Though it has long had a reputation in national circles, it’s taken a while for Pittsburghers to catch on to the Pittsburgh Glass Center.
“We used to get calls like, ‘I have a chip in my windshield. Can you repair it?’” recalls Executive Director Heather McElwee.
That was 20 years ago. Now, the demand for the center’s classes and equipment is so great that they have run out of room. So a major expansion is in the works, to be grafted onto the existing brick building. The new space will largely be floor-to-ceiling glass — of course — looping over the top of the parking lot, but preserving most of the parking behind the building.
“Even in 2019, we realized that we had basically doubled capacity in our hot shop workshops and classes and had still filled them out with waiting lists, and we were just getting to the place where we basically couldn’t keep up with demand,” says McElwee.
This fall has since passed the record 2019 by 30%, in terms of money earned from workshops.
One thing that elevated the Pittsburgh Glass Center’s profile was the Netflix reality show “Blown Away,” for which McElwee served as a guest judge.
The show features 10 glassblowers vying for $60,000 in prizes and a residency at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. It’s hosted by YouTube star Nick Uhas and renowned Canadian glass artist Katherine Gray. The show finished filming in February 2020.
Every episode has a theme, so the glassblowers have to craft perfume bottles — or cartoon characters or elaborate centerpieces for an elegant dinner table — with a goal.
“When Season 2 of ‘Blown Away’ launched last year, we saw a 1,000% increase in web traffic in 72 hours,” says McElwee.
McElwee was chosen to participate because of the Pittsburgh Glass Center’s prestige in the art glass-making world.
“We’ve had 50 artists move to Pittsburgh in the last 20 years because of the glass center,” says McElwee. “A lot of those folks use our studios to run small businesses, so they’re doing craft fairs, or they have galleries that they show in, or retail shops that they sell in, or have their own online store. And they rely on the Glass Center to make the product for doing that.”
The center is still fundraising and isn’t ready to disclose how much is needed for the project, which will be between 8,000 and 9,000 square feet. Indovina Architects, based in the Strip, created the design. The hope is to break ground in the fall of 2023.
The new space will allow for what the center calls a “fabrication lab.”
“We’ve definitely found that our artists are using more kind of 21st-century technologies: 3-D printers, waterjet (cutting) machines, laser cutters, CNC routers, that sort of stuff,” says McElwee.
Another project the Glass Center is working on is just across Penn Avenue. The center purchased the old Horoscope Lounge, once a notorious “nuisance bar” that contributed to the neighborhood’s struggles to rebuild its main business district on Penn Avenue.
“It had been closed and abandoned for a long time and was really an eyesore,” explains McElwee. “And so we purchased that building back in 2018. And the plan is to do artist housing on the second floor.”
The ground floor space needs significant work but eventually will be able to host pop-up galleries and events. Discussions with neighborhood groups like the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation have indicated that the area could use more public meeting space, so that’s also going to be part of the equation.