Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise. 

Last year, a vandal snuck through a broken fence at Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio, and shattered a 90-year-old stained glass window in a mausoleum. Where once delicate white lilies bloomed before a purple sky, now there was a gaping wound.

Stained glass windows are complex puzzles of prismatic art. Replacing one piece requires skill; rebuilding a window left in shards requires mastery. Fortunately, Greenlawn had a master on call: Franklin Art Glass Studios. For decades, the family business has restored and crafted windows for the cemetery--as well as for houses of worship, universities, homes, hospitals, and businesses around the country.

Today, the mausoleum window--wholly restored, its colors newly vivid--"actually looks better than it did before," says Randel Rogers, president and executive director of the Greenlawn Cemetery Association. "It really came out beautiful."

Housed in historic German Village just south of downtown Columbus, Franklin Art Glass combines design and production facilities with retail supplies and classes for hobbyists eager to produce their own sun-catchers and terrariums. A volume buyer of glass, it also acts as distributor for smaller artisanal studios. "They come to us and we sell them one or two square feet or a single sheet," says Gary Helf, the fourth-generation owner, who came onboard in 1971. "We are able to sell something to almost every stained glass studio in the state of Ohio."

The company employs 20 people, a large operation for the industry. In the 1970s and '80s, when it produced more than 45,000 hanging lamps for Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers, headcount reached 42. But that's as far as mass production ever went. Virtually all of Franklin's offerings are custom in some fashion. Designers and fabricators do everything by hand, one piece of glass at a time. "The only difference between today and the beginning of time is we have electricity," Helf says.

The company designs and fabricates windows for the ecclesiastical, residential, and commercial markets, but the bulk of its work is restoration. While few new traditional-style churches are being built these days, many existing ones have windows that date back a century or more. The company must take them out, tear them apart, and completely rebuild them. "We have to try to match the craftsman's work that he did 100 years ago and make them last another 150 years," Help says.

The work done for Greenlawn, where Helf's team is currently sprucing up glass in multiple family mausoleums, is typical. Especially tricky are the color-saturated Tiffany windows in the cemetery's ornate Huntington Chapel. "When you are looking at work on Tiffany windows that are over 100 years old you need to have that high-quality specialized artist," Rogers says. "They are hard to find, but Franklin Art Glass is it."

Hard times to hamburgers

Franklin's story begins with the Columbus-based Von Gerichten Art Glass Company, founded in the late 19th century by two brothers from Germany. Helf's great-grandfather was shop foreman at that business, and his grandfather, Henry "Elmore" Helf, worked there as well. In 1924, Henry and two colleagues from Von Gerichten broke away to start Franklin Art Glass Studios, named for the county in which the new business resided.

For a while work was plentiful. Windows in the city's many 19th century churches were dirty and aging. Homeowners wanted stained glass for stair landings and the tops of doors. "In those days, before insulated glass, every single window in the house--even the garage--might have stained glass," Helf says.

But the Depression cracked the fledgling glass company. One co-founder departed, leaving Henry Helf and Wilhelm Kielblock, an artist and expert in religious stained glass whom Von Gerichten had brought over from Germany. Helf ran the business, while Kielblock worked on windows. The company scraped by for several years doing mostly repairs. "There is a story that one of them had a diamond ring they pawned to buy materials," Helf says.

In the late '30s, after the company had recovered, Kielblock left to become an independent designer. In 1945 Helf's father, James, returned to Columbus from Germany, where he'd been a prisoner of war, and assumed control of the company.

In those post-war years the ecclesiastical market for windows remained down, but more companies and homeowners started decorating with stained glass. In 1969, a new fast-food restaurant opened in downtown Columbus, a few blocks from Franklin Art Glass. The interior designer for Wendy's asked James Helf to craft Tiffany-style lamps to suspend from its ceiling, and the restaurant's proliferating franchisees followed suit.

The Wendy's business lasted more than 15 years. Franklin Art Glass has since made windows for other chains, including Victoria's Secret and White Castle.

Custom saints

Restoring stained glass windows is like assembling the world's most fragile, expensive puzzle. "There are thousands of pieces of glass in a window, and we try to keep it as intact as possible when we take it out," says Helf, explaining the process. Employees photograph the window in situ and then again in the studio. Next, they cover it with a huge piece of paper and do a rubbing--like a grave rubbing--that becomes a kind of blueprint, dictating the exact size, shape, and position of each piece. After taking the window apart and cleaning every piece, they rebuild it on top of the rubbing.

If a piece of glass is broken, normally workers can glue it back together. But sometimes--when vandals or storms wreak havoc, for example--the damage is too extensive. "In those cases, we make a brand-new piece that mimics the old piece," Helf says. "If there's a certain blue the factory made 100 years ago but no longer makes, we get as close as we can."

Franklin Art Glass also will custom-design any original work a buyer wants. Residential windows, most of which cost under $1,000, often depict flowers or scenes from nature. But not all commissions are reverent or even tasteful. "We did a boy sitting on the john for a bathroom," says Helf, who displays his family and college crests in stained glass at home.

Institutional work is, of course, much costlier. For example, a large church needing many windows might pay half a million dollars. Windows illustrating religious scenes are less common in new ecclesiastical architecture, which often favors bold abstract patterns or images like landscapes or doves. When a commission does come in for a religious story window--Christ blessing the children, say--Franklin's designers work with the customer on a detailed vision, down to the specific iconographer. "They say, 'We want Saint Matthew,'" Helf says. "OK. How do you want Saint Matthew depicted?"

Recently, the company has experienced a flurry of hospital chapel jobs. There the imagery is typically either nondenominational (geometric patterns, hands of many colors) or multi-denominational (symbols from multiple major religions). Designers may shade those windows so they grow lighter or darker bottom-to-top, which draws the eyes upward. The goal, Helf says, is to create an environment conducive to prayer and meditation.

"Controlling the light creates an atmosphere of reverence," he says. "Little kids can be running and screaming out in the hall. Then they walk into the sanctuary and go 'ohhhhh.' And they look."

Published on: Jun 4, 2018