CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Vitrolite, a form of pigmented structural glass made only in West Virginia, had a sensational run while it lasted.
Its production began in 1908 in Vienna, Wood County, in a factory operated by the Meyercord-Carter Co. Six years later, the company reorganized as the Vitrolite Co. and moved to a new factory covering 18 acres in nearby Parkersburg. As demand for the product increased, the company and its production plant were bought in 1935 by the glass giant Libbey-Owens-Ford.
The product became a mainstay of the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne schools of architecture, creating a demand for 5 million square feet of Vitrolite and its main competitor, Carrara glass, by 1929.
By the end of World War II, though, demand for Vitrolite cratered and, in 1958, production ceased.
“From the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, it was all the fashion,” said Tim Dunn, owner-operator of St. Louis-based Vitrolite Specialist, a company that salvages and restores Vitrolite.
“Back then, anyone who had money to spend to update their home or business bought Vitrolite,” said Dunn, perhaps the only person in the world now making a living exclusively from Vitrolite. “It went into a lot of theaters, storefronts and restaurants. In the St. Louis area, there are neighborhoods where 100% of the homes have Vitrolite in their bathrooms and kitchens.”
During the Great Depression, Dunn said, a number of business owners took advantage of a low-interest “Modernize Main Street” loan program offered by the federal government to get cash for Vitrolite upgrades.
But by the 1950s, Art Deco was out of vogue and GIs home from the war were interested in low-cost tract homes, in which there was no place for panels of thick, durable plate glass, by then available in 32 colors.
This week, Dunn is restoring Vitrolite wall panels in a pair of ground-floor public restrooms in the West Virginia Capitol, where architect Cass Gilbert ordered them installed nearly 90 years ago. He is using undamaged Vitrolite sheets salvaged from 11 other Statehouse restrooms to complete the work.
Originally marketed as a less porous, more sanitary, more durable and lower-cost alternative to marble, Vitrolite’s earliest applications typically involved kitchens, countertops and bathrooms.
Gilbert, apparently an early fan of the West Virginia-made structural glass, also ordered Vitrolite panels installed in restrooms in the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, which he designed five years before beginning work on the West Virginia Statehouse. In 1913, Gilbert ordered Vitrolite — although some accounts say Carrara glass — installed in the restrooms of the 60-story Woolworth’s Building in New York, then the world’s tallest building.
Dunn’s work recently took him to another Gilbert-designed structure, the U.S. Supreme Court building. There, he refurbished Vitrolite in the bathroom and kitchenette of Chief Justice John Roberts’ living quarters.
“All the justices have their own apartments where they stay when they are working long hours on opinions,” he said. “Guards were with us at all times and, every morning, my van was checked by an explosives-sniffing dog.”
Dunn said he saw Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during that project, while his assistant was invited to lunch with Roberts.
Among other noteworthy Vitrolite jobs, Dunn includes a 39-day restoration project at the Hoover Dam involving the control room, restrooms and other facilities.
Since going into the Vitrolite restoration and salvage business full time, Dunn has worked on projects from California to Toronto. He is no stranger to Charleston, having done extensive restoration work on the exterior of the Quarrier Diner, the former State Theater on Washington Street East and a Kanawha Boulevard apartment building.
Dunn learned the ropes of the Vitrolite restoration trade from Don Caviecy, who had kept the art of Vitrolite installation and restoration alive since 1964 as a solo practitioner. Starting in 1985, Dunn, then a general contractor, worked with Caviecy on number of Vitrolite projects, going into the business full time in 1997, following his mentor’s retirement.
Dunn is now the nation’s only full-time Vitrolite restoration and installation specialist. And he is recognized by the federal government as the sole contractor capable of fulfilling project requirements.
“I’m the one-man Walmart of Vitrolite,” he said during a pause in his work at the Statehouse. “The work can be tedious at times, but interest in Vitrolite restoration is growing. People call from all over the world. It’s pretty nice having no competition.”