The Vitrolite Man
by Wayne Curtis
From "PRESERVATION" September/October 2002
Restoring a storefront? Need maroon glass?
A St. Louis man has just the thing you're looking for.
Tim Dunn, standing in front of a Vitrolite-clad store he worked on, in Webster Groves, Mo. Click Here for full image.
"This color, I just can't sell it," says Tim Dunn, pointing to a crate overflowing with thick slabs of glass in that pale-green color once associated with hospitals and other institutions for the unwell. He picks up a piece -- it's about three inches wide and a couple of feet long -- frowns slightly, and puts it back.
Dunn is in the basement of his workshop, which takes up a former 1934 confectionary three blocks from historic Route 66 in St. Louis. By any account Dunn's business occupies a specialized niche. He buys, sells and restores pigmented structural glass. Most people know this material, if they know it at all, by the trade names under which it was sold, which include Vitrolite, Carrera Glass, and Sani Onyx.
This colored opaque glass was popular on the exteriors (and, less so, in the interiors) of many early-20th-century buildings, especially those in art deco, streamline. and moderne styles. A sort of blemish-free everyman's marble, it was in particular vogue as a facing on the storefronts of bakeries, drugstores, and jewelry shops. Fearful of being left behind, Main Street businesses would often slap up a veneer of Vitrolite to hide their 19th-century masonry dowdiness. In a few instances, new movie palaces went big into Vitrolite and covered their entire facades with the material.
Dunn has been dabbling in Vitrolite since 1985, when he came upon it in his work as a tile setter. In 1997 he decided to limit his business to Vitrolite work, and he hung out his shingle as the Vitrolite specialist (www.vitrolitespecialist.com).
His first big project was the restoration of the Gem Theater in Kansas City, Mo., and soon after he undertook the restoration of the Ritz Theater in Talladega, Ala., a three-story Vitrolite fantasy sliced with bands of neon. He's done eight theaters in the past four years, and spends a lot of time helping Main Street programs spruce up their downtowns.
Vitrolite is a not the perfect material, Dunn admits. "It's glass, and when you put it on a storefront, it's a problem," he says. The potential risks of the missile-like composite skateboards popular with teenagers, for instance, were not envisioned by shopkeepers in the 1030s. Such cultural advances keep Dunn busy.
Part of Dunn's job is ensuring a ready supply of Vitrolite for his restoration work, which presents some logistical considerations, since the material hasn't been manufactured since 1947. You can still import new colored glass from the Czech Republic, but it's thinner, the hues don't match up with its historical counterparts (the new black is really a deep purple) and it is available in only six colors. At its peak, Vitrolite was available in 40.
Dunn solved his supply problem the old-fashioned way: He passed around his phone number. A friend of a friend will call and tell him about a place there they're stripping off some Vitrolite. He'll hop in his truck and set off--maybe to Tennessee, maybe to Iowa--and grab it before it ends up as shattered landfill. Main Street is Dunn's quarry, and by his estimate his excavations have yielded about 10 tons, most of which is now organized by color in his basement.
When people make inquiries about buying a certain color of Vitrolite, Dunn mails them a card entitled, "How to get the Vitrolite you want," which is a five-item checklist of things to send him. Number four on the list is "a hope and a prayer that I have it." If he doesn't, he usually can turn it up in a month or two. "I've only not filled two orders in ten years," he reports.
White and black are the colors most in demand these days, and for some reason blue Vitrolite is sought after in Texas and Oklahoma. Just yesterday, he says, he had an order for 100 square feet of maroon.
And someday, when fashion comes around, he will no doubt start getting calls for pale green. When that happens, rest assured that Tim Dunn will be ready.
From Preservation, September/October 2002