From the July 25, 2005 Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune
You may have walked past it dozens -- or, perhaps, hundreds -- of times without noticing it. But for Vitrolite specialist Tim Dunn, older buildings with sleek tinted glass grab his attention and send him back in time when Vitrolite was the building material of choice.
This St. Louis man travels throughout the country restoring and replacing this once popular pigmented structural glass called Vitrolite. He arrived in Chillicothe on Thursday to start work on the Hotel Strand which is undergoing a major renovation to turn the historic building into apartments.
Vitrolite became popular in the early 1900's and was initially used for industrial purposes. Its non-porous surface was attractive for businesses that ranked sanitation as a high priority.
It wasn't until the mid-1920s that Vitrolite took off as an attractive and versatile building material and was used in Art Deco and Art Moderne architectural styles. It was used primarily for interior and exterior wall surfacing.
"It makes a bold impression to people walking by and window shopping," he said. "That was very important in the 1920s and 30s when people did window shopping."
On the Hotel Strand, Vitrolite was used as the background for the "Carriage Horse Restaurant" signage as well as for the bulkhead (the area below the picture windows at the restaurant). The Hotel Strand was built in 1925.
Vitrolite, unlike masonry unites such as terra cotta, became popular because it would not warp or swell. Nor was the glass highly susceptible to staining, fading or burning. It was impervious to moisture and could easily be maintained and usually cleaned with a damp cloth. It was also adaptable to a wide range of uses and colored to attain brilliant visual qualities.
The Hotel Strand's Vitrolite was maroon agate. Through the restoration process, about 90 percent of the original Vitrolite was salvaged, leaving Dunn with the challenge of providing the missing 10 percent.
'Dunn, 52, started his career as a general contractor, then became a tile setter and, since 1997, has been working exclusively with Vitrolite. Through the years he has accumulated 13 tons of pigmented plate glass, a valuable asset for his business largely because Vitrolite was last manufactured in 1947.
"It lost its place in the world of taste," Dunn said.
However, to Dunn, Vitrolite has a special quality unmatched by anything manufactured today.
"It has a style that is unique," he said. "I'm a little biased, but there is nothing as good as Vitrolite."
Black Vitrolite can be found on the building now housing Park Shoes at the northwest corner of Webster and Locust streets in Chillicothe. The glass is in the bulkhead of the store's exterior.
Vitrolite was a lucrative building material and used as an alternative instead of ceramic, Dunn said.
"It was all the rage," he said, noting that the most popular colors were white and jade green.
Vitrolite was used in homes as well as businesses. Dunn said people choose to restore Vitrolite for historical preservation as well as for the appearance it provides.
In all, there is about 180 square-feet of Vitrolite that Dunn is restoring and replacing at the Hotel Strand.
Dunn said that restoring the Vitrolite is a slow, tedious process and that he planned to complete the project Tuesday night and then move on to do some more work on the Park Shoes building.
Dunn's experience also includes restoration work at the Gem Theatre in the 18th & Vine Historic District of Kansas City in 1997. In that project, Dunn replaced the dust rose Vitrolite pigmented plate glass of the theater's facade.
(photo caption) Tim Dunn paints primer into the front of the Fox Theatre yesterday afternoon, in preparation for the Vitrolite tile he will install to improve the appearance of the building on East Colfax Avenue. Vitrolite is a pigmented plate glass, mechanically ground, that has a mirror finish with no distortion. It was especially popular as an Art Deco material in the 1930s. Dunn is from St. Louis.