The lost art of restoring Luxfer Glass is complete at 218 Middle Street. The newly-restored transom sparkles in the sunlight.
Posted May 7, 2020 at 9:04 AM
Michaele Rose and John Watson are on a mission to save all the Luxfer glass in New Bern.
Luxfor glass: prismatic tiles. Nobody makes them any more, and since the advent of electricity – which admittedly was some time ago – they really aren’t needed anymore. But several downtown buildings have them and, once upon a time, most did.
It’s those glass tile transoms you see in some of the buildings like Baxter’s, Baker’s Kitchen and Mitchell Hardware. Made up of multiple squares of thick, patterned glass held together within leaded frames, the glass runs parallel to the ground, above the storefront window.
It’s too high up to look through, and if you could you couldn’t make out anything, anyway. It looks like fancy, but meaningless, decoration.
But it does let in a lot of light—and that’s the point. Prismatic glass has raised patterns facing the street, while the glass inside the storefront is cut in a ridged pattern, or prisms, that bends the late day light and redirects it into the store, allowing them to operate later in the earlier, primitive days when electricity only flowed through Ben Franklin’s kite string. Those glass tiles work in a manner similar to the prismatic glass that lighthouses use to throw focus over longer distances.
Even after electricity was “a thing,” it took a while for much of America to get it (in the 1940s, most of rural Craven and Pamlico county farms had no electricity at all).
“These tiles were pretty cool,” Michaele said. ’The purpose of them is to bring light into the structures as the end of the day comes about. These buildings are narrow and long,” so the redirected light was a godsend during the industrial revolution.
“We had all these inventions coming out of America,” she said.
In 1896 James Pennycuick – a name you would expect to find in a Dickens novel – opened the Radiating Light Company, later renamed the Luxfer Prism Company, to produce his new invention that added horizontal prisms to the back side of square glass tiles that would help light up dark sections in many stores. While other companies would produce the glass, the Luxford version was best known and most often used.
John Long, an anesthesiologist who lived and worked in New Bern before moving to St. Louis, bought the early 20th century 218 Middle Street building and decided he wanted to restore it to reflect its original use. Floors were torn up and rebuilt and original lumber salvaged. While some local businesses have put Plexiglas over their prismatic tile transoms or otherwise covered them, he knew he wanted them restored to their original condition.
“It just had to be done,” he said. “Panes were falling out.” Wanting to “make the building special for downtown to add to the draw, to give people more reason to come down,” he went about getting the glass fixed. “We had it restored from the highest standard,” he said, “and we were so lucky that the artisan (Watson) was right across the street.”
Both she and John said the restoration was hard work – and almost a lost art. The transom was taken apart, with some glass tiles having to be replaced. That, alone, was a trick since they aren’t made anymore. Purchases were made on E-bay type sites, and some that were purchased were tossed aside as they weren’t truly accurate.
After weeks of work the glass was carefully reinstalled on the storefront. Long said he was surprised and pleased with the result, including copper work around it that had become so deteriorated that he had not known what it actually was.
The building still stands in a gutted condition, slowly being rebuilt to suit new tenant Leigh-Ann Sullivan who will be housing an apothecary and general store that features entirely North Carolina-made products. The second floor will be a bar serving only North Carolina liquors, beers and wine – “all of this drink crafted in such a way that they can be non-alcoholic, and they’re good for you,” Sullivan said.
The newly-restored transom sparkles in the sunlight and “by August that building is going to be lit up” by natural light, Michaele said.
Now that 218 Middle Street is finished, she’s setting her eyes on convincing other businesses with worn Luxfor glass transom to let them do their magic.
“Glass is just beautiful to work with,” she said.