Do you know what a lithophane is? Unless you're an art expert or studied art history, you probably don't.
I didn't until my Memorial Day weekend road trip to Toledo, where the Blair Museum of Lithophanes is nestled on the grounds of the Toledo Botanical Gardens in the Ottawa Hills neighborhood, just a couple of miles west of downtown.
The Blair Museum features the world's largest collection of antique lithophanes. Toledo realtor, investor and art collector Laurel Blair amassed 2,300 of them, and a significant portion are displayed.
So what is a lithophane? The Greek origin means "light in stone" or to "appear in stone." But the objects have nothing to do with stone.
They are porcelain castings, which in normal light seem to be bumpy surfaces forming a vague picture. But when the ambient light is extinguished and the lithophane is backlit, a beautiful, three-dimensional picture emerges.
An explanation doesn't do justice to a lithophane. You really have to see one to understand and appreciate it. The art style was created in Europe in the 1820s, and became popular in the mid-19th century.
The artwork begins with a thin sheet of beeswax, into which the artist carves a picture, a plaster-of-Paris mold is made from the wax carving and a porcelain slip is poured into the mold to dry.
Removed from the mold, the porcelain is then fired. Where the picture is the lightest, the porcelain is very thin. Where it is darkest, the porcelain is very thick.
Lithophanes function as candle shields, night lights, lampshades, fire screens and tea warmers, and sometimes are hung in windows to catch the light.
The Blair Museum collection features a vast array of subjects -- reproductions of famous religious art, nature, landscapes and seascapes, historic figures, architecture and scenes of everyday life. They are quite delightful.
Blair first discovered lithophanes in 1961 while attending a meeting of art collectors in Berlin Heights. After collecting dozens of them, he opened a museum in his home in 1965, and in 1993 donated his collection to the city of Toledo.
In 2002, the new museum opened to the public. Its first curator was Dr. Margaret Carney, who is said to have authored the first book on lithophanes in 180 years.
More modern lithophane makers also are featured in the museum's collection, including ones produced by the Porcelain Garden, Benardaud of Limoges and Light Affections.
OLD SYLVANIA VILLAGE
The Sylvania Heritage Center Museum and an adjacent pioneer village are worthwhile attractions to visit in the Toledo area. Sylvania is a suburb on the city's northwest side.
Since 1992 the heritage center has been housed in Dr. Uriah Cooke's former home, which he acquired in 1897. It remained in his family until 1989, when the city of Sylvania purchased it. The complex is managed by the Sylvania Area Historical Society.
The house sports an intact apothecary and medicine counter and some floors are done in a technique called featherflocking. The Toledo Area Miniature Enthusiasts have set up dioramas and doll houses. Outside, the bottom half of a windmill remains and grave markers found in town are lined up in the backyard.
In the pioneer village are a log house from the 1840s which was dismantled and moved there, and a railroad depot that served the town from 1858 to 1956. It is considered the oldest former depot existing in Ohio.
There also are a replica of the 1844 Stone Academy, a one-room school; a replica of a Toledo interurban car barn; and a replica of an 1844 vintage barn which houses a blacksmith and carpentry shop, where those skills are sometimes demonstrated.
Rounding out the grounds are a 10-ton restored electric locomotive built for the Toledo & Western Interurban Railroad and a caboose similar to one used by the Toledo, Angola and Western Railroad, plus the Sister City Garden, which celebrates Sylvania's alliance with Woodstock in Ontario, Canada.
THE HISTORY MUSEUM
I browsed around the Toledo History Museum on Collingwood Boulevard in the Old West End area for about an hour. It occupies the Milmine-Stewart House, built in 1874 for wealthy grain merchant George Milmine and sold to Walter and Ann Stewart in 1916.
In 1930-31, Stewart leased the property to the Toledo Clinic until 1970, when the building was donated to the Lucas County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, and was acquired by its present owner in 2007.
Antique furniture is found in rooms on the first floor of the house, and the second floor houses some exhibits relating to Toledo history, including items from and photos of some of the famous companies which once operated there.
Among some facts about Toledo which visitors will learn are:
A Toledo company (EPRAD) made the first commercially successful car speaker for drive-in theaters.
The Willy's-Overland plant in Toledo was the world's largest automobile manufacturing facility in 1918, employing 15,000 people.
The first wireless radio transmission on land occurred in 1907 in Toledo.
A Toledo resident (Michael J. Owens) invented the bottlemaking machine.
Just down the street from the history museum is Mansion View, a special events center and bed and breakfast operated by the Old West End Association. It's a majestic 10,000-square-foot mansion with three floors, 18 rooms, a long front porch and carriage portico with a side entrance.
The Old West End neighborhood features one of the largest concentrations of Victorian and Edwardian homes in the nation.
CATHEDRAL, SCOTT HIGH
Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral is the mother church of the Catholic Diocese of Toledo, and it is a magnificent building. It's located in the Old West End, and was designed in the Spanish plateresque style with Toledo, Spain in mind.
It was constructed between 1926 and 1931 at a cost of $3.25 million, but was not dedicated until October 1940. It houses a large, four-manual Skinner pipe organ from 1930. A sister organ resides in the concert hall at the Toledo Museum of Art.
The building measures 285 feet long by 215 feet wide, with a height from floor to peak of 96 feet. It can seat 1,400. A rose window in front is 28 feet in diameter. The parish completed a restoration of the church interior in 2000.
Scott High School in the Old West End, just a couple of blocks from the cathedral, is one of the most stately schools I've seen in Ohio. The three-story, U-shaped building was erected in 1913 and is named for a former editor of the Toledo Blade from 1844-47.
Costly renovations of schools that old are almost unheard of today, but the Toledo school district sunk $42 million into Scott's restoration, which took 2 1/2 years and was completed in 2011.
A few years ago, Scott transformed from a comprehensive high school to four smaller learning academies, each of which is based on a different career pathway.
A new $1.1 million football stadium and track is being built at the school, which once boasted a 10,000-seat stadium that was condemned and demolished in 1970. A 4,000-seat replacement stadium completed in 1971 was torn down during the recent renovation project.
THE OLIVER HOUSE
This building on the edge of downtown overlooking the Maumee River was erected in 1859 and is one of Toledo's oldest existing commercial structures. It originally served as a hotel and later was used for manufacturing and as a warehouse. The hotel had 171 rooms, each with a fireplace, running water and gas lighting.
It is home to the Maumee Bay Brewing Co. and four restaurants / pubs. Among the craft brewery's beers is Buckeye, which was brewed in Toledo from 1838 to 1972. The new brewery acquired the rights to revive the beer. I enjoyed a couple of glasses and brought home a 12-pack.
THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE
I didn't get to visit it, but the Butterfly House at Wheeler Farms, 4 1/2 miles south of Toledo Express Airport, sounds like an interesting place.
It contains more than 1,000 butterflies in a 3,000-square-foot glass conservatory. Butterflies can be observed fluttering from flower to flower feeding on the nectar. Since the average life span of a butterfly is two to three weeks, new species are introduced frequently.
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189