Graduate Division: Grad Journal
Grad Journal editor Joanne Kim and Graduate Assistant Salim Moore set down with Meredith Stewart (MS 2017), Second-year Historic Preservation student. Stewart has a Masters of Arts degree in Art History from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. where she focused her studies in architectural history. She came to Chicago to delve deeper into her academic pursuit towards Historic Preservation with her background in architectural history.
Joanne Kim (JK): Tell us about your thesis. How did your topic come about?
Meredith Stewart (MS): Over the summer, I was doing a Co-Op internship with a restoration firm based in Chicago called Restoric. I refiled things, organized papers they had in their office, and looked at old past projects during the internship. Then I came across a preservation brief about vitrolite and carrara glass and I’d never heard of either material before. The images were all of 20s, 30s, and 40s deco-type modern buildings, which is kind of the period I tended to write about anyway. I was curious about this material and thought maybe I would so something like that for my thesis.
JK: What are vitrolite and carrara glass?
MS: vitrolite and/or carrara glass is a kind of pigmented structural glass that is used to reclad buildings or storefronts. Initially it was black and white, it’s super glossy, you’d see it with aluminum trim. I can guarantee you’ve seen it. It was a way for people to inexpensively modernize their storefront or replicate marble in their bathroom without actually buying marble, which is how it got the name carrara glass – carrara marble.
JK: So how did your idea take off from there?
MS: When the school year started, because I did that Co-op over the summer, I decided to write about vitrolite for my thesis topic. I grew up North of Toronto and when I was going home for Thanksgiving, I decided to look up where vitrolite was in Toronto, thinking I could go take some pictures of storefronts. I discovered in my research, just looking in Toronto, that the original subway station, which was the first line in Canada, had vitrolite in all of the stations. Only one of the stations still has the original vitrolite. The rest of them have been either removed or covered over. The original vitrolite is still there, but it has been tiled over in the 80s or 90s. I’m trying to, for my thesis, come up with a preservation plan for these stations.
JK: What does your preservation plan entail? What do you hope to accomplish through it?
MS: I hope to suggest ways of best practice for historic preservation through my plan. Say a station needs to be restored and we know there is vitrolite tile under the old tile — I’m trying to decide if I should suggest removing the old tile, keeping the vitrolite, or assembling one complete station. Vitrolite is not a great material for subway stations. It’s a really great material for a lot of things, but it’s not really great with impact. If you hit it really hard, it’s going to shatter. It is also no longer being produced. I discovered through research that even before the subways were operating, they stopped manufacturing vitrolite. So they stopped replacing the tiles when they did crack. When it comes to my preservation plan and my recommendations. I wouldn’t suggest using vitrolite tile because it simply can’t be replaced. So, it’s really trying to come up with a way for Toronto Transit Commission to reflect the spirit of the original without being the “original.” That’s what I’m trying to do.
Salim Moore (SM): Can you talk a little bit more about how your ideas for your thesis formed before coming to SAIC and after? Did you have a general direction you wanted your thesis to take before entering SAIC?
MS: It’s less about architecture than I thought it would be, but it is about preservation. I’ve already studied architectural history before coming to SAIC. So I was really excited to learn new things at SAIC and I was really open to what it could be. Before entering SAIC, I thought my thesis would be more concentrated on architectural history alone. A lot of what a subway station carries is more for the sake of engineering and efficiency than architecture. Vitrolite is the style just out of necessity. It has a lot more flare and isn’t so purpose-built. In that respect, my thesis topic developed in ways I wasn’t expecting. Before, I studied and worked on inner-war period materials and the subway was built in 1954.
SM: What draws you about the inner-war period? Are you drawn because of the design in that time? The era?
MS: All of it. I had a student internship with Parks Canada, which is similar to Department of the Interior. I worked on a project on Art Deco in Canada. I love Art Deco, Art Moderne, and even more simple civic structures from that period. I think it was a very interesting period in history because there was so much happening and changing. Modernity was still developing and in its early stages.
JK: Do you hope to continue your research in inner-war period after graduating from SAIC? What do you see yourself doing after you finish this thesis?
MS: Ultimately, I would like to designate one station in Canada that does still have the vitrolite so that it can’t be further changed. There are a few things that have changed about the station, and I would like to designate it so that you can’t. I’m sure I won’t be able to get that done in the two and a half months remaining in the school. I’m unsure how to do it because we’ve done similar things here in the United States, but as per usual the Canadian version is similar but different.