Period Lighting Fixtures' chandeliers, lanterns and sconces highlight early America
CLARKSBURG — Kevin Combs reached for the tin chandelier above.
"This is a very odd fixture," the craftsman said.
Combs was unhooking the early American-style decoration from a line of metallic creations at Period Lighting Fixtures Inc. on Thursday. The piece's eight arms undulated like tentacles; its circular candle reflectors hunched forward like flower heads. Combs guessed that only a few replications had ever been made of this piece. He recalled constructing a version of the chandelier for a Texas customer, the type of long-distance business this Clarksburg manufacturer has been receiving for decades. Founded in 1974, Period Lighting Fixtures' clientele for its 18th and 19th century reproductions of chandeliers, lanterns and sconces has included historic sites and museums such as Colonial Williamsburg and the New York Botanical Garden; films such as "Amistad," "The Patriot" and "Father of the Bride"; celebrities such as Katharine Hepburn and Billy Joel; and, yes, your run-of-the-mill residential customer. Hidden in the shadows of an industrial complex along Route 8, the business reminds visitors that man-made lighting doesn't have to be dull and, perhaps for those lamenting daylight savings time's end on Nov. 3, depressing. Instead, bulbs and flames can illuminate history that still holds plenty of artistic value.
"These things, as timeless as they are, the reason they're still awesome is because they're awesome to begin with," said Chris Burda, the company's owner, of its fixtures. "And it doesn't matter if you're putting them into a 1700 or 1800 house; people are putting them in their houses [with] brand-new construction, especially chandeliers, just because of the design and the craftsmanship and the finish."
Many of the pieces stem from findings at sites such as Historic Deerfield and Old Sturbridge Village. Essentially, Period Lighting Fixtures is authorized to reproduce the fixtures it discovers in, say, these institution's archives.
"We go to places in Historic Deerfield that people don't get to go," Burda said.
The company then duplicates the item, reaching back out to the organization to receive reproduction or adaptation status. In the company's third-floor showroom, visitors can check out wood-turned, iron-armed chandeliers, as well as lanterns and sconces, that evoke items on the two sites.
"We're probably the best place to get an authentic reproduction only because of our affiliations with the museums," Burda said.
The Cheshire resident isn't quite sure how Hollywood discovered Period Light Fixtures, but the fixtures in "The Patriot" and lighting in the "Amistad" court scene can be traced back to Clarksburg. For instance, he fondly remembers fielding a call from a staffer on "Father of the Bride Part II." They needed a new chandelier; they couldn't find the one that Period Lighting Fixtures made for the preceding film. Burda requested a photo so that they could accurately reproduce the piece. He received a picture of Steve Martin in front of the fixture.
"All you needed was one set director, and you'd get in with them," Burda said of the company's film business.
Burda has owned Period Lighting Fixtures and its building companion, the once wholesale-oriented Country Traditions Lighting, since 2004. Burda started working at Period Lighting Fixtures in 1986 when the company was based in Chester, Conn. Northern Berkshire County's mill space and available workforce eventually brought the business' manufacturing facilities to Clarksburg. Today, the company's first-floor work room features lanterns and chandeliers hanging above benches like mobiles. Sconces sit on shelves. Burda made many of them back in 1986. Different patterns, for instance, are tucked away in cabinets.
"I don't have to start from scratch every time," Combs said, displaying a silo-shaped part of a sconce.
Still, craftsmen handle every step of the process, starting with metal sheets and concluding with finishes that add centuries to each work.
"You get the whole creation, from that piece of copper to the lantern that's going out the door," Burda said. "For that type of person, that's a very satisfying piece of work. It's like having a hobby and getting paid for it."
Combs has been at the company for more than 20 years. The Conway resident holds a special appreciation for history: His home is a 1700s reproduction job that is filled with his employer's handmade fixtures. During a tour, Combs pointed out "Boston" and "Salem" lanterns that once lined the cities' streets and needed to be lit every night. A nearby lamp was designed to hold whale oil, he said. Earlier, he had plucked a portable Paul Revere-era lantern from overhead. It had a very simple design, a rectangular prism with four glass windows and a place for a candle in the middle. In the days when the American Revolution figure was riding, lantern holders might carry their lights out to a barn to check on their animals, Combs explained.
"It kept the wind from blowing out the candle," he said.
Light was at a premium; sconces were curved and later mirrored to maximize reflection. Today, this type of historic ingenuity is sought around the world.
"I've shipped stuff as far as New Zealand," Burda said.
On this day, Combs was working on a large order, painting a chandelier and sconce black, among other items. Combs enjoys fielding custom requests, many of which are related to sizing. Finding the right proportions requires a fine eye and some imagination.
"I like the fact," he said, "that it's halfway between manufacturing and art."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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