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Once-trendy tiles reflect
splendor of deco days

In its day, it was the head of the glass.

Structural pigmented glass, known as Vitrolite and by other trade names, was an architectural darling of the 1920s and '30s. Storefronts and home interiors were tiled with it, giving them the sexy, shiny, streamlined look so popular in Art Deco and Art Moderne styles.

The material was touted for its versatility and as a lighter, more durable alternative to marble. And compared to today's glass tile -- thinner, clear and often back-painted -- Vitrolite has a richer, more polished appearance.

"The depth of tone is different than if you just have a piece of glass over paint," said Tim Dunn, a Vitrolite specialist based in St. Louis. "There's a vibrancy and a lusciousness that you don't get with back-painted glass. It stays nice and fresh and glossy."

So, why don't more of us have this material in our homes?

Well, for starters, it hasn't been produced in America since 1947.

Dunn is one of a handful in the country who salvages, restores and installs the obsolete material, which he describes as the siding of its time.

And thanks to this elite cluster of experts, folks who already have the glass in their homes can keep it.

Like Valerie Schroer, who, about five years ago, had to remove part of the Vitrolite in her Kansas City bathroom due to a plumbing problem.

"We tried to save the tile but couldn't," Schroer said. "We did a search on the Internet to find replacements, and we found Tim Dunn."

Dunn restored the tile in the cream-and-black bathroom of the Schroer house, which was built in the late '30s.

"I've talked to neighbors since who have taken (Vitrolite) out and didn't know there was someone out there who could replace it or fix it," Schroer said. "We want people to know how neat it is and how valuable historically."

The splendor in the glass isn't just its rich hue and history.

"It's easy to clean, and it doesn't hold germs," Dunn said. "It's not absorbent, so it's very sanitary."

While marble is porous and can harbor bacteria, glass was championed for its hygiene. It became a mainstay in bathrooms and kitchens. Its nonporous surface also resists stains, Dunn added.

"We just wipe it down -- not a lot of maintenance," said Sinnamon Rhoades, whose kitchen, paved entirely in white glass, was one of the selling points for her and her husband, John, of their 1933 Kansas City home.

But is Vitrolite really all it's cracked up to be? Sure. Unless it cracks.

"It is glass, so it can break," Dunn said. "If someone opens a door too fast or, say, a skateboard hits a piece."

Other than fragility, drawbacks include its limited availability and high cost. Vitrolite costs $60 per square foot installed, plus per diem and travel time, Dunn says.

"Even in its day, it wasn't cheap," he said. But now, homeowners who seek a specific color from Dunn have to hope it's among his stash, 15 tons of tile in his basement workshop.

His collection also includes Vitrolite soap dishes, cup holders, toilet paper holders, towel bars, medicine cabinets, toilets and lavatories. He salvages the sleek panels all over the country from people who just don't have the heart to throw them away.

Dunn, who abandoned his job as a tile setter in 1997 to work exclusively with Vitrolite, keeps plenty busy, between international demand for the glass and national calls for his services. While the bulk of his work is restoration of glass in homes and businesses, 5 percent of his clients request installation.

"They like the look," he said, "and we can do it. You can get a bathroom that looks like it's from the 1920s."

The structural glass fell out of favor during World War II as production costs rose and different tastes emerged.

But to those who still have it, Dunn urges: Keep it.

You can get a historic preservation tax credit, he said, plus you'll be protecting a rare part of yesteryear.

"Why do people save log cabins?" Dunn said. "You're saving a little piece of history."

1900: Marietta Manufacturing Co. of Indianapolis produces its first sheet of "substitute for marble" called Sani-Onyx

1906: Penn-American Plate Glass Co. of Pittsburgh manufactures white and black Carrara glass, and shortly thereafter Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass of Toledo, Ohio, begins producing Vitrolite

1913: The first large-scale interior application is completed in the restrooms of New York's Woolworth Building

1920s: Art Deco movement begins; architects begin substituting structural pigmented glass for traditional materials in exterior and interior projects

1930s: More exotic colors become available, including tropic green, forest green, robin blue and jade; glass veneers have become synonymous with the "modern look," as many downtown business districts were updated with the material

1939: Art Deco period ends; World War II begins

1947: Manufacturers stop producing structural pigmented glass

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