• The Rep - A Dolls House

The Central West End's Art Glass Unlimited

"One art glass window is worth 10,000 words."

Art Glass Unlimited owners Gary Harris and Jerry Mowery. The shop has been located in the Central West End since 1976. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
September 12, 2012
To the left, a pair of elves enjoy mugs of ale. To the right, a deer prances merrily on a meadow. Nearby, a family crest shimmers in front of a sunlit window.

It doesn't take long to see that the shop at 412 N. Euclid is no ordinary commercial endeavor. What happens here is an art form and that's just the way Gary Harris likes it.

"You heard that saying 'a picture's worth 1,000 words?'" he said with a smile. "Well, one art glass window is worth 10,000 words."

By that standard, Art Glass Unlimited has a lot to say. Providing everything from religious scenes to residential windows, the enterprise has been a fixture in the Central West End since 1976, but the roots of the establishment date back to the 1880s when Harris' family started in the unique field.

Of course, at the time, such businesses weren't so unique. Harris said that at the turn of the century, the Gateway City was known as the stained glass capital of the world.

Today, the business ebbs and flows.

"It varies from year to year," he said. "Sometimes you might do more commercial than you do residential. Those days are sort of over. A lot of restaurants were using art glass in the 70s, 80s and 90s and then they sort of got away from that. Maybe there'll be a time in the future when they'll go back to it."

Art Glass Unlimited co-owner Gary Harris displays an illustration of the new windows at St. Louis University High School. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
In the meantime, the list of commercial clients is an impressive one, including everything from the Fox Theatre to Fitz's in the Loop. A more recent addition is St. Louis University High (SLUH), which did a couple of big projects with Harris' operation including a two-story decorative window for a multifunction commons area.

David Laughlin, president of the Jesuit institution, said the work came out beautifully and will overlook lunches, banquets and masses for years to come.

"It's a beautiful piece and people just love it," he said.

SLUH was satisfied with Art Glass Unlimited as well.

"It was more than just making a stained-glass window," Laughlin said. "There was a lot of dialogue back and forth Ė a lot of creative input."

Creative input is what the process is all about. Jerry Mowery, co-owner with Harris, chuckles when asked what would qualify as the most unusual project that he's worked on.

"I don't think anything is unusual," he said. "Whatever they want they can come in and we'll make it work. That's why we have 'unlimited' in our name."

Mowery said times have been tougher of late, however. Luxury goods took a heavy blow during the economic downturn and business hasn't yet recovered from the shock.

"It's been pretty good to us up until the recession hit," said the 69-year-old as he showed off a piece of unfinished glass on his upstairs light table. "Things have slowed down considerably. We're still doing a little bit of this kind of work, but we used to have a lot of residential work that we don't seem to be doing right now. People are just afraid to spend money."

Harris said the area has been kind to them, however.

At Art Glass Unlimited artisans not only create beautiful art glass, but also bring old glass back to life. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"The reason we liked the Central West End in the first place is because it was central to our working area both on the east side and the west," he said. "Also, this is where all the antique dealers were at this time. We had a ready-made business repairing the art glass that was coming to the antique dealers because a lot of it was broken."

They still do exactly that kind of restoration work, making not just new art glass but also bringing old glass back to life. Sometimes, that involves discovering a bit of family history as well. Harris recalls the time he did a project for a local synagogue and recognized the workmanship of the windows.

"I said to the rabbi, 'I think my family made these windows for you,'" Harris remembered telling the surprised spiritual leader. "He said, 'Yeah, they did.'"

Different kinds of glass are used for different projects. The shop has an extensive selection of various types. Less expensive glass can be mass-produced and rolled out in sheets, but the establishment also uses handmade glass, which is formed much slower and has different properties.

Harris said those differences can be seen in the final product. He recalled a church that used such glass. Installed on an overcast Friday, the piece of stained glass depicting a biblical scene didn't attract attention until services that Sunday.

"All of a sudden the sun comes out for about five minutes and everybody looked at that window," Harris said. "They were all whispering to each other and, according to the organist, what they were whispering was, 'Look at the River Jordan. It looks like it's flowing.' That's why we do it in the churches. It really adds a whole new dimension."

Harris and Mowery's stained glass is also a popular addition to bars, breweries, casinos and cruise ships. On the residential side, people often like the specialty glass for doors, wine cellars or the creation of family crests.

Lamps are another favorite. One hanging in Art Glass Unlimited depicts St. Louis landmarks from Washington University to the Climatron. Others display automotive themes, old beer company logos or simple floral patterns.

Mowery, who has been doing this kind of work since 1963, said he loves the job.

For Harris, as he stands amidst the finery around him, the answer for why he's still here is equally simple.

"Everybody has to be somewhere, so that's why I'm here," he said.

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