Yet another art deco icon is rapidly joining the Trylon, the Perisphere, and the Chrysler Airflow. Vitrolite structural glass was in many ways the perfect art deco surface; sleek, hard, and lustrous as ice in a sunbeam.

Downtown Washington was once filled with Vitrolite, from the violet shades of the Russell Stover storefront near the Treasury to the electric greens of the Whitlow's Restaurant facade on E Street NW. But today Washington's Vitrolite survives only in rare corners, as much through neglect as deliberate preservation.


Vitrolite was neither the first opaque structural glass nor an innovation of the art deco era. Structural glass first appeared about 1900, when the Marietta Manufacturing Company began advertising "Sani-Onyx" as an easy-to-clean, gVitrolite was neither the first opaque structural glass nor an innovation of the art deco era. Structural glass first appeared about 1900, when the Marietta Manufacturing Company began advertising "Sani-Onyx" as an easy-to-clean, germ-free surface. Penn-American Plate Glass soon followed with "Carrara Glass", which mimicked marble. Vitrolite came on the market shortly before World War I.

Although as many as ten companies eventually produced structural glass, its manufacture required major investment. The Vitrolite plant, for example, covered eighteen acres outside Parkersburg, West Virginia. The manufacturing process involved superheating pigment and glass ingredients to 3,000 degrees F, adding flourides to the molten mix, and then rolling the vitrified glass into sheets of the desired thickness. As the sheets cooled for as many as five days, the flourides crystalized throughout the glass and rendered it opaque. The final luminous finish was achieved by flame polishing or additional rolling with fine sand.

The manufacture of pigmented structural glass was an exacting craft, as uniform color and opacity depended on precise temperature control at every stage of the process. Although Vitrolite and Carrara Glass eventually became synomymous with vivid color, structural glass originally came only as black or white.


Structural glass received a major boost in 1913 when architect Cass Gilbert clad the restrooms of the Woolworth Building, then the world's tallest structure, in Carrara Glass. But into the 1920s, Vitrolite and its sisters were promoted as utilitarian surfaces for bathrooms, laundries, and kitchens. Furniture makers recommended Sani-Onyx table tops doused with cool water for rolling pastry, while Maytag used Vitrolite-lined tubs as a selling point for its washers.


The structural glass facade fad took off around the same time as Lindbergh. In 1927, the New York Times noted that a new office building at 57th Street and Broadway was to be clad in plate glass and Vitrolite. In 1929, the influential stage designer and architect Joseph Urban sketched a new Broadway theater, to be faced in:

Vitrolite, a gleaming black glass. At various levels across the front stretch the horizontal lines of the fire escape balconies in golden metal work... Thus I have tried to apply the fire escapes as a golden arabesque against the gleaming black of the facade itself.

Urban complained that the retrofitted electric signs of "The Great White Way" had overwhelmed classical theatre facades. He made illuminated advertising an organic element of his theater's facade by stretching sign panels across the fire escapes, thus utilizing both the contrast and reflectivity of the black vitrolite backdrop.

This dramatic talent for accentuating illuminated signs as well as the almost-too-vivid for Technicolor hues available after 1930 helped Vitrolite make the jump from Broadway to Main Street. During the early 1930's, Libby-Owens-Ford Glass purchased the Vitrolite Company and in 1935 sponsored a "Modernize Main Street Competition" with $11,000 in cash prizes that drew over 3,000 entries for a wide variety of storefronts. By the end of the decade, Vitrolite was as much a storefront fixture as awnings.

Presumably DC had lost much of its Vitrolite to changing fashion by 1980, even though retail downtown changed mostly through slow deterioration after shopping shifted to the suburbs in the 1950s. But the 1980s and early 1990s saw most of what remained of old downtown obliterated for larger-scale development. Virtually all remaining Vitrolite facades were collateral casualties.

The fate of the Whitlow's Restaurant facade reflects the ironies of the time. Whitlow's, which opened at 1017 E Street NW in 1946, had a full Vitrolite facade even more famous than the turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy that was the specialty of the house. Its dominant color was jade, with a tropic green border. When Whitlow's block was acquired for a major development in 1989, the building's facade was restored and preserved. However, the restoration was to the facade's nineteenth century appearance, and the Vitrolite disappeared.

Today most of Washington's facade glass is found in outlying neighborhood business districts. Each year sees attrition, whether of whole storefronts or panel-by-panel. Structural glass panels are up to to an inch and a half thick, which makes them hard to break but heavy. Most anchoring systems required bonding the panels to masonry with a hot adhesive and supporting every other course with an iron angle shelf. The original sealant between panels was colorized cork tape which had an estimated life of ten years. In time deteriorated tape admits water, the iron rusts away, and panels may peal away from the masonry and shatter. Because structural glass is no longer made in the United States, matching damaged panels is often somewhere between difficult and impossible.


Brightly-colored full Vitrolite facades lent a festive note to post-prohibition nightclubs and liquor stores. Perhaps Washington's best surviving glass storefront is the former home of Greyhound Liquors, a block down New York Avenue NE from the magnificent art deco Hecht Company warehouse.

Greyhound Liquors, which opened circa 1938 in a neighborhood of gas stations and warehouses, apparently took its name from a nearby bus garage. During its earlier years, the store was robbed at gunpoint at least a dozen times, once reportedly by the "Bandage Face Bandit" alleged to have murdered a grocer during a robbery wave in the fall of 1942. Nonetheless, the business endured at 1361 New York Avenue NE until 2004.

Today the vacant storefront, with its stairstep pediment and teal and black color scheme reminescent of a 1938 DeSoto, has lost a few glass panels but appears largely intact.


The former Hamlin Liquors near the intersection of Hamlin Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE retains intriguing remenants of its original facade and signage. This 1937 building was perhaps the final project of W.S. Plager, a veteran DC builder and commercial architect whose career stretched back to the 1890s.

Life was quieter on Hamlin Street than on New York Avenue. In fact, the only newsworthy events at 1812 1/2 Hamlin Street NE occurred in 1938, when several Woodridge neighborhood groups protested the new store's liquor license.

Some of Washington's most distinctive art deco storefronts stretch along Kennedy Street NW just west of North Capitol Street. The row from 12 to 20 Kennedy Street NW has such "moderne" accents as a cornice with septuple bands of chrome and contrasting black and an apricot glass facade which curves around the corner onto First Place NW. Built in 1936 as five stores after a design by R.S. Murray, the row has been home to generations of small neighborhood-oriented businesses.



The row's original tenants were the Chillum Heights Pharmacy at the corner of First Place and the Louis Dantuono Barbershop at 20 Kennedy Street NW. This storefront has housed barber shops for nearly seventy years.

Today Vitrolite and other structural glasses are enjoying a renaissance of appreciation. To be sure, Washington has some success stories, such as the restoration of the Avalon Theatre or the restrooms of the Department of Justice. However, the plight of its surviving facades remains desperate.

Vitrolite's gem-like colors lent themselves to jewelry and mosiacs. The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library has spectacular WPA-commissioned Vitrolite murals, perhaps because the Owens-Libby-Ford Glass Company's was headquartered in Toledo.
While Toledo's murals have recently been restored, other structural glass art has fared less well.

The Hadley-Dean Glass Building in St. Louis recently lost much of its spectacular 1928 King Tut-themed Sani-Onyx glass decor.

The Chrysler Building's Cloud Room was one of the ultimate expressions of high style art deco. Its decor included an etched Vitrolite mural of an automotive assembly line. After being shuttered for years, the room interior was reportedly largely destroyed in 2004.

Tim Dunn, St. Louis' "Vitrolite Man", is single-handedly responsible for the preservation and restoration of numerous Vitrolite facades. His website "The Vitrolite Specialist" is a comprehensive resource which includes color samples.

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