Pittsburgh Glass Center: Reinventing the Glass City

Pittsburgh hasn't always been the Steel City that we hear about today. What it used to be known for is a lot more fragile: glass.

Thanks to Andrew Carnegie and his influence in the steel industry, Pittsburgh blossomed into a major economic powerhouse in the early 1900s. Although the amount of steel actually produced in Pittsburgh has greatly declined, "Steel City" remains a nickname that means something to everyone. Very few people, though, remember the times when Pittsburgh was called the Glass City: when the 'Burgh was the hub of the nation's entire glass industry.

While the steel market is in the process of disappearing, the glass market may very well be making a comeback, but with a twist.

Though there are few mass-production glass factories still running in the greater Pittsburgh area today, the 20th-century industry saw a fundamental shift ? from the functional and practical applications of a post-industrial society to an artistic medium of expression. The new Pittsburgh Glass Center attracts artists from all over the world and is slowly but surely creating a major impact on the Pittsburgh art and glass scenes.

Why bring a major studio, one of just four of its kind in the nation, to Pittsburgh? It's all based on the community in which the Pittsburgh Glass Center resides: a few cramped blocks along Penn Avenue called Friendship. It's here that the rebirth of glass's popularity in Pittsburgh is centered ? and it's revitalizing the community around it, as well. The influence the Pittsburgh Glass Center has had on the community is clear: "Within the next two years, this [area] will change dramatically," said Karen Johnese, the executive director at the Pittsburgh Glass Center. "When we came here we were the largest arts organization on Penn Avenue, so we're considered a cornerstone on this avenue."

The Pittsburgh Glass Center has been an essential part of rebuilding the community of Friendship ? and it's also a key part of rebuilding glass into a vital and popular element of Pittsburgh's culture. Before plastic diminished the need for glass, Pittsburgh remained at the center of the glass market. The work done here made its way around the world: The glass lining the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels in New York City comes from Pittsburgh, and even the tableware of many Presidents, such as Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, was made with Pittsburgh glass.

[BOLD]Firing a century of innovation[BOLD]

Pittsburgh's proximity to major sources of water made it a breeding ground for factories in the past; as of the mid-1800s, circa the years of the Civil War, glass was a major industry in the area. In 1905, Pittsburgh's most prominent glass company, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, introduced a new type of glass: Carrara. Carrara, marketed as a "sanitary" glass, didn't retain odors and was easy to clean. Bathrooms and kitchens in homes and businesses throughout the United States began using it. Even the Woolworth Building in New York City sought it out: The building became the first ever to have an entirely Carrara-made restroom.

As Pittsburgh became more renowned for its innovative glassware, the city's influence began to extend beyond just the 50 states. Today, the Pittsburgh Glass Center brings in artists from all over the world who use the facilities provided there to display their work and teach students. "The students will come from anywhere in the world," said Johnese. "We've had students from Korea, from Colombia ... from 36 states. Our instructors come from the Czech Republic, from Australia; we have two teachers from Mexico coming up to teach in May; we're all over the map."

Why is the Pittsburgh Glass Center such an attraction? Johnese explained what brings people to the Pittsburgh facility: "We have a specialty ? it's not in the technique, it's in the facility itself. The facility is just loved by everyone who comes here."

The Pittsburgh Glass Center is a large brick building that holds five different studios crucial to glassblowing and other glass-related art work, containing many things most artists can't have in their own homes. Among the studios are flame, hot, tech, and cold shops, as well as a casting studio. In the flame shop, artists can use torches to melt and combine glass, processes essential for making marbles, beads, and pendants, as well as for detailing larger objects. The hot shop contains several huge glowing furnaces and several warming chambers where classic glassblowing takes place. The cold shop is for polishing, engraving, and sandblasting, while casting glass, which is how most of the best glass artists work with glass, takes place in the casting studio. Lastly, the tech studio serves as a place to work with metal.

The Pittsburgh Glass Center was organized with just that and more in mind. An excellent facility was important, but more important was that the facility be in an area that would harbor artistry. Friendship was selected to be the location of one of the best glassblowing studios in the world. "We needed to be in a diverse neighborhood, because art fits with diversity," Johnese said. "People are more creative when they're confronted with a broad range of ideas, and this is a neighborhood that wants to do better. It needs improvement, and seeks improvement through the artists."

[BOLD]Finding a home in Friendship[BOLD]

Certainly Friendship is beginning to provide that kind of atmosphere, but the area ? which is near Lawrenceville's Design Zone (see "Design Zone breathes new life into Lawrenceville," Pillbox, 3/28) ? hasn't been considered a pleasant, safe area in a long time. Only recently have art-oriented businesses such as architecture firms and the Pittsburgh Glass Center begun to line the streets. A large ? but diminishing ? number of vacant, run-down buildings still occupy Friendship. The town that was once a high-traffic area may be making a comeback.

The 1950s and 1960s found Friendship a fairly high-class area, rich in mostly European diversity. Unfortunately, the 1970s created turmoil in Friendship: A set of large buildings was erected that made through travel impractical, and with Penn Avenue blocked off, people began avoiding Friendship altogether. As traffic dwindled and local jobs in the mills and foundries disappeared, the entire community began a rapid decline.

Crime and prostitution took hold of the neighborhood for the better part of two decades, until the families of Friendship took the initiative to make it a better place. More recently, locals interested in helping the arts to flourish banded together to evolve the Friendship Development Associates (FDA), an organization critical to the Glass Center's success ? and critical to the future of glass in Pittsburgh. Johnese said that the FDA "created an arts initiative [the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative] ... that helps [artists] find buildings." By putting various studios in the area, the neighborhood began a renaissance.

Vacancies are decreasing. Since the Pittsburgh Glass Center arrived on the block in 2000, the corridor along Penn Avenue has gone from 30 percent vacancies to 17 percent vacancies.

[BOLD]The University connection[BOLD]

The Pittsburgh Glass Center helps the area prosper and develop by bringing outsiders in; not only does it attract the attention of the international glass world, but it is slowly beginning to attract the suburban area around it. Students in high school may apply to participate in a 10-week course, and Carnegie Mellon University students can take classes there for credit. "We've had students from CMU in the engineering department ... from all different departments of the school. Not just design students," said Johnese of the crowd the Pittsburgh Glass Center attracts. They also offer weekend workshops and summer courses, each taught by professionally trained glass artists, some of whom move from out of the area just for the sake of the facility and opportunities available through the Glass Center.

Beyond the facility, however, the Glass Center provides a place to grow as an artist and participate in what is shaping to be the future of glass. Anyone can be a glass artist, providing the right mix of technical skill and artistic training. Johnese pointed out that although her husband hadn't worked with glass until recently, he was still able to make a beautiful orange and transparent vessel. "The point here is to become your own artist," she said.

"There are so many possibilities in glass ? it's truly the most exciting, most innovative form of art in the world today," Johnese said. "We're growing a colony of glass artists who do their own individual work. This is the rebirth of glass in a new form." It is certainly helping to change the environment around glass, and around Pittsburgh.

[BOLD]The future of glass[BOLD]

For over 70 years in the mid- to late 1800s, Pittsburgh hosted annual glass tableware shows. These shows were the first places for people to see new glass works from around the world, bringing together both artists and consumers. Mirroring that past, the Pittsburgh Glass Center is bringing artists, consumers, and other glass admirers together for a huge event called the Summer of Glass, in 2007. The long list of participating organizations includes the Carnegie Museum, which will present a major exhibit, along with the Society of Contemporary Craft, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and the Pittsburgh Glass Center. Major glass artists will exhibit their work, including the most prominent glass artist of the day, Dale Chihuly, whose work will be displayed in the Phipps Conservatory during the Summer of Glass festivities. Approximately two thousand glass enthusiasts will be brought together for the Glass Arts Society Conference, which will also be held in Pittsburgh in 2007.

"I think the most exciting thing that we're able to accomplish here is to bring to Pittsburgh a very special group of people," said Johnese. In order to work in glass, one needs to be both artistically and technologically savvy. Most glassworkers are artists, scientists, and thinkers. The benefit, she said, is that most of these people are young, "and that is exactly what Pittsburgh needs."