Chances are you've seen Vitrolite or its competitors, even though you may not know it. The smooth, shiny tile, often black or dark green, was used on bakeries, jewelry shops and other businesses years ago.
Thanks to a program the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration pushed during the Depression, Vitrolite and similar finishes popped up on storefronts in small towns across America as well as in downtowns and neighborhoods in large cities. The program provided funding to small business owners to modernize their buildings using the glass tile.
St. Louis is a treasure trove of homes with Vitrolite bathrooms and kitchens. During the 30s, it was considered a sleek, ultramodern application for finer homes here, Dunn said.
Dunn suggests that Vitrolite's popularity here stemmed from how well-connected the local distributor was.
"Who was selling Vitrolite was the Hadley Dean Glass Co. (of St. Louis), and Mr. Hadley was married to Augie Busch's sister," [August A. Busch Jr., known as "Gussie" here but as "Augie" nationally] Dunn said.
"I always tell people I think there's a socio-economic situation here. Mr. Hadley was out there partying with whoever was building all these homes in this belt in the '20s and '30s. It was a 'use-my-Vitrolite-I'll-give-you-a-good-deal' situation."
Dunn calls his relationship with Vitrolite synchronicity, a type of serendipity that leads him to find usable Vitrolite in unexpected places at unexpected times.
That serendipity brought him to Vitrolite in the first place. It was 1980, and he was working as a general contractor doing mostly residential work.
While repairing a Vitrolite bathroom in the Central West End, he met Don Caviecy, a longtime Vitrolite man. "Don and I liked each other," Dunn said. "He said he'd be retiring some day, so I kept that thought in mind."
Nearly 10 years later, when Dunn began to move from general contracting to tile work, he remembered Caviecy. The two worked together for six years, until Caviecy retired last year.
Dunn is aware of just how small a niche the Vitrolite market is. "Do you know candles are a $3 billion a year business in this country?" he asked. "I know people who are in foam board to make signs and print on. That's a $100 million business. That's a pretty small niche compared to candles. Now I'm in a niche that's probably $100,000 a year.
"I'm in a microniche," he said with a laugh. But it's a niche he's happy to have. "A lot of this is just my interest in preserving what's out there, he said. "I've heard from people that I'm the only one in the country really doing this kind of work full-time," Dunn said.