Explore Norfolk’s Illuminating Glass Art Scene
Not just a maritime port, this Virginia city is home to glass masterworks by the likes of Dale Chihuly, Peter Bremers and Tiffany Studios.
Norfolk, Virginia, is known as a nautical hub, boasting the world’s largest naval base and the Nauticus science and maritime museum, where you can tour the USS Wisconsin battleship. Not as well known is that the city is home to one of the world’s largest collections of glass art.
“You’re going to see a bunch of bowls?” a friend quipped when I mentioned my upcoming weekend of immersion in the city’s glass art scene.
The moment you enter the Glass Light Hotel & Gallery and see the 1,100-pound opalescent glass rabbit that sits near the front desk, your vision of what can be created from glass expands. “Bunny,” as the sculpture is affectionately called by staff, is one of two rabbits crafted for the hotel by renowned Dutch artist Peter Bremers. The other, dubbed “Pops,” reclines on a large pedestal overlooking the bar.
Hundreds of works of glass can be found throughout the hotel and gallery—courtesy of arts patrons Doug and Pat Perry, whose son Chris Perry is the hotel’s developer and CEO. The gallery, which opened in October, includes evocative works ranging from a vase of glass flowers in a riot of colors to an ethereal dusk-colored dress from Karen LaMonte’s “Nocturnes” series. There’s also a stringed musical instrument in glass by Venetian artist Davide Salvadore, the “strings” created by stretching compact masses of hot glass.
My 25-year-old son, Cameron, joined me for the weekend to explore. “It’s hard to believe some of these are made from glass,” he said as we finished checking out the gallery’s second floor. Our tour guide shared backstories of the art, including details about Amber Cowan’s “Bridesmaid’s Search for the Desert Rose,” which was created from vintage rose-colored scrap and found glass. The longer you study the three-dimensional scene, the more you find: swans, desert roses, a sun, a giraffe.
Later that night in our guest room, I thumbed through the coffee-table book Bunny—the title is a nod to Pat Perry’s nickname, which was inspired by the Pat the Bunny book she read to her children and now grandchildren. In the book, she offers details on the couple’s collection and what sparked their interest in the medium, writing: “For us, witnessing the simple act of firing-up a handful of sand and ash, then blowing it, molding it, pulling it, twisting it, and shaping it into exquisite objects felt intrinsically satisfying. It became the whispering trumpet, luring us into its mystery and the magical song of its nature. This is the reason we began our pursuit of glass.”
That pursuit included funding for the Perry Glass Studio, less than a mile from Glass Light. The studio opened in 2011 in partnership with the Chrysler Museum of Art, which is across the street. You can catch a free demonstration at the studio every Tuesday through Sunday at noon, seeing pieces take shape as a staff member explains the artisanal processes behind stained glass, fused glass, hot sculpting and more.
We watched as a few instructors, wearing T-shirts that read “Get Fired Up,” turned a molten blob of glass into a ball, then a vase with layers of color, teaming up to put the piece in and out of the oven and coaxing it into the desired shape with various tools. We returned later in the day for a workshop, feeling the intensity of the oven’s heat as we learned how to make glass ornaments with swirls of color.
Between those experiences we saw more works at the Chrysler Museum of Art. Its glass collection includes more than 10,000 pieces spanning over 3,000 years. The museum originally was opened in 1933 as the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences; in 1971, automotive heir Walter P. Chrysler Jr. gifted much of his collection of 20th century art—which included paintings, sculpture and glass—to the institution and it was renamed in his honor. The venue includes a café, gardens, a gift shop, a theater, and galleries arranged by medium and era.
Inside the first-floor glass art galleries you’ll find masterworks from artists around the globe, including Dale Chihuly (perhaps the United States’ best known glass artist), several glass pieces by Tiffany, and a chess set with lampworked glass figures—each with its own fun and sometimes cheeky expression—created by Italian artist Gianni Toso.
You can view additional works at the Barry Art Museum. Opened in 2018 in Old Dominion University’s arts district, Richard and Carolyn Barry’s extensive collection contributed to the region’s reputation as a glass art center. You’ll find contemporary glass sculptures, one of Chihuly’s chandeliers, and, in the center of the sculpture court, a massive bronze and cast-glass “Fountain of Knowledge” that is a wellspring of literary quotes. Letters projected on the water’s surface swirl into words, then sentences as they appear on a nearby wall. “There are over 800 quotes,” the woman at the front desk told us. “I don’t think I’ve seen the same one twice, and I’ve worked here for a year.”
During our short visit to Norfolk, we saw glass in hundreds of fascinating forms, including the lovely (and functional) spun-glass bowl sinks in Glass Light’s guest rooms. One of my favorite works was Lucy Lyon’s “Duel,” located in the hotel’s lobby. The sculpture is composed of two nearly identical men gazing curiously at each another, one cast in bronze, the other glass. I wondered if one was intended to be the ghost of the other, or perhaps a duel for the artist between mediums.
Or, to me, a novice observer, maybe their juxtaposition—and the way light and color plays on and in the glass figure—is a way to capture how a person is lit from within, and the power glass has to illuminate.
Where to Explore
View Glass Artwork
Admission is free at these Norfolk spots that feature great collections of glass art:
Barry Art Museum at Old Dominion University (1075 W. 43rd St., 757-683-6200)
Chrysler Museum of Art (One Memorial Place, 757-664-6200) provides a free docent-led tour of its highlights every day at 2 p.m.
Glass Light Gallery (201 Granby St., 757-222-3033) offers a free guided tour that can be arranged via email. Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take a Class
The Perry Glass Studio (745 Duke St., 757-333-6299) offers classes in which you can make everything from a fused soap dish to mosaics, jewelry, colorful botanicals and an air terrarium. Some classes are available for kids as young as 5; most are for ages 12 and older. Tip: Join the Chrysler Museum and get 20% off classes and 10% off in shops (memberships begin at $40).
Watch Artists at Work
d’Art Center (740 Boush St., 757-625-4211), located in Norfolk’s NEON (New Energy of Norfolk) District, is a good place to see and meet artists in more than 20 studios, take an art class and purchase the artists’ works. (Note: Some pieces are sold through their Etsy shops.)
Take a Stained Glass Driving Tour
Many of Norfolk’s historic churches are graced with stained glass masterworks. The Virginia Arts Festival program’s stained glass window driving tour of Norfolk offers more than addresses. Each listing on this self-guided tour includes the highlights and the meaning behind each window.
Where to Eat & Drink
Luce (245 Granby St., 757-502-7260), helmed by chef and owner Antonio Caruana, is part lively wine bar, part snug restaurant, with an emphasis on traditional Italian dishes with a twist, such as wild boar ragu, lobster and prosecco gnocchi, and a delicious mushroom toast with truffle oil. Be sure to reserve in advance to snag a weekend table.
Cafe Stella (1907 Colonial Ave., 757-625-0461), a local coffeehouse favorite, features plentiful seating—some sofa arrangements, many tables—and an array of vintage bric-a-brac. The menu includes numerous warm beverages (many sourced from their own coffee roaster), breakfast and lunch sandwiches, house-made granola and paczki (deep-fried dough filled with jam or cream).
Grain ( 100 E. Main St., 757-763-6279), located just a short stroll from The Glass Light Hotel & Gallery, is a rooftop beer garden offering a wide selection of craft beers and sweeping views of Norfolk and the Elizabeth River.
La Brioche Bakery & Coffee (765 Granby St., 757-226-9745), owned by Yvan and Jacqueline Pavilla, offers the same kinds of made-from-scratch artisan baguettes, croissants, sandwiches and quiche you’d find in a Parisian café. Watch the bakers at work behind the glass window, and take the back staircase to the pretty-in-pink loft seating area.
Omar’s Carriage House (313 W. Bute St., 757-622-4990), a former tearoom and long-ago carriage house for horses, now serves American-Mediterranean fare, including Moroccan chicken tagine, kabobs, and a lamb burger served with the restaurant’s popular garlic-ginger fries. Outside dining is available on a heated patio; blankets are available.
Where to Stay
Four Eleven York Street (411 W. York St., 757-963-7000), a boutique inn nestled among the cobblestone streets of the Freemason neighborhood and less than a half-mile from the Chrysler Museum, features four spacious suites, each with a gas fireplace, a bar cart with complimentary snacks, and heated marble bathroom floors. Rates begin at $267 and include breakfast (blue crab Benedict and a rye avocado BLT are two options) that can be enjoyed in the dining room or brought up to you for breakfast in bed.
Glass Light Hotel & Gallery (201 Granby St., 757-222-3033), a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, features a top-floor fitness center with great views, a restaurant with a chef’s counter, and 113 guest rooms and suites, each with unique art, a vintage Frigidaire mini refrigerator and Illy espresso maker. Rates start at $189 per night.
Christine Koubek Flynn, Arlington Magazine’s Get Away columnist, loves discovering what is new and notable in mid-Atlantic travel.