Schoolhouse Electric presses glassmaking molds back into service

Brian Faherty is enthralled by lighting fixtures.

So much so that he's gone into the business of manufacturing and selling them. Faherty focuses on the glass shades that were favored for decades, until the early 1960s, in school classrooms and public buildings for the even light they cast. Smaller variations of the style made their way into homes.

Faherty hopes there is a rich vein in the home renovation market of those who share his appreciation of the sturdy vintage lights.

He's counting on it as he starts his second day today as founder and president of Schoolhouse Electric Co., which specializes in the 'schoolhouse' lights.

In fact, he bought the glassmaking molds for the shades that made the fixtures distinctive from Gillinder Bros., the Port Jervis, N.Y., company that originally produced them

'We're bringing them back,' Faherty says. 'They're being produced from authentic, original molds. They're not so much reproductions as they are authentic.'

The shades feature rounded shapes and opaque white glass, called white opal, pronounced 'oh-PAL.'

Molds saved from scrap pile

Gillinder glass is available elsewhere, but it's not likely anyone else will be churning out anything duplicating the styles produced by the 60 or so cast-iron molds that Faherty bought.

'We picked through them pretty well,' he says.

Selecting the molds also meant deciding which ones could be put into service again. Faherty recounts being in a hot upstate New York warehouse, judging what he was about to purchase by reaching his hands into rusty, punch bowl-size molds, feeling for cracks or other defects.

'It was just nasty,' he says.

Gillinder's president, Charlie Gillinder, says the molds probably would've been scrapped in a couple of years if a buyer hadn't come along. Gillinder's family has been in the lighting business for five generations, and the company has shifted to manufacturing the pressed glass that's found in such fixtures as airport runway lights and landscape lighting. He says every few years they cull some of the old glass-blowing inventory.

'Every once in a while we do it,' he says. 'We close our eyes and cry a little.'

Faherty has gotten a feel for Portland's renovation market in the 13 years he has spent as a real estate agent specializing in the historic and upscale Irvington neighborhood.

The idea for Schoolhouse started to jell three years ago, and in rapid order Faherty bought the molds, contracted a glass-blowing company to breathe life into the Gillinder lights, retrofitted a circa-1884 building in inner Southeast Portland and stocked it with lighting fixtures that, detail for detail, take you back to the 1920s.

The health of the local economy has changed in those few years as well. However, Faherty remains hopeful that the market is still there.

'Being in the real estate business, I'm seeing that É it seems like a lot of people are still spending money for home improvements,' he says.

More businesses and customers

What Faherty has started might bring Rejuvenation Inc. to mind. Schoolhouse is only about 10 blocks from the headquarters of the Portland pioneer in furniture restoration and vintage-style manufacturing.

Rejuvenation's retail store manager, Donna Derington, welcomes the neighbor and the additional draw for potential customers.

'I think it's cool when other businesses that are complementary Ñ even competitive Ñ move into the area,' she says. 'It brings more people to the area.'

Faherty doesn't pretend he'll compete with Rejuvenation, which rings up about $25 million in sales a year. But Schoolhouse's proximity was intentional. There was no way to avoid it if he was going to be in what's informally referred to as Portland's design district, a cluster of home renovation businesses that includes tile, hardware, landscaping and gardening stores.

This clustering is not a new phenomenon, says Lew Bowers, senior development manager at the Portland Development Commission, 'but as the critical mass has built up, it's gotten more prominent. É We have talked to the businesses, and they see a lot of synergy.'

Faherty is banking on synergy.

That way, he says, if customers 'are going to Rejuvenation or another store such as Miller Paint or the tile companies, hopefully they'll come by here, too.'

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