Structural Pigmented Glass Part 2

The Old House Web

Story and photos:
Rosemary Thornton
Contributing editor, The Old House Web

Timothy Dunn collects Vitrolite (structural pigmented glass) and has a little extra safely stowed in the basement of his St. Louis shop. Like about ten tons of it.

Dunn is also the countrys foremost authority on the repair and restoration of structural pigmented glass. He is, in his own words, The Oman of Vitrolite.

To seekers of the sleek panels popular in the 1920s to '40s, Dunn's basement is filled with unimaginable treasures. Its been more than 50 years since an American company made structural pigmented glass. That fact, combined with this country's unfortunate history of tearing down to old to make way for the new, bring clients from all over the world to Dunn.

Talladega Ritz
-- Photo: Tim Dunn
Among Dunn's restoration projects is the historic Ritz Theatre in Talladega, Alabama.

Tim Dunn
Tim Dunn examines a salvaged piece of marbleized Vitrolite.

It pains Dunn to think about all the Vitrolite unceremoniously tossed in trash cans across America. Im saving as much as one guy can save it nationwide, he says with a heavy sigh.

Working out of an old 1930s building that was a confectionary for much of its life, Timothy Dunns life is structural glass. He readily takes on little projects, such as repairing a tiny table with a broken Vitrolite top. He works on huge projects, too, such as salvaging 350 pieces of Vitrolite from a storefront that was one block long and 14-feet tall. Or restoring the structural-glass front of the magnificent and grand 500-seat Gem Theater in Kansas City.

In 1985, Dunn was a general contractor and tile setter working on a house that had Vitrolite wainscoting in the bathroom. The Vitrolite was in need of repair so Dunn went hunting for replacement pieces and tiles. In doing so, he met Don Caviecy.

Caviecy had been repairing Vitrolite since 1964 and was an expert in the field of structural glass. Almost single-handedly, Caviecy had preserved the craft of Vitrolite through three decades. He was apparently the very last of the Vitrolite craftsmen in the country.

Caviecy told Dunn that he wasnt going to live forever and said that he wanted to teach Dunn the craft. Dunn and Caviecy began doing occasional projects together.

He was a meticulous craftsman, said Dunn. He was what youd call an old world craftsman and he was proud of his work and that was a good lesson for me to learn.

Dunn relates that he was a little nervous about abandoning his work as a contractor and tile setter and jumping into the lost trade of Vitrolite restoration full time. But in 1997, he made the leap. As interest in the Art Deco and Art Moderne has helped turn Dunn's passion into a successful business.

Salvaged Vitrolite
Salvaged Vitrolite trim neatly stacked in Dunn's basement. Piece at far left shows traces of the mastic used to secure it to a building.

fancy trim
Close up of some fancy trim

sanding Vitrolite
Dunn and his helper, Willie Crate, smooth the edge of a piece of freshly cut Vitrolite.

Salesman sampler
Salesman's sample sheet from the 1920s gives an idea of the variety of colors of Vitrolite.

A richly marbled piece of glass. The structural glass was originally marketed as, among other things, a cheaper, more durable, lighter replacement for marble.

Inside the dimly-lit, drive-in basement of Dunns shop, ten tons of salvaged Vitrolite fills every nook and cranny of the 1600-square foot space. Stacked neatly in rows and rows of wooden shelves, there is Vitrolite in every color, size and shape imaginable. It is a dazzling array of colored glass representing a span of roughly 40 years of architecture.

Last year, Dunn sold about one ton of Vitrolite and salvaged about one ton.

Salvaging glass that is affixed to concrete walls with asphaltic mastic is not without its challenges. Under ideal conditions, about 5% is lost due to breakage. And sometimes, Dunn cant get to the sites fast enough. Recently, an entire exterior storefront was hastily stripped of its Vitrolite veneer and the irreplaceable glass panels were tossed in the dumpster before Dunn could get there.

He travels the country, salvaging and scavenging Vitrolite and repairing and restoring the structural glass in homes and businesses. And hes also teaching others this unusual and almost-lost trade. He is a man who has found his niche.

This work fits my abilities, he said. Theres definitely an artistic touch to all this. Its tedious and requires an attention to detail that goes beyond a lot of peoples desire. You have to be very particular to make it look right.

Smaller trim and accent pieces are catalogued and stored in cubby holes.

Pope's Cafeteria sign
A custom-made sign for "Pope's Cafeteria" is now safely stored in Dunn's basement.

<< To Part I of this series

More information:

Preservation Brief 12: Preservation of Historic Pigmented Structural Glass (Vitrolite and Carrara Glass)

The Vitrolite Specialist Web site

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