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Glass treasure found behind decaying facade

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Tom Brammer (left) and Jeff Ray (right) hold up pieces of rare prism glass discovered as repairs were being made to the 1321 Broad St. building, remembered by some as the former home of Allen’s Young Fashions.
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This historic prism glass was recently discovered underneath the facade of a downtown New Castle building at 1321 Broad St. This type of glass reportedly originated in the 1890s.
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Jeff Ray (right) checks with workers repairing the front of a downtown New Castle building at 1321 Broad St. During the rehabilitation work, some unique decorative prism glass panels were discovered, giving Ray and the Preserve Henry County, Inc. group new ideas for what the building could look like in the future.

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

Saving an old building can be a treasure hunt of sorts.

Recently, Tom Brammer, a master carpenter, had to stop what he was doing to call Preserve Henry Co. Inc.’s Jeff Ray with some exciting news about a project at 1321 Broad St.

“How soon are you going to be here?” Brammer asked Ray. “I might have a little surprise for you.”

Underneath a decaying facade where Allen’s Young Fashions operated for many years were several panels of historic prism glass. Ray, Henry County’s “trail” blazer sparking creation of the Wilbur Wright Trail and its Henry County connections, was excited about this literal window into the past.

“We’re going to restore this,” he said. “We want to. We have to.”

Ray said a recent conversation with Bob Post at Pendleton gave him some greater perspective on the decorative glass. According to Post, this kind of glass dates back as far as the 1890s, when it became a popular addition to existing buildings.

A website entitled “Forgotten Chicago” illustrates the popularity of early glass block and prism glass. The information included references to renown American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who had ties to Luxfer glass, one of the early companies. In 1897, Luxfer hired an aspiring young Wright to design prism tiles for their line. Wright completed and patented over 40 designs for Luxfer, only one of which was produced. 

At one time, according to the website, more than 27,000 buildings in the United States were equipped with Luxfer Prism glass.

But the website said the artistic glass met its downfall in a variety of ways. As electric light grew in popularity, the need for such light-efficient designs decreased.

“It was far more hip to show the open use of electric light (and ostensibly the money to wire up locations and pay for electricity) than to worry about conservation,” the website said.

Styles also changed. Minimalism and modernism rose thru the 1920s, and the quaint detail of the prism glass appeared old-fashioned. Air conditioning also increased in usage starting in the 1920s. Many of the old storefronts had high ceilings which could easily be repurposed with duct work. Ducts were ugly, so hiding them with drop ceilings was an obvious solution. The drop ceilings covered the high transom windows that often had the prism glass, rendering them useless.

The website concluded by stressing the use of advertising and signage grew through the 1920s and 1930s. Many shops were far more interested in larger areas for their signs, and the transom areas above display windows were a natural place for signs and awnings. Without the need for natural light (due to the spread of electric light), it was a hard argument to keep those windows dedicated to prism glass.

Ray envisions having the unique glass panels restored and going all the way across the facade area of the building.

“You can’t find this glass anymore,” Ray said. “It’s just super expensive if you do, because people like these little pieces and they make other stuff with them. This is all going to have to completely taken apart and redone. I have no idea what this is going to cost, but it’s not going to be cheap because that all takes time.”

The glass discovery is just the latest chapter in the ongoing story of saving the Broad Street building, which was once the home of Cliff Payne Clothing, Inc. Ray asked for and received a $100,000 facade grant from the New Castle Redevelopment Commission last October. The RDC grant made possible a $60,000 loan from the Indiana Landmarks Foundation for additional building improvements.

The work on the 1321 Broad St. building is important, according to Ray, because “It is part of the only complete block left in downtown New Castle.”