"Vitrolite Man" Visits Ottawa
by Stephanie Szuda
July 31, 2011
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In the past 30 years, Tim Dunn has worked up a reputation as the "vitrolite man."
Many turn to Dunn for his knowledge of installation and restoration and his supply. He's collected 20 tons of the glass that was popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
"I have all the material. People can do it. It's not impossible. You have to learn," said Dunn, of St. Louis. "All the people who did it originally are dead."
Vitrolite is an opaque pigmented glass that was mainly used for internal and external tiling and façades of buildings from the 1920s to the 1950s. It is often associated with the streamlining aspects of the art deco and art moderne movements.
The glass stopped being produced in the late 1940s. Dunn began working with vitrolite in 1985 and said business bloomed in 1997. He has traveled all over the country restoring the art deco glass and his website, www.vitrolitespecialist.com , received an average of 10 hits a day.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Dunn was in Ottawa to restore the facade of a building in the 200 block of West Madison Street — Buchner & O'Toole Title Company and Designed For You. He also recently sold David Rabideau, who has restored some buildings in downtown Ottawa, vitrolite for Encore Salon, 228 W. Madison St. Dunn said there's a lot of vitrolite in Ottawa, which is a sign the downtown was prosperous in the 1930s.
"It was really popular. It still is — you can see from the resurgence of glass tiles," he said, adding glass tiles are back painted, while vitrolite has colors all the way through.
Dunn learned about vitrolite from Don Caviecy, who worked with the glass for about 30 years.
"I met him one day and he said, 'Nobody else does this. You might want to think about it,'" he said.
Tom showed him the tricks of the trade and Dunn started collecting. People often contact him when they want to dispose of their own glass. Dunn removes it and keeps it for future projects.
When pale green has a resurgence in fashion, he'll be ready for it. The glass comes in 32 colors, with black being the most popular.
The Ottawa facade was done in the late 1920s, early 1930s he estimated. The maroon and grey colors were popular then.
Restoration projects keep Dunn busy, but he's glad to see owners, such as Paul and Sandy Martin who own the Ottawa building, who wish to restore architecture.
"They like the look of it. They like the historic value. It's a piece of the architectural history of Ottawa. It's a good investment for the city.
"If you've got a dead center, people get the impression you have a dead town."