In the Yankee Craftsman’s granite and fieldstone basement, flashbulb-bright under fluorescent lights, Gary Sweeney disassembles a gaslight chandelier, the last of six 1870 Eastlake-style ones purchased a decade ago in South Boston when a group of Victorian mansions on Telegraph Hill was being converted into condos.
Sweeney, 52, and Keith Felt, 55, the only craftsman in the business who isn’t a family member, put together five of them, now hanging in residences and offices in Greater Boston and beyond. One found a home in late summer in the foyer of a Victorian mansion in Newton. Another from Telegraph Hill, larger than the five, went up in that family’s living room.
“Nowadays, even in a modern house, they put in a chandelier. It brings back memories,” says Gary, the youngest of three brothers who own and operate the 45-year-old Wayland business their late father, Bill Sweeney, started in his garage. “This will be around for the next 100 years at least. We’ll put our card inside like a message in a bottle.”
Once cleaned, repaired, and reassembled, the sixth fixture will hang in the Yankee Craftsman’s retail gallery, a restored barn on Commonwealth Road (Route 30) where antique chandeliers twinkle like stars whenever the motion sensors are activated. Here, the fixture will join a galaxy of shimmering lights suspended from the ceiling: an eight-armed 1850 rococo brass and crystal gasolier with a provenance that can be traced to the Spanish Flats complex (now the New York Athletic Club); an 1873 Eastlake, two-tiered and 12-armed, purchased from Clark’s Block in Natick and reassembled from boxed parts without directions; and hundreds of other antique lighting fixtures waiting to be discovered by interior designers and their clients.
Gary examines the fixture as if he’s never seen one before, then he takes it apart and photographs the pieces with his phone — body, breaks, ceiling plate, and the rest — before he sketches each part, a craftsman’s hieroglyphics on a yellow pad, and begins a job that is equal parts pleasure and challenge and will take many days to complete.
The Eastlake chandelier was lighted with gas and electrified at the turn of the last century, when electricity was both a novelty and a status symbol. It has a body and three arms, each with a gas cock and old wiring that Gary snips with needle-nose pliers. In time, he will replace the cloth-covered wire with some made of Teflon. But first he removes the gas cocks, which require a good cleaning, taking care not to misplace the tiny washers and screws.
The prototype for this fixture was made by hand more than a century ago. The ones that followed were mass-produced in factories in Boston, Connecticut, New York, and Philadelphia. Starr, Fellows, and Co. was a well-known brand, as was Cornelius & Baker. But the designer of this fixture is unknown: clearly someone who took pains with his work. And as Gary organizes his workbench, he feels a connection to a kindred spirit.
“This gentleman did a nice job,” he says, speculating that the craftsman who electrified the fixture was a lot like himself. “When I go to electrify it, I’m a perfectionist. I’ll lay the wire inside the arm to look like it did when it was first made — inside the tube where the gas originally flowed.”
The fixture is considered pre-Victorian. Originally gas-lit, you can tell by looking at the wiring in the arms that the lamp was converted to electricity during the early 1900s — a hybrid at a time when gas was more reliable but not as safe.
Upstairs, customers tiptoe into the five showrooms as quiet as churchgoers on a Sunday morning. The fixtures are best appreciated in the semi-darkness; if you hurry or talk, you can miss a lot, including an appreciation for what life was like when light didn’t appear with the flick of a switch — or the movement of feet under motion detectors.
“People used to have an intimate relationship with lights,” says Scott, 55, the second oldest of the brothers. “They spent the summer chopping wood for winter. They made candles. They used oil lamps. Thrifty New Englanders had to make do. When the wicks got low, they’d sew fabric to go down to the oil. They didn’t throw away the wick.”
Gary says interest in antiques has grown in recent years, judging from two reality-TV shows on The History Channel, “American Pickers” and “American Restoration.” But there’s also evidence in the Yankee Craftsman’s reach: Its restored fixtures hang in the Senate chamber at the Massachusetts State House; public libraries in Arlington, Waltham, Billerica, and Lynn; the Dallas Historical Society; the California State House; Milton Academy; Kenyon College in Ohio; and the Ulysses S. Grant House, among others.
Not bad for a business started on a whim.
In 1970, Bill Sweeney was 42 years old and general manager of Dow Chemical in Wayland when he quit his job to open a lighting-repair shop in his garage. He had always been a Mr. Fix-it; indeed, nothing made him happier than working with his hands or creating something out of nothing. But he also had a good job with benefits and vacations — and a wife and four children to support.
“He got stuck in traffic on 128 one day, and he said, ‘The hell with this,’ ” says Scott.
“My mother thought he was crazy,” says Gary.
“No one in his right mind would do that,” adds daughter Sally Foley, 61, a math teacher in Maine.
But seven years later, his garage bursting at the seams, Sweeney moved his workshop and his family across town to a 4½-acre farm he purchased on a handshake, converting the carriage house into a workshop and cleaning out the barn, which was so deep in pigeon droppings that it took a platoon of teenage boys, outfitted like a hazmat brigade, to make the space habitable.
The older sons say their father didn’t pressure them to join the family business. Following high school, Bruce enlisted in the Air Force and Scott traveled (he stepped out the front door onto Route 30 and hitchhiked to Alaska). But after a few years, both returned home; having seen the world, they’d concluded that working for their father wasn’t such a bad gig after all — something their youngest brother figured out without leaving home.
“One of the main things [we learned] is taking pride in your work, doing the best of your ability,” says Bruce. “It’s a piece of you, a reflection of you. We learned a long time ago to treat the small job as important as the big job. Fixing cords on lamps is as important as restoring a $40,000 or $50,000 chandelier.”
While Bill Sweeney taught his sons that any job worth taking on was worth doing well, his wife, Shirley, kept the home fires burning. The coffee pot was always full, and there wasn’t a day when customers didn’t stop by her kitchen, one door away from the workshop, for a visit.
Today, the farmhouse where the couple raised their family remains unchanged: a few rooms are used as offices, but most of the house provides a place for out-of-town family members to stay.
By contrast, the future of the business is unwritten — despite the family’s close relationships and mechanical aptitudes.
“We’ve been able to get along,” says Bruce, at 63, the oldest. “We’ve always been a very, very tight family, to my mom and dad’s credit. Any differences, we’ve been able to compensate.”
Gary says he’d like to continue working for another 15 or 20 years, that maybe a grandchild will step up to the plate.
Meanwhile, the business and family are thriving.
In her late mother’s kitchen, Sally is making tuna sandwiches while Bruce’s wife, Bonnie, stands over the stove stirring grains in a pot. The table is set with extra plates, just in case. Coffee is warming in a pot, and there are enough ceramic mugs on the counter to serve at least a dozen people.
Down the road in Newton, Nicole Haughey is unpacking boxes inside the Victorian mansion she and her husband, Phil, bought last year and recently moved into.
“The lights make the whole house,” says Haughey, who purchased two Eastlake-style chandeliers from Yankee Craftsman. “They ground you.”
Months ago, when Haughey met with her interior designer, the first thing she talked about was lighting and why it mattered so much to her.
And the designer, already a fan of the family business on Commonwealth Road, understood.
“I know the perfect place,” she told her client.
By the numbers
Number of restored antique lighting fixtures in the Yankee Craftsman gallery:
100 wall sconces
75 table and floor lamps
Number of antique and reproduction shades:
Lighting provided for the following movies:
“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”
“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”
And TV series, to name a few:
“Spenser: For Hire”
Lighting on display in these prominent locations:
Massachusetts State House, Senate chamber
Boston Museum of Science
Temple Israel of Boston
Libraries: Arlington, Waltham, Billerica, Lynn
Historic New England’s Lyman Estate, Waltham
South Harwich Meetinghouse
California State House
Dallas Historical Society
Kenyon College in Ohio
Ulysses S. Grant House