WASHINGTON — 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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. 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.’’
Mr. 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.
His windows are also 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, Mr. LeCompte knew that was 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 Mr. 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, Mr. LeCompte slyly included a self-portrait, modeling the face of Joseph after his own.
Mr. LeCompte was not simply trying to re-create a lost art. As early as 1955, 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 cathedral's west rose window. His theme was nothing less than the creation, based on the passage from Genesis 1:2-3: ‘‘And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep . . . And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ ”
Mr. 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. 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 hallelujah in colored light.’’
‘‘It just sings, Rowan, sings a ‘Te Deum,’ ” the cathedral’s dean, Francis Sayre Jr., told Mr. LeCompte. ‘‘Oh, ye little pieces of glass, praise ye the Lord!’’