Vitrolite Guy Tackles Quarrier Diner
by Jim Balow
The Charleston Gazette
June 13, 2011
Click here to read the story at wvgazette.com
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Vitrolite man is back in town.
You can find Tim Dunn, who restored the architectural glass at the State Theater and the Pullin, Fowler and Flanagan building in 2005, working on his latest project -- patching and polishing the maroon façade of the Quarrier Diner.
Dunn is working with historical architect Dave Marshall, who owners Anna and David Pollitt hired to oversee the restoration of the diner, which stood empty for nearly 10 years. After some typical delays, the work is moving along and the Pollitts hope to be open for business this fall.
The diner itself is anything but typical, Dunn said.
"It's a landmark. I see this on a lot of websites. Even the letters are Vitrolite [a kind of pigmented glass]."
Though people often call the architectural style of the mid-1940s diner Art Deco, Dunn begs to differ.
"I call this [Art] Moderne, with an e. Moderne was after Art Deco. There was Art Nouveau, with all the curves, then Art Deco. This was later," he said. "Somebody probably had this on the drawing board, waiting for the war to end."
Structural pigmented glass dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when glassmakers in the Mid-Ohio Valley found a new use for their product. A Marietta company claimed to be first in 1900 with something called Sani Onyx. Penn-American Plate Glass dubbed theirs Carrara, probably after its resemblance to the white Italian marble with a similar name.
The most successful company emerged outside of Parkersburg in Vienna, where the Vitrolite Company built an 18-acre plant just before World War I.
Architect Cass Gilbert was an early proponent of pigmented glass. He covered the restroom walls of New York's Woolworth Building with Carrara glass. He later ordered the same stuff for the West Virginia Capitol building, though at some point builders substituted the state product, Vitrolite, Dunn said. He's helping state architects plan repairs to the 31 bathrooms there.
Vitrolite really took off in the mid-1930s after American Builder Magazine promoted a Modernize Main Street competition. Sponsor Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Co., which had bought the Vitrolite Co., gave out $11,000 cash prizes to 52 architects.
Savvy designers probably figured it wouldn't hurt to include some Vitrolite in their plans, Dunn said. "It made your building stand out. Most of the buildings were brick or wood."
Vitrolite was fired in huge sheets, he said. "They came off the kiln 74 by 131 inches. I guess it's the biggest size they could get in the kiln.
"It was ground to a mirror finish by big stones and rouge, a polishing compound. It came in six thicknesses -- 1/4, 5/16, 7/16, 1/2, 3/4 and 1 1/4 inch]," he said.
"So they had a full sheet and shipped it off to a distributor, or did custom orders. They had Parisian artists who would paint etchings -- swans, ducks, an Egyptian motif. I've seen farm animals, Italian scenes, geometric designs, it's almost endless.
"Then they'd ship it and the distributor would cut it, based on what the architect wanted. There were no standard sizes.
From the original palette of two colors -- black and white -- manufacturers expanded to a rainbow of hues. Vitrolite came in 32 colors, Dunn said. "That doesn't include the custom colors you could get made. There was a color I saw in Palestine, Texas, an iridescent green/black. Oooh."
Dunn, who lives in the St. Louis suburb of Maplewood, learned his craft from another Vitrolite man, Don Caviecy. "He was doing it on the side. I was 26. I figured someone had to do it. I started collecting material. We worked together for about 10 years. He retired around '97.
"I've been doing it ever since. He showed me what to do, how to get it off, how to put it up. In '97 I stopped doing everything else, my tile and marble work. Then my wife said 'get a website.' I did that in 2000 and things took off." You can see photos and news articles of his projects at vitrolitespecialist.com.
Considering that no one has made structural glass for about 60 years, it's a specialized business.
"There's [other] guys around," he said. "There's a guy in Akron. There's a guy in Pittsburgh. If you can install mirrors, you can install this. But if you can't get the product, why would you do it? I have the product."
A warehouse full, including a whole area devoted to interior glass tiles. He gathers some from old buildings. He buys other pieces cheap from folks who collected it for years, thinking it might become valuable. Sometimes people just give it to him. "We've got about 20 tons, which is quite a bit."
Some gets reused right away, in what he calls the serendipitous nature of the business.
"Dave Marshall called me and said he needed a black and a cream color for the State Theater. I'm up in Marshalltown, Iowa. I'm looking at the sizes there. I said hell, we'll put it in a crate and ship it here."
He found the Vitrolite for the Quarrier Diner, 17 large maroon rectangles or "ashlars,'' in Wisconsin -- just enough for the job.
"It's a typical job. I've been watching this place -- I've been to Charleston four or five times -- it's been deteriorating. Pieces crack, pieces fall off, but mostly just broken pieces."
In some places, he can salvage the good part of a chipped ashlar to use where a smaller piece is needed. "On the top, we have to take out some that were cracked."
Every piece gets a thorough cleaning, though not with a household spray. "We're beyond Windex." He uses razor blades and a paste called CeramaBryte to remove streaks and grime.
The vertical streaks come from metal moldings at the roofline, he said. "When the water drips down the building, it leaches the metal. You get drip runs. Some of it you can fix, some you can't."
Then there's street grit. "All the cars for all those years. People are surprised I can clean it. It's glass."
The diner's color combination, maroon and suntan, was a popular one, Dunn said. "That's the problem, it's a common color. As soon as I get it, I use it. Some I can't give away, like jade."
Given the city's proximity to the source of Vitrolite, there's a good chance Dunn will get more work here.
"Obviously Charleston was a stylish place in the 30s. You look at this," he said, pointing to the Atlas Building across the street. "There's some style in these buildings. Some of the apartments on Kanawha [Boulevard], they're gorgeous."