A Modern-Day Vitrolite Mine
By Edelene Wood
from "THE ISLAND PACKET"
West Virginia's Parkersburg- Vienna area was a well-known source of world famous Vitrolite glass manufactured in the decades of 1907 -1937. The colorful, opaque Vitrolite is a structural glass whose creation began with 2000 pounds of sand. If today it were considered a precious gem (as some collectors do), then finding a new "Vitrolite Mine" in Cleveland, Ohio, would be of great importance.
Such a discovery was made in December 2001 by Al Albano and members of the Inter Museum Conservation Association of Oberlin College in Ohio when the LMC purchased a building in nearby Cleveland for expansion. The building at 2911 Detroit Avenue seemed an ordinary structure until workmen began removing interior paneling. To their surprise, they uncovered walls, ceilings, floors and stairway made of glass, which they soon learned, was the Vitrolite made only in Parkersburg.
Providence must have been at work when the museum people bought the property. Albano realized the importance of the glass they had unearthed. Checking with Tim Dunn, a Vitrolite glass restorer of St. Louis, Missouri, and with other museums and Vitrolite collectors, he immediately set the museum people to work identifying and restoring the Vitrolite being uncovered. It was a fortunate discovery for the non-profit museum group and appropriately marks its 50th anniversary as the country's first such regional establishment.
Albano wanted to know why there was such a cache in their newly acquired building. Then he learned that the Parkersburg-Vienna area could be a source of information; that it is considered the "home" of Vitrolite; and that many specialists travel here to see where it was made. Many Parkersburg people, particularly former workers such a Bill Corbett and Ralph Haden, have inside knowledge of the Vitrolite Company's operations. Among their resources are salesmen's books listing the major cities where Vitrolite show rooms can be seen and where orders can be placed. (Specifications for orders were given to these representatives and then passed on to the Parkersburg plant where the Vitrolite was made and decorated to order.) Among the best-known of the men called "decorators" were Bill Corbett's brother Charles Bradford Corbitt. One of the best "designers" was Argil Cooper whose works are like pieces of art.
What is mind-boggling is the news that the Vitrolite discovered in the Cleveland building covered its stairways, floors, walls, ceilings, and a foyer. All were decorated with fantastic examples of the art glass available from our Parkersburg plant.
Tim Dunn, the Vitrolite restorer, has long considered St. Louis the best place to see old homes and buildings still decorated with Vitrolite. There the brother-in-law of "Augie" Busch of Anheuser-Busch fame had a similar Vitrolite sales operation and successfully sold Vitrolite art work for inclusion in the homes of many wealthy St. Louis people, which remain intact today.
Dunn, having six or more tons of Vitrolite at his disposal, is called upon to restore theaters, restaurants, homes, and even town clocks throughout the United States featuring this special glass. He has original salesmen's samples of all the Vitrolite colors and variations. In Parkersburg, a Vitrolite supervisor's family owns his "recipe book." It provides valuable insight into how those colors were created and even records some batches of glass discarded due to bubble impurities.
Parkersburg people possess long memories of their famous glass factory. The owner of the nearby Vitrolite Hardware Store recalls the slag pile where the defective glass was discarded. One day he saw many discarded KKK paper weights made for a 1920's convention.
The IMC museum's Vitrolite showroom, the world's only one, cannot be opened to the public, however, until $50,000 is raised for various renovations. Two splendid examples of work needed to be done are sections of Vitrolite grillwork. One is damaged but can be restored by the well-known Kent State College art glass educator Henry Hallen. This new discovery of a "Vitrolite Mine" in Cleveland is fantastic news. The area has destroyed almost every shard of its Vitrolite heritage. When the Vitrolite showroom is restored at the museum, its visual story will become an invaluable display for years to come, of the Parkersburg-Vienna heritage.
(Edelene Wood is the president of the Vitrolite Glass Collectors in Parkersburg and has written articles about Vitrolite for such magazines as GOLDENSEAL and glass collectors. A video she produced for Corning Glass Research Museum in Coming, New York, entitled LOOKING FOR VITROLITE, shows some of the Vitrolite still in the Parkersburg area.)