Kirby ‘s ‘Searched the World Over’ for 1930s Glass for Flower Shop’s Walls
William “Pop” Kirby would have been so very proud of his granddaughter Elisa Kirby-Valli.
Pop Kirby started Kirby’s Flowers & Gifts shop on the corner of Gallia and Findlay streets in Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1924. In the early 1930s, he had the exterior walls of the building covered with squares of burgundy and tan Vitrolite, a decorative glass touted as the architectural darling of the 1920s and ’30s, making quite an impression in the downtown area.
Storefronts, theaters and homes of the “well-to-do” sported Vitrolite or Carrara (the same type of product only made by a different company). The colored opaque glass was versatile and lighter and considered a more durable alternative to the Italian marble that it resembled.
Eighty-six years later, Kirby’s Flowers, owned and operated by Kirby-Valli and her cousin John Kirby Jr., still is providing beautiful floral arrangements and gifts for residents in and around Portsmouth. And, the building housing the shop, remarkably, still sports its Vitrolite finish. However, that almost wasn’t the case.
In 2008, water seeped behind the squares of the exterior glass causing it to push out from the walls. Fearing the glass might fall on a passerby’s head, Kirby-Valli had it all removed. Then she was left to decide how to cover the exterior walls of the building. From the start, her decision was, if at all possible, to replace the exterior decoration with the same material her grandfather had installed. Easier said than done. The problem was the manufacture of Vitrolite and Carrara ceased more than half a century ago, sometime in 1947. The Vitrolite Company made the material from 1908-1935 with Libbey-Owens-Ford picking up production from 1935-1947 while Penn-American Plate Glass, also known as Pittsburgh Glass, began production of Carrara in 1906. Vitrolite and Carrara fell out of favor in the mid-20th century as tastes changed and production costs rose.
“I searched the world over. Well, across the U.S. anyway. I made thousands of phone calls. For nearly two years, I had to look at these bare exterior walls every day when I came in to work. But, I was determined to put the exterior back the way my grandfather had it,” Kirby-Valli said. “It was a challenge, but I didn’t give up. Then, finally, by the grace of God, I discovered this man in Missouri.”
Tim Dunn, whose shop is in St. Louis, is a Vitrolite specialist. He salvages it from structures being demolished – any way he can get his hands on a cache or a few pieces of Vitrolite or Carrara. He had six tons of it on hand at his business.
He and Kirby-Valli talked back and forth by e-mail about her situation at the flower shop. He sent her small pieces of the glass through the mail until he was sure he had the right colors and enough of it to do the job. He had the burgundy on hand while the tan was salvaged from a storefront in College Station, Texas.
Kirby-Valli could hardly believe her good fortune. “I was elated when the colors matched the very colors my grandfather had installed more than 75 years ago. I asked him how soon could he come to Portsmouth.”
On May 4, 2010, Dunn and his associate Hank Falkenberg parked their van, loaded withglass along with their tools and glues, on Findlay Street and began the job of restoration. Within 10 days, they finished it. They polished it all, and Kirby’s exterior had the same glow it had when it was new.
“They worked all through our busy Mother’s Day holiday. I’m very pleased with the work they did. They formed each piece to fit perfectly,” Kirby-Valli said.
Dunn was hoping the job he did for Kirby’s would bring him additional business in the Portsmouth-Ashland area. Owners of other stores in Portsmouth, especially in the Boneyfiddle area, came by to watch the work being done and questioned him about prices and availability.
Dunn stepped back to admire his work on the old building, much like an artist would admire his finished work on canvas.
“We put six panels out front and about 20 panels on the side here,” he said. “Isn’t it beautiful? This material hasn’t been made in America since 1947. I’m glad Elisa found us.”
His next job after Portsmouth, he said, was a storefront in Louisville.
“I’ll never forget the day he finished,” Elisa said. “He came into the store, gave me a salute, and said, ‘Tim Dunn is Dunn!’”
And, it was a job well done…