass, is the key element in my work,” Mr. Neff once said, according to his brother. “Light represents, for me, the highest potential of human being.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of an installation to Earth Sign Chandeliers. A previous version had an incorrect title.

Lenn Neff

Born: Feb. 10, 1949

Died: Aug. 18, 2021

Survived by: Sisters Lois Brozek of Largo and Lucille Overstreet of Archer, Fla; and brothers William Neff of Tolland, Conn.; Dale Neff of Zephyrhills, Fla.; James Neff of Archer, Fla.; and Noel Neff of Archer, Fla. A memorial service is still being planned.