Tim Dunn is the last Vitrolite specialist in the United States, and this week he is in Talladega, revisiting the first major project he took on by himself more than 20 years ago.
Aside from the courthouse, the art deco facade of the Ritz Theater is perhaps the city of Talladega’s most recognizable landmark. But it wasn’t always that way.
According to Executive Director George Culver, by the mid-1990s, the building was run down and falling apart, and there was talk of demolishing it. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but restoring the building to its historic splendor was going to take some doing.
The building’s facade is covered with Vitrolite, an opaque structural glass that was commonly used in art deco buildings from the 1920s to the mid-1940s, but has not been made since the 1950s.
“Talladega’s Ritz opened in 1937, and every inch of its facade is covered in black, cranberry red, French vanilla and sea green Vitrolite,” Culver said. “When a major restoration was initiated in 1996-1997, community organizers sought advice on Vitrolite restoration craftsmen from the League of Historic American Theaters, who recommended Tim Dunn as the top specialist in the U.S.”
As it happened, Dunn had recently salvaged just the right glass for the project from a store front in Chattanooga that he spotted while he and his wife were on vacation there.
“I saw it and called the realtor,” he said.
In the 1990s, Culver said, there were about 300 individual Vitrolite pieces on the outside of the building, but at least 118 of those were either damaged or missing.
“Each glass panel Dunn replaced was genuine period Vitrolite in perfect matching colors,” he said.
Since then, Dunn said Thursday, the theater has been “maintained immaculately. The people here are just about the only ones to comply with a request to keep a check on it.”
After more than two decades, Dunn said he will be replacing about 18 pieces on the front of the building, three above the marquee and one corner piece. Cleanup and inspection should be complete by the end of the week. While he is in town, he will also be training a local ceramic tile craftsman, Scott Champion of Munford, to handle any minor repairs that might come up, using a few panels Dunn will leave behind for that purpose.
The current project was made possible by a grant from the Alabama Historic Commission, with matching funds from the Protective Life Corporation and the Talladega Pilgrimage Council.
Dunn worked with Don Caviesci, an old hand with Vitrolite, in St. Louis from the 1960s to the 1990s.
“He told me it was a good business, and that I should try it out around 1985,” he said.
He did, and eventually ended up founding Vitrolite Specialists Incorporated. The Talladega Ritz was the first major project he took on after going out on his own.
Since then he has worked salvage and restoration projects all over the United States, from the federal triangle in Washington, D.C., to the administrative office and meeting rooms at Hoover dam. He has renovated the bathrooms at Rockefeller Center and in the actual Rockefeller home in Westchester, N.Y. He worked on restoring Jackie Gleason’s house, and recently salvaged a tremendous amount of Vitrolite from a bomb shelter in Colorado.
Talladega still holds a special place for him, though.
“It’s really been kind of a spiritual trip for me,” he said. “It’s been a great ride, I’ve made good income and gotten to travel everywhere, working on theaters, restaurants, bathrooms, everything. He has taken on an apprentice, but right now he is the only person working in this particular medium in the country. And it all started in Talladega."