Carrara Glass

A lot has been happening lately that has gotten in the way of me writing here, so I’m posting this entry while I finish up some longer ones…

[Jones Dept. Store, 108 Sunset Ave; the building now houses Republican Headquarters. To its right is Baker’s Shoe Store.]

[The squares of black glass are striped with duct tape to prevent breaking.]

Late this summer as we moved back into my office at 19 S. Fayetteville Street, I found a workman removing the last pieces of broken tile from the entrance of the restaurant next door.

[Broken black Carrara glass, looking like a mirror.]

That wasn’t just any tile, however; it was a half-inch-thick reflective glass, technically called “pigmented structural glass” and called here locally “Carrara Glass”. Asheboro’s Sunset Avenue was once covered with the stuff. The photo at the head of this post shows Jones Department Store (probably taken in the early 1960s), and not only that store but the storefronts to both sides are covered in black Carrara Glass.

[The round dollops of glue visible on the back of the panel below kept the tile adhered to the brick wall.]

Pigmented structural glass seems to have been first produced in 1900 by the Marietta Manufacturing Company as a “substitute for marble.” Marietta’s product was called “Sani Onyx,” and was used as a hygienic lining for refrigerators. Penn-American Plate Glass Company rolled out a white and black product in 1906 they called “Carrara Glass,” named for the glass’s close resemblance to marble mined in the Carrara quarries of Italy. Before 1910 Libby-Owens-Ford Glass began production of their own version called “Vitrolite.” The first prominent interior use of pigmented structural glass was in New York’s 1913 Woolworth Building, where architect Cass Gilbert sheathed the restrooms with Carrara Glass.

Pigmented Structural Glass hit its popularity height during the 1920s and 30s, when it became synonymous with the streamlined Art Deco and Art Moderne architectural styles. From the sleek Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, to storefronts all across American Main Streets, Carrara Glass and its siblings fit the bill for slick, streamlined, shiny, materials suitable for interior and exterior use. Asheboro’s Belk Department Store, the largest commercial building built downtown in the 1930s, used Carrara glass exclusively on its façade (destroyed in a 1962 fire).

The many smaller Asheboro storefronts which exhibited Carrara Glass in various colors and shades (though Black and White were always the most popular) speak to the versatility of pigmented structural glass for updating older commercial buildings. By 1940 the commercial buildings in downtown Asheboro were all between 25 and 40 years old; as they were remodeled, each began to sport modernized street level facades using chrome, stainless steel, and Carrara Glass. This transformation was encouraged by New Deal programs from the Federal Housing Administration which granted low-interest insured business loans for remodeling, and structural glass veneers became synonymous with a desirable “modern look”. This uniform Art Deco “look” or design style grew out of a “Modernize Main Street” competition sponsored in 1935 by the Architectural Record magazine and Libby-Owens-Ford Glass, and judged in part by architect Albert Kahn.

Almost all of Asheboro Carrara glass has been lost in the last 20 years; those Art Deco/ New Deal remodeled facades have been been remodeled again and again. Though the original buildings have been preserved and reused, the “contemporary” style familiar to several generations of county residents has vanished.

For much more information, see the National Park Service Preservation Brief on “Preservation of Historic Pigmented Structural Glass” and “Our Vanishing Vitriolite”.

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