Vitrolite: Glass and Class of the Past
Art glass of yesteryear offers a beautiful choice for well-trained craftsman
from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch March 15, 2004
By Theresa Tighe
Desperate St. Louis property owners have followed Tim Dunn's truck and flagged him down to beg him to fix the glass tiles in their kitchen or bathroom.
The glass is called Vitrolite. In the 1920s and '30s,the fashion-conscious used it sometimes inside, sometimes outside to give their homes and businesses a sleek modern look.
Dunn says he is one of a handful of craftsmen in the world working with Vitrolite today.
His clients support his claim.
"Our real-estate agent told us (Dunn) was the only one in the Midwest working with Vitrolite," said Amy Halpin, 37, who owns a house in the Holly Hills neighborhood. Her home has gleaming white Vitrolite tiles in the kitchen and bathroom. Halpin says that as she and her husband, Daniel Haag, looked in the neighborhood for a house, they noticed Vitrolite in many of the houses. "We thought it was really cool," she said.
Halpin said that in a similar fashion to her homeÕs art-glass windows, the Vitrolite was a selling point in the house, a Tudor Revival built in 1930.
Vitrolite is a pigmented plate glass, mechanically ground, that has a mirror finish with no distortion.
"Vitrolite is gorgeous," said Dunn as he wiped a spot of dirt off the maroon Vitrolite glass he had refurbished on The Medicine Shoppe, the old Hesselberger Drug, at Grand Boulevard and Juniata Street.
Several companies produced the glass tiles. Libby Owens Ford called its version Vitrolite. Pittsburgh Plate Glass tagged its product Carrara, and a Belgian company made a similar product called Belgique.
Dunn said the glass had not been made since 1947. If he needs a particular color, he relies on his private stash. Some eight tons of Vitrolite in many of its 3 colors -- ranging from white to black, includes such colors as suntan, jade and walnut agate. He is a clearing house for the glass that has been salvaged around the world. He stores it in an old confectionery turned into an office and warehouse in Maplewood.
Dunn said that he had named his business Vitrolite Specialist because Vitrolite had the best logo. "It's a little bit of marketing," said Dunn
Vitrolite was very popular throughout the St. Louis area. Dunn credits its impeccable connections.
Marie Hadley, the sister of August A. Busch, Jr., was married to one of the owners of the Hadley-Dean glass company. Dunn thinks people talked about the new product at parties and it became the thing.
The glass is in homes throughout the area, including those near Tower Grove Park, Carondelet Park, and Hampton Avenue. The glass also owed its popularity to one of President Franklin Delano RooseveltÕs programs during the Depression. The glass popped up on the inside and outside of movie theaters, drug stores and government buildings in cities large and small.
Dunn worked as a general contractor before deciding to specialize in Vitrolite. He also has been a Maplewood city councilman for the past 10 years.
He became involved with Vitrolite when he was redoing a bathroom as a general contractor in the earl 1980s. In looking for glass and expertise he needed, he met Don Caviecy, a St. Louis fireman who worked with glass in his spare time. From 1990 to 1997, Dunn was Caviecy's apprentice. When Caviecy retired in the late 1990s, Dunn said he became the "King of Vitrolite."
He now has three understudied. Two are in the St. Louis area. He met the third, Cait Whitson of Glasgow, Scotland, on the Internet.
Dunn thinks his granddaughter, Serina Redden, 16, summed up the appeal of Vitrolite best when she made a sign for him to display at rehabbers' conventions: "A thing of the past. A thing of beauty."