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Bringing Back the Beauty

Stained Glass Restoration in Randolph County

By Barbara Smith

Photographs by Michael Keller

Grace Obana working above the dome Restoring the 18-foot diameter stained glass dome in the Randolph County courthouse was a meticulous and dangerous job for Grace Obana, pictured above, and partner Joe Brown. Here, Grace puts the final touches on the rebuilt centerpiece of the dome.

Stained glass artists, whether restoring antique glass or creating new works of art, still work much as their forerunners have done for hundreds of years. From the raw materials to the tools and methods, little has changed regarding this ancient art. The glass studio of Grace Obana and Joe Brown is a good example.

The Obana-Brown Stained Glass Company occupies one half of a small building located on a side street in Belington. The other half houses WB Sash & Window Company, owned and operated by friend and fellow glassworker Roger Phillips.

Tiny, dark-haired, and dark-eyed, Grace may be found scratching a pattern onto a piece of hammered cathedral glass to prepare it for cutting. Or she may be outside helping to settle a window sash onto the back of Roger’s truck. Joe, his sandy-colored ponytail tied back with a rubber band, may be cutting lead strips for Grace’s piece. Or he may be cleaning an antique beveled-glass panel, restored and destined to be placed back in the entrance of a house in Parsons.

A few small, finished glass pieces propped up in the cluttered windows are the the only external evidence of the complex operation going on in the Obana-Brown business. One outer door is marked “Office,” but there is rarely anyone in that room. Grace and Joe are more likely to be found behind the door labeled “Shop.” They are just as often found on the site of an intricate and demanding restoration project. The most recent of these has been to restore the beautiful stained glass dome inside the Randolph County courthouse in Elkins.

Grace and Joe have completed a number of high-profile restorations in the past few years, including the Barbour County courthouse in Philippi and the First Baptist Church of Elkins. They seemed a natural choice, then, when the Randolph County Commission decided to undertake a complete restoration of their historic, but aging, courthouse and its fragile stained glass artwork.

The centennial of the Randolph County courthouse was observed in early spring 2002. As the West Virginia Highlanders band bagpiped the audience into the auditorium, the need for renovations was obvious. The finish on the hard, wooden theater-type seats was scratched and fading. Water leaks had left streaks on the walls and the tile ceiling, and the vinyl tile flooring was chipped and faded. When someone mentioned that the building boasted a stained glass dome, few of the listeners could remember ever having seen it. As had happened in Barbour County, a suspended ceiling – or drop-ceiling – had been installed in the courtroom years before, obscuring the dome from view.

“ Most of the people in Randolph County wouldn’t even believe there was a dome,” Grace says. “But sure enough, we climbed up to check, and there it was – an inverted bowl, 18-feet across and four-and-a-half-feet deep. From what little we could tell, it had been built in eight sections with about 200 pieces of glass in each section. Joe later figured it out. There were, altogether, precisely 1,446 pieces.”

During the next several weeks, Ed Devine, the overall restoration contractor, built a temporary workshop for Grace and Joe in the upper reaches of the courthouse. A custom-made ladder took the workers and their supplies from the second floor into the attic, and new pine stairs led them up onto platforms where the actual work of restoration took place. The dome itself was surrounded by a narrow catwalk. Ed also constructed a movable “pick board” to allow them access to the top of the dome.

The work was dangerous from beginning to end, even from the first moments of evaluation during the summer of 2002.

You can read the rest of this article in the Spring 2003 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.