When you walk into the entry of Whitney Stained Glass where the uncut glass of every color is stored, it’s like entering a secret garden or the back, private, work area of a museum. There’s magic taking place, and things of beauty all around. The talent of the five full-time and two part-time employees is astounding. All have been with the company for at least five to six years. They make, restore, install and store stained glass windows and doors, as well as skylights, chandeliers, mosaics, lamps, backsplashes, and other unique restoration projects. The current and second owner, Pete Billington, says that working in the stained-glass business takes a specific skill set: drawing and illustration ability for new work, an understanding of geometry, handiness, having a good “eye,” attention to detail, construction ability, no fear of heights, carefulness, and the ability to lift and carry heavy objects.
The shop is comprised of four rooms on the first floor and an upstairs. On the ground floor is the drawing/pattern area, the glass area, the carpentry area, the cementing area, a welding area, and the firing/kiln area, as well as the office. Upstairs is a glass-painting space with a light table, a library, stained-glass storage for clients, and the kitchen/break room. The company has four glass kilns and a glass-paint kiln, since some stained glass that is painted is then fired for permanence.
Whitney Stained Glass was started in 1984 by Jim Whitney. He passed away at the end of 2005, and his primary painter, Pete, bought the company from Jim’s widow in 2007. Pete graduated with a painting degree from Cleveland State University and was working at an art-supply store after college, but he needed a more permanent position. Jim was a friend of the family and had come to Pete’s parent’s house for a Super Bowl party. Jim invited Pete to the studio. During that visit, Pete asked for a job. Jim said he wasn’t hiring a painter. Pete said he just wanted to work with his hands. Jim said, “Okay, you can start on Monday.” That was October 1998; the rest is history.
Pete does not market the business or actively look for new customers. All of his regional customers are repeat customers or find him from word of mouth due to the company’s reputation. His extensive list of customers includes Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, Lakeview Cemetery, Trinity Cathedral, The Old Stone Church, Elizabeth Seton High School, and many other churches and private individuals for their residences. He says about 25 percent of his work is installation of new glass; the rest is restoration. These projects are intricate and time consuming. For example, one church’s stained-glass restoration project in Monroe, Mich., took five years to complete. Pete’s first big job with Jim was the First United Methodist Church at 30th St. and Euclid Ave., Cleveland, which also was a multi-year project.
I asked Pete which project was his favorite or most memorable. He says, “A lot of them. When you take apart a Tiffany, it’s really consuming for weeks. We also rebuilt a 40’-by-60’ skylight at the Calfee Building on E. 6th St. and Rockwell Ave. For that job, I had to get a custom roller made to match the texture. The roller, made by a company in New Jersey, was 6’ long by 7” in diameter and cost $35,000.”
One interesting topic came up during my tour: lead. Yes, all of the employees work with and are exposed to lead on a daily basis. They get tested annually and are well within the safety range. Pete says, “We wash our hands a lot. Mainly, the older stuff is dangerous as it deteriorates and oxidizes, but the primary concern is if you breathe it in or ingest it. Contact isn’t as much of an issue.”
Pete’s a trained fine artist who mainly paints in watercolor. When asked if he still does his personal art, he states, “YEAH! I need to do work that isn’t work-related, but I also do my own stained glass to make use of the facility and equipment. I encourage my staff to do the same.” He quotes the late, great glass artist Dan Fenton from his book Glass Under Heat: Complete Kiln Work Notes, 1982-2004: “Never let the sun set on a cold kiln.” About stained glass, he says, “Painted glass is my favorite, especially the Munich-style, old German stuff.” Check out the photo below to see why.
When asked what inspires him, he says, “The drive to stay successful, to stay in business, to pay my employees and keep them working. I want my clients to hire me again and tell others. The ability to work as an artist and support myself doing what I love.”