Steve Melahn has lost a few toes, gone through a double bypass surgery and his right hip is shot.
But after Melahn slowly climbed the stairs to the attic of his Light Haus Art Glass, he had little trouble remembering the details from designs made years ago that had been rolled into tubes and stored in several boxes.
They included drawings on graph paper of cabinet windows, stained glass for homes and churches and even a processional cross that would later be made from brass and wood.
“I should get a 4-foot scanner and scan them all,” said Melahn, 66, as he unrolled the stained glass design for a series of windows at St. Robert Bellarmine on Chicago’s northwest side. “There were some big windows above the entry ways on both sides and they had an angle to them and I had to climb up on top of the entryway to measure them. I’ve got all kinds of stories.”
Those stories are not only preserved in drawings and Melahn’s memory but are on display throughout the world for decades to come.
Only now, Melahn is focused not on new pieces of art or restoration work. Instead, he’s trying to rid his nearly 10,000-square-foot shop and showroom of 45 years of projects, panes of glass, hundreds of pounds of lead and specialized equipment.
Melahn, who founded his company fresh out of college, is closing the business at 1921 Freeport Road that has beautified scores of area churches with stained glass windows, sandblasted patterns into decorative window displays for homes and businesses and designed and installed $4,000 custom cast glass shower doors for well-heeled clients. For 35 years, Melahn worked on a regular basis in the State Capitol where he restored windows, lights and mosaics.
There is still plenty of glass work to be had but Melahn is worn out. He’s spent nearly a year trying to sell his property. It’s now been taken over by a bank but he’s being allowed to stay until he cleans out the place. Melahn didn’t try selling the business due to its special nature and no one in his family was interested in taking over.
“Nobody’s qualified to do what I do,” Melahn said. “The only alternative is to move on and see what life brings.”
There are few companies in the state that do the kind of work in which Melahn has specialized. The Vinery on Madison’s East Side at 1422 MacArthur Road, is a stained glass studio that creates custom stained glass pieces and teaches glass crafts to hobbyists. Oakbrook Esser Studios in Oconomowoc has been in business since 1980 and Gilbertson’s Stained Glass Studio in Lake Geneva since 1975. Both create original stained glass and perform restoration work for churches, homes and commercial customers like corporate offices, hospitals, hotels and casinos. One of the biggest companies in the country is internationally renowned Conrad Schmitt Studios, founded in 1889 and now located in the Milwaukee suburb of New Berlin.
Light Haus got its start in 1973 in Melahn’s mother’s garage on Merryturn Road on the city’s East Side. Melahn had studied at UW-Madison under Harvey Littleton, a pioneer in glass work, and in 1975 moved from the garage to open a glass studio in his uncle’s former gas station along Highway 30.
Melahn, a La Follette High School graduate, moved the operation in 1982 to a former restaurant near Verona Road before the business relocated to its current site at Raymond and Verona roads in 1990.
“I’ve got so much out there,” Melahn said of his glass work. “There are so many thousands of people that see my work every day and they feel a little bit better and it makes life a little bit easier. And that stuff is going to be there for another 100 years.”
The building includes a showroom with finished glass work and vertical shelves of glass panes of varying sizes for those who do their own work. But the heart of the business is located beyond the showroom where there are examples of shower doors and a massive workshop filled with five diamond cutters, grinders and saws. Sheets of glass are stored along the walls and under some of the six work benches while rods of lead used in stained glass pieces are also jammed in nooks and other storage areas of the well-used and worn shop.
The business also has a booth for sandblasting and another room that at one time held three kilns where freshly painted glass was baked to preserve images such as Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Moses holding the Ten Commandments.
“He’s an artist,” said Roberta Lund, his partner of 15 years who helps out in the shop along with Bailey and Gabe, 3- and 12-year-old golden retrievers respectively. “There’s nobody who can do what he does because it’s so custom.”
Work found around the world
Melahn’s work can be found in the chapel of Agrace Hospice in Fitchburg, St. Albert’s in Sun Prairie and in several homes on the Parade of Homes tours through the years. His art work is in Norway, Japan and Canada and in some of the elevators at Epic Systems Corp. in Verona. He did stained glass work in the reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society while one of his largest single projects was stained glass work at a church in Hinsdale, Illinois. His most difficult was in the basement of the Wisconsin State Capitol where he re-created 12 globe lights in the ceiling based on a series of historical photographs.
“We had seven different contrasting images and we overlaid them so we could see what the design was,” Melahn said. “Then I came as close as I possibly could to what we thought was the design.”
Other work in the State Capitol over the years included stained glass restoration in the chambers of both the Assembly and Senate and in hearing rooms.
But churches accounted for about 65 percent of his business with jobs typically ranging between $45,000 and $60,000. His biggest church job was more than $250,000 but most church projects were challenging, not because of the design but because he typically was dealing with committees made up of church members, each with their own ideas.
Melahn said that once he’s out of his building he’d like to continue to do glass work on a smaller basis.
“I’m not going to run out of work,” Melahn said. “I’m not lacking for work. I’m just lacking people to do the work.”