Tiffin: Blown-Crystal Factory now a White Elephant

by Sue Cross (Associated Press)
Glass Review - February 1985

TIFFIN, Ohio - It was an inconspicuous ad, a 1-by-1-inch square in the Wall Street Journal, offering to barter 100 years of tradition for 100 jobs.

It was the only thing left two months ago to direct people to the Tiffin Glasshouse, where 50,000 visitors a year once gawked and wondered at some of the world's greatest artists. Now the Glasshouse doesn't even have a sign, and the squat chimneys of two kilns are the only clues that the rambling buildings once heated some of the most celebrated blown crystal in the world.

The factory - which has operated under a handful of corporate names, but is colloquially called the Glasshouse - drew notice only because of the classified ad in Dec. 14, 1984, editions of the Wall Street Journal:

"FREE PLANT SITE: More than 250,000 square foot facility on nearly 7 acres zoned heavy manufacturing with all city utilities and services is available free of cost. Bring a minimum of 100 jobs to this progressive community, and the property is yours."

There have been 24 responses but no firm offers, and more than two months later, Tiffin development officials are wondering what to do with their historic white elephant.

Offers for the Glasshouse have come from food processors and plastics firms, tire makers and manufacturers, says Christine Hopkins, director of the Seneca Industrial and Economic Development Corp., the non-profit group saddled with the Glasshouse after its last owner decided its value was in a tax write-off.

Now her group is talking with demolition firms about the salvage value of the buildings, but Ms. Hopkins hopes to save the part that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Each week she leads potential tenants on flashlight tours of the empty Glasshouse halls.

"I don't think I've ever talked to somebody who lived in Tiffin who didn't have somebody in their family who worked here," Ms. Hopkins said as she walked through the empty factory. "It's like being in a ghost town, going through this place."

The Glasshouse banked its kilns in 1983, after years of struggling to cope with rising costs of the natural gas that lured glassmaking to Tiffin in the late 19th century.

Natural gas wells were drilled throughout northern Ohio in the 19th century, and industries like glassmaking moved in to take advantage of the cheap fuel. One was the U.S. Glass Co., which moved here from Wheeling, W.V., in 1888. The firm built the original Glasshouse and kilns 10 years later to make medium-quality crystal.

The international reputation of Tiffin glass grew until the early 1960s, when the company had financial problems and closed in 1963. It reopened a short time later as Tiffin Art Glass Co. and recovered enough to open a Fifth Avenue showroom in New York in 1964.

Continental Can Co. bought it in 1966 and renamed it Tiffin Glass Co. Inc. It was sold to Interpace Corp. of New Jersey three years later.

The Towle Silver Co. of Newburyport, Mass., bought the Glasshouse in 1979 and operated it as Tiffin Crystal Inc. until 1980, when it said crystal production was no longer profitable. Since then, the only Tiffin crystal has been made in Ireland.

Last year, Towle closed the last operation, a discount outlet for low-priced glassware, and gave the Seneca development group the property in return for a $1.1 million tax write-off.