Ellicott City Artisans Take Great Panes In Their Work

December 23, 1990|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff writer

Hundreds of Howard Countians have them.

So does the Crab Shanty restaurant and the Governor's Mansion. Even the Smithsonian Museum has some.

What they have in common is their custom-made works-of-art by Great Panes, a stained-glass studio in historic downtown Ellicott City.

After celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and the completion of its 1,000th custom-made window, Great Panes owners Len and Sherry Berkowitz of Columbia are ready to tackle another 1,000.

Just over a decade ago, Len Berkowitz would never have guessed he would end up in Ellicott City, Md., cutting glass for a living, piecing together panes to grace businesses, churches and houses.

Berkowitz, now 45, was an elementary school teacher in Orange County, Calif. He had taught in Miami for five years before moving to California, where he taught for another five.

But, he said, "I was burned out. I needed something else to do."

While teaching in California, Berkowitz had taken one stained-glass class, which he enjoyed. So he decided to trade blackboards for windows and open up a stained-glass shop.

Making an informal check of the surrounding area, he found that more than 50 studios already did stained-glass work. Berkowitz hunted for a less congested market.

His family was back east in the Baltimore-Washington area, so he looked at sites in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Ellicott City had just the charm and character he was looking for; it was accessible to the Baltimore and Washington markets, he said.

"I wanted an area that was quaint and interesting -- and this is it," he said. From humble beginnings in a small studio space with a staff of just himself, Berkowitz has expanded into studio space on Main Street with a staff of five.

His client roster has grown as well. During the first year the shop was open in 1980, he got about 25 jobs, he said. By last year, the shop was getting more than 100 orders a year.

More tourists are passing through Ellicott City than ever before and the shop's reputation is spreading by word of mouth. The shop now has works hanging as far away as Hawaii, California, Scotland and England.

Custom windows made at Great Panes are as diverse as its clientele.

The shop designs windows based on customers' tastes that have incorporated peacocks, landscapes, human figures, religious themes, floral motifs and abstract designs.

The windows, which are in stained, bevelled or etched glass, run anywhere from $100 for a small window to thousands of dollars for large or multi-paned works.

Berkowitz said although he has a "good imagination," drawing is not his strong suit. That's where full-time designer Martha Peake of Columbia comes in.

Peake draws the designs for all the shop's custom windows. She works with customers to create just the right design, asking them what colors they want, whether they want a picture or an abstract, and where the window will hang, so it meshes with the rest of the room.

If the customer requests it, Peake or Berkowitz will visit the location to determine what sort of window would look best.

Berkowitz does almost everything at the shop -- except drawings. He cuts glass and pieces windows together.

Carol Bork, of Catonsville, spends most of her time putting windows together and Jeff Myers, of Arbutus, does all of the shop's bevelled windows, in addition to cutting glass and constructing windows. Sherry Berkowitz works as business manager in the shop and also helps put some windows together.

After the design is complete, Great Panes staff members hand-cut each piece of glass to match the design. Then, they use one of two techniques -- copper foiling or leading -- to put the windows together.

Berkowitz said the shop generally uses the leading technique on windows because it makes the panel stronger and is more traditional.

Leading involves forcing a putty between each piece of glass and then letting it set for three days. Then, the craftsman solders over the major joints of the piece.

With copper foiling, which is used primarily for lamps and smaller pieces like jewelry boxes, each piece of glass is wrapped with a copper adhesive tape and then fitted together. The craftsman then solders over all seams in the piece.

One of the largest jobs the shop has done is a set of 60 panels for the Armistead Gardens Elementary School in Baltimore, which cost $50,000 to $60,000 for the glasswork alone.

The panels, created by designer Luke Shaw of Baltimore, create a mural 20 feet wide and 8 feet high depicting a historic perspective of the surrounding neighborhood.

The mural, created through a program designed to bring art into public schools, will be installed in January, Berkowitz said. The installation will take at least a week, he added.

Another large job Great Panes was commissioned to do locally involved the creation of 15 windows for the new Covenant Baptist Church on Cedar Lane in Columbia. That job, which was installed last June, cost about $15,000.

Although Great Panes takes orders for lamps and other items and makes small gifts, such as stained-glass boxes, its mainstay is windows.

Members of the staff describe their product as half-way between craft and art. Although the windows are artistic expression, they said, they also provide a practical function much of the time.

People use the windows in lieu of draperies, to shade areas of their houses, or as privacy panels inside rooms.

"You know, drapes might cost as much as our windows," Berkowitz said.

And stained glass, he said, provides a bright and interesting window on the world that can be passed on for generations.

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