In The News

from Wisconsin State Journal - December 23, 2012
by Barry Adams

OCONOMOWOC — There is not always quiet here, but there is peacefulness.

Little natural light penetrates the gallery at Oakbrook Esser Studios in this city's downtown.

Instead, the stained glass with images of Jesus Christ, his mother Mary, a number of saints, and even Noah and his ark are artificially backlit.

The effect is powerful, calming, consistent and a testament to the artisans who not only created the glasswork decades ago but to those who more recently have restored and made whole these pieces of history.

And for the owner of the studio, the setting is a daily reminder of his Catholic faith, his dedication to a business and the fortunes that can come when trust in faith is followed.

"Luck is a funny word, but I don't think it's that at all," said Paul Phelps, 55. "I really believe that things happen for a reason. I think we're very fortunate and blessed, but I don't know if it's lucky."

Phelps began his Oakbrook Studios glasswork business in 1980 in a small downtown storefront but quickly outgrew the space. He ultimately purchased a 10,000-square-foot historic building across the street — for decades, it was home to Welch's Hardware store.

In 1986, Phelps also bought Esser Stained Glass of Milwaukee.

In 1987, what is now Oakbrook Esser Studios was selected by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to reproduce the architect's art glass windows and lamps.

Over the last 32 years, Phelps and his team of artisans have created original stained glass and done restoration work in all 50 states and abroad.

Churches are big customers, and the studio's work in the Madison area can be seen at Memorial United Church of Christ, St. Joseph's Catholic Church and Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church.

Work can also be found in the Fluno Center at UW-Madison and in homes, corporate offices, hotels and casinos around the country, including a room in the Plaza Hotel in New York where Wright stayed during the construction of the Guggenheim Museum.

For almost five months ending in January 2011, work from the studio was featured at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Phelps brought 21 stained-glass pieces that included works designed by Tiffany Studios, Wright, Mayer of Munich and Johann Minten.

"These pieces educate us, they inspire us, they move us to prayer, they delight and invigorate us," Deirdre Dempsey, associate professor of theology, wrote in a catalog of the exhibit.

And those emotions are prevalent at the gallery of Oakbrook Esser. The space at the front of the store is a respite from the downtown traffic and frenetic pace that consume many of us during the holidays.
At the rear of the building, dozens of racks store the raw glass. The second level, in what was a dance hall in the late 1800s, is where glasswork takes shape.

Tables for drawing, power tools and workbenches — some with glass tops — cover the original wood floors. Large windows flood the space with natural light and provide views of the city's former train depot. It's also where Minten, 84, continues his glasswork trade, something he started when he was 14 years old.

"Paul sees (his) artistry and the knowledge and cherishes him," said Lynne Shumow, curator of education at the Haggerty. "I can't say enough about Paul (or) his willingness, generosity and humility."

For the past six years, Oakbrook Esser has been among the companies involved with the $50 million restoration of the Wright-designed Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y. The studio is re-creating dozens of windows in an effort to return the house, constructed from 1903-05, to its 1907 appearance.

The house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986 and is considered by scholars to be one of Wright's finest achievements.

"That will be the most significant restoration we'll ever do. It's a phenomenal amount of glass," Phelps said. "It's historically significant for the company because it will forever now be attached to that."

But one of the most significant events in the early days of the company came on a Christmas Eve.

Phelps, a Menomonee Falls High School graduate, was working in his studio in the late afternoon when Doug Rieder stopped in for a look. Phelps was only recently removed from his job as an expediter for a construction company and was working on relatively small glass jobs in his studios.

At the time, Rieder was owner of Glenn Rieder Inc., an architectural millwork company founded by his father in 1946. The company does custom interior finishes around the country, and Rieder commissioned Phelps on numerous projects.

It propelled Phelps and his studio onto the national scene, provided the resources to grow his studio and strengthened his faith.

"I just happened to be there," Phelps said of his chance meeting with Rieder. "Faith is a very important thing to me, and to be working in this medium and in churches ... it just all worked out."

Mouseover to pause slideshow. Photos by JOHN HART — State Journal
  • Oakbrook Esser Studios 1The Oakbrook Esser Studios gallery features restorations and original design installations, right. The more detail in the piece, the higher the price. Some can range in price from $5,000 to $50,000.
  • Oakbrook Esser Studios 2German glass studio Mayer of Munich created this stained glass piece, Epiphany, in 1878 for St. Mary's Church in Boston. Paul Phelps, owner of Oakbrook Esser Studios in Oconomowoc, purchased and restored the piece, which is now prominent in his gallery.
  • Oakbrook Esser Studios 3The tools for creating a stained-glass window are simple, but the results can be stunning.
  • Oakbrook Esser Studios 4Paul Phelps works primarily with stained glass depicting religious scenes but since 1987 he also has owned the exclusive license to re-create glasswork, right, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • Oakbrook Esser Studios 5Paul Phelps views a vintage-stained glass piece that is undergoing restoration in the upstairs workshop of his Oakbrook Esser Studios in downtown Oconomowoc.