Pieces of the Past

Historic Art Deco-style glass adorns downtown building once again


From the Palestine Herald-Press

PALESTINE – Where some see broken, dirty pieces of glass, Tim Dunn sees beauty.

The Missouri man has turned a passion for thick colored structural glass into a life’s work.

As the owner of Vitrolite Specialist, Dunn is one of few – and maybe the only – craftsmen to specialize in rescuing, restoring and replacing the glass known as Vitrolite or Carrera that was popular from the 1920s into the 1950s on storefronts and theaters.

During the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Art Deco style swept the country with its stylish modern look, transforming storefronts from textured brick and wood with sleek, shiny metal and glass, including in downtown Palestine.

While the style eventually grew dated and was replaced, a small piece is being brought back to life in downtown Palestine.

Dunn and apprentice Hank Falkenberg spent last week at 205 and 207 W. Crawford St. reinstalling quarter inch-thick green Vitrolite glass along the front of the two adjoining former storefronts next door to the Texas Theater.

Their work is part of building owner Jean Mollard’s project to improve the look of the currently empty buildings using grant money received from the Palestine Economic Development Corp.’s Downtown Facade Improvement Program. Mollard also received a similar grant to give the outside of the Redlands Historic Inn a makeover.

Rescuing no longer wanted pieces of the colorful, thick glass, cleaning them, cutting them to fit and bringing beauty to refurbished historic buildings has become Dunn’s specialty.

“It’s a small niche, but it’s my niche,” Dunn said.

Some of his projects include the Rialto Theater in Beeville; the Rivoli Theater in Cedarburg, Wisc.; the former Gibson Building in Appleton, Wisc.; the Fox Theatre in Aurora, Colo.; the Gem Theatre in Kansas City; and the Ritz Theatre in Talladega, Ala.

“Between 1925 and 1938, there were thousands of storefronts put in with Vitrolite,” Dunn said. “Everybody was encouraged to make their places look up to date, to make people spend money. “In a prosperous little town in the Depression, you might see five or 10 places with Vitrolite put in. You don’t see it now.”

To restore the Vitrolite to the building on W. Crawford Street, Dunn and Falkenberg took careful measurements of the areas where it would be applied, removed what was there, cleaned and prepared the brick so that the glass and its adhesive would adhere well, then cleaned, measured and cut the glass to fit. The sections of glass were slipped inside the existing aluminum framework and carefully aligned to be straight and exact.

Mollard said she was pleased not only with the facade’s look but also to learn about the role Vitrolite played in downtown Palestine’s past.

“I am so impressed,” Mollard said. “I know so much more about what Vitrolite stood for now. PPG was one of the companies which made the glass. ‘We save Main Street’ was their motto. It was so all the storefronts would look the same.”

In downtown Palestine during the Depression and into the 1950s, the heavy colorful glass apparently was a popular addition to storefronts. Evidence of its existence on 15 storefronts has been found, she said.

“We were a boom town then,” Mollard said. “Oil and the railroad kept us from being a struggling community.”

Main Street director and city historic preservation officer Neely Plumb said he was excited to see the glass going up. While the green panels might not be as ornate as some buildings were with multiple colors making up the overall design, they still represent an important part of Palestine’s past, he said.

“This is a wonderful thing,” Plumb said, noting that Atlas Credit, the Texas Art Depot, the old Union Drugs and Copeland Jewelers also had the colorful glass in their storefronts. “The Art Depot has special ordered Vitrolite that looks like marble. It’s very rare.

“Palestine was a very avant garde, progressive city at that time. The railroad was here, there was lots of money and businesses were prospering. We’ve got a photo of the Texas Theater in 1947 that shows it had Vitrolite as well.”

In addition to bringing some of the past back to life, re-installing the structural glass also serves as another way to “green” a project, Plumb added. Vitrolite and Carrera are no longer manufactured, meaning each piece that Dunn and Falkenberg use is an existing piece of glass.

“This is what ‘green’ building is – recycling existing materials and buildings,” he said. “They don’t make it any longer.”

Being a part of the current revitalization going on in downtown Palestine was exciting for Dunn, himself a city councilman in his suburb of St. Louis.

“There’s something happening here,” Dunn said. “There’s lots of activity and interest.

“We’ll go to a town and we may be the only ones working on a building. You’ve got recent restorations at the Chamber of Commerce and the Texas Theater. It’s nice to see.”

All photos by Beth Foley of the Palestine Herald. Click on them for larger images.

Tim Dunn, owner of Vitrolite Specialist, measures a piece of glass before cutting it.

Green Vitrolite glass once again adorns the front of 205 and 207 W. Crawford St.

Hank Falkenberg carefully fits a section of Vitrolite glass into place at 205 W. Crawford St.

Green-black marblized Vitrolite complements the front of the Texas Art Depot.