Glimmers of History
Exterior of Bert's downtown drugstore back in high shine
by Laura Bernero
August 17, 2013
A unique brand of multi-colored glass paneling decorates the storefront of Bert's Drug in downtown Hastings, acting both as a modern mirror and a cast of history.
The rectangular, shimmering panels are perfect reflectors of whatever sits near them – including sky, sun and the bright orange sign at Bert's – and they also hearken back to the architectural trends of their era of origin.
The material is called Vitrolite – bright, shiny, three-eights of an inch thick, and one-of-a-kind.
It was first manufactured in the 1910s and used as industrial tiling until it was featured at an art expo in Paris in 1925 and caught the eye of American designers and architects. Throughout the next three decades, owners of department stores, movie theaters, jewelers and pharmacies like Bert's clamored to incorporate the colorful tiles into their facades.
Staff members at Bert's, for instance, saw maroon and "Alamo tan" Vitrolite installed when they moved into their store at the corner of Second Street and Hastings Avenue in 1948.
By 1950, however, Vitrolite no longer was manufactured. Trends marched on, and the glass paneling became harder and harder to get.
Today, the material is kept alive by historic buildings like Bert's downtown drugstore and a man named Timothy Dunn – the self-proclaimed world expert on the unique tiles that helped compose many American downtowns.
"The stuff just twinkles," said Dunn, an Omaha native who has been installing and maintaining Vitrolite for more than 25 years.
"I see this as one way of helping establish our downtowns. It's part of what I am," he said.
For the past three weeks, Dunn was at Bert's for 11 hours a day re-installing the original Vitrolite panels that sit above the store's canopy and replacing many segments that were damaged or broken.
Vitrolite tiles on the front column and the bottom of the storefront also were updated, much to the amusement of pharmacy staff and passers-by.
"It looks like it looked back then," said John Adams, who began managing the downtown Bert's location in 1948 when he was 31 years old. He purchased the store from original owner Bert Burchess, who first occupied the corner building at Second Street and Hastings Avenue in 1928.
A tile man by training, Dunn first learned about Vitrolite from Don Caviecy of St. Louis in 1985 and was told that, if he stuck with it, he would be the sole Vitrolite craftsman in the country. The demand for his services has backed that fact.
"This material spanned the width of America, and beyond," Dunn said. "I've gotten calls and emails from Scotland, England and even Australia."
Dunn now salvages Vitrolite from sites around the country, stores it, and then puts panels to use when he finds a color match, like he did with the tan and red tiles at Bert's. Vitrolite is heavy and air-tight once sealed, so it was a popular choice for industrial buildings, bathrooms and sterile facilities in its heyday, Dunn said.
Dunn has worked on Vitrolite in bathrooms, department stores, homes and historic theaters, including the Grand Theater in downtown Grand Island. Dunn recovered the front of the historic theater in black, white and emerald tiles over the course of three months last summer.
During that project, contractor Dave Hemberger of Hastings, who was planning renovations at Bert's, asked Dunn if he could do the Vitrolite work on the pharmacy.
As is evident in his careful craftsmanship, Dunn has a special place in his heart of historic downtown districts. He hails from Maplewood, Mo. – a town of 8,600 just outside St. Louis – where he has served on the city council for more than 20 years and has championed dozens of historic restoration projects.
"My little town used to be a nice shopping district in the St. Louis region. It was one of the top three or four until the malls took over," Dunn said. "It's much like Hastings. Your downtown is really hopping with its events and things."
In downtown Hastings, Dunn noted two other stores that used Vitrolite – Zinn's Jeweler's, which sports midnight blue and gray tiles, and the former location of the McGee's Menswear store on the corner of Second Street and Lincoln Avenue, which has red tiles.
The look of the retro glass reminds Adams of the days when downtown Hastings was a buzzing place seven days a week.
Department stores selling men's and women's clothing, shoes, gifts and cards saw streams of patrons. The offices of doctors, dentists and optometrists filled the second stories of many main street business buildings, funneling a crowd of prescription seekers into Bert's and seven other pharmacies that were located on Second Street.
"Downtown used to be buzzing," said current store owner Mike Uridil, who with his business partner, Tom Choquette, purchased the store from Adams in 1982. He and Adams remembered a time when a doctor's office, dentist, optometrist, barber shop and bookstore all were housed in the building where Bert's sits.
"Everything was right downtown. There were clothing stores, shoe stores, you name it. And the streets were just full of people," Uridil said.
In those days, the shelves at Bert's were lined with candy, magazines, gifts and pharaceuticals, and the whole air of downtown Second Street invoked a sense of pride in store owners like Adams.
"Bert's was needed. There were eight pharmacies on Second Street alone, but we were always busy," Uridil said. "In those days, the guys worked from 8 or 9 a.m. until after 11 p.m."
The renovations and Vitrolite revival at Bert's were collaborative projects between the Bert's staff, the Hastings Community Redevelopment Authority and Elizabeth Spilinek of Hastings, a trained historic preservationist. Vitrolite was also installed on the east side of the buildling – above the entrance to Grace Baptist Church – to make the building look unified, although the tiles originally were only on the front.
Bert's also plans to reinstall the neon lights that once ran around the marquee of the canopy on the front of the store.
Just like the old medicines displayed in the front windows and the testimony of the long-time pharmacists, the shiny, mirror-like Vitrolite tiles at Bert's echo the livelihood and community that have sustained Bert's and the Hastings downtown district throughout the years.
Some things don't change after all," Adams said.