Glass from the Past: In a glass block factory, a living history of Chicago architecture

wall of glass, photo by flickr user Voxphoto
The exterior of the Hardy Glass Company building shows the marks of time passed: the cement walls are dirtied, the yellowed company sign no longer shines. But the unspoiled brick glass wall that stands at the front of the building serves as the time capsule from the company’s establishment in 1933. The wall is comprised of six large panels, each a mosaic of mostly translucent glass blocks interspersed with green, red, yellow and blue blocks. This wall not only displays the work of the factory, but is also representative of the glass block trend in the Chicago area that emerged in the early 20th century.

The Hardy Glass Company is located on the Far South Side at 711 W. 103rd Street. The company began as a three-person operation installing glass blocks in homes around the Chicago area. Founder Ed Hardy ran the company for thirteen years, until his son William C. Hardy began to work alongside him in 1946. The company has been passed down through the Hardy family for four generations.

Upon the company’s establishment, glass blocking was on the rise as an increasingly popular and illustrious industry in the Chicago area. Glass blocks popped up in both business and residential areas of the city. These blocks were distributed as decorative splashes of color which brought life to the often utilitarian Chicago gray brick homes. Blocks were also used as geometric designs, which accompanied the mosaic glass displays of larger institutions like churches and synagogues. There was a variety of patterns, some more popular than others, which became the staple product for Hardy Glass Company. Some basic patterns have not changed for eighty years. Although the presence of glass blocks was once characteristic of certain styles of Chicago architecture, the trend began to fade. Over the years, as the trend dissipated, so too the did market for the glass blocks fade and change.

“Our main market is still home owners,” William P. Hardy, the current CEO of Hardy Glass Company explains. “Glass blocks are now primarily used for security reasons. They are nearly bulletproof and, once cemented into a wall, are as equally strong as the wall itself.” While these glass blocks were once a desired object due to their aesthetic, they are now primarily found on the South Side as a security measure.

The interior of the factory, like its exterior, seems frozen in the era of its heyday. Inside, the company offices, impeccably clean and painted by trends from decades past, have the same faded quality the company sign suggests. Just as the glamor of these colored glass blocks has waned, so too has the cultural relevance of the Hardy Company products. While there remains an assembly line and separate section for the many different colored blocks, and even colorful displays within the factory itself, the simple glass blocks used for pragmatic purposes are now the primary product. “Many of our blocks are meant for below ground level. These glass blocks prevent water from coming in those homes that get flooded by the Des Plaines River,” Hardy says. These are windows buried underground, not meant to delight passersby with ornate designs.

The glamor has faded. And in contrast to the glass itself, which remains unblemished over time, the once-trendsetting Hardy Glass Company has suffered both the economic and social changes that have affected both the South Side and the broader world.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Voxphoto

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