Composite Concrete and Cast Iron Vault Lights

Vault Lights: The Beginning
Invented in 1845 by Thaddeus Hyatt, vault lights were initially used on ship decks to provide light below without using hazardous open flame-producing instruments. These durable glass features were later mounted in concrete or cast iron panels and installed in city sidewalks to admit light into basements and spaces below.


Two photos of vault lights: concrete and cast iron. Cast Iron and Concrete Vault Lights


Before the widespread availability of electric lighting, dead areas and rooms under sidewalks and other overhead structures could then become usable as storage or even apartments with the installation of vault lighting.

The original vault light glass design incorporated a prism shape on the bottom to diffuse and spread the maximum amount of light through a broader area. In some cases, multiple prisms set at different angles would be incorporated to spread the light evenly throughout an even larger room.

Vault lights were popular in cities throughout the country from 1860 through the 1930s. While some vault lights remain in New York and other cities, many of us still recall walking over these unique circular glass sidewalk features, perhaps without ever knowing their purpose. However, many of these vault light systems deteriorated and created hazards with broken seals and glass that could make walking more hazardous. Broken vault lights and seals also allow water to penetrate the surface to damage the spaces below. As a result, many have been covered, removed, or filled in with concrete for a quick fix.

An Early Solution to Sustainability
While the primary purpose of vault lights was to illuminate space that could not admit natural lighting, the introduction of these was a likely an unconscious effort toward sustainability and the preservation of energy.

Although electricity was not yet available in the mid-nineteenth century, building owners were able to light spaces while preserving the characteristic lighting fuels like gas, oils, and candles. Also, still in line with sustainable activity, the air within those enclosed spaces would be decidedly better without the smoke producing light sources of old. Even as electric lighting became common, vault lighting continued to provide illumination during the day.

The Resurgence of Vault Lights, But Not How You’d Think…
Have you ever wondered what those little glass insertions in sidewalks of major metropolitan cities were? In many cases, those glass pieces were flush with the sidewalk or sometimes seemed like slightly raised glass “bumps.” In either situation, those were inserted into the pavement to permit sunlight into spaces beneath the sidewalks.

As a re-emerging historic American architectural feature, those original vault lights are being restored and reimagined by architects and designers in a variety of ways. Thanks to innovations in design and technology, architects and designers can reimagine vault lights beyond the traditional sidewalk applications to include skylights, deck lights, stair treads, risers, landings, and bridges.

The Look and Feel of Vault Lights, Without the Extra Weight
Composite Concrete and Cast Iron Panels provide another way for designers and architects to achieve a historic aesthetic without added weight or a difficult installation. Inspired by traditional vault lights, these decorative panels can be used in both interior and exterior applications. Composite Concrete and Cast Iron Panels are custom fabricated to meet any specifications or compliment any design. The panels can be easily installed overhead or vertically for any decorative use.

Composite Cast Iron Panels are manufactured in the United States using environmentally friendly components. The water-resistant composite material is formulated without CFC’s or VOC’s. Composite Cast Iron panels are available with a hammered black painted finish, with or without buttons. Choose from a variety of surface finishes and colors for a completely customized look that meets your requirements. The panels can be backlit to enhance any space.

Contact GBA Architectural Products + Services

GBA Architectural Products & Services is a North American supplier of world-class glass block materials for interior and exterior applications. For over 30 years, the company has collaborated with professional builders and homeowners with many unique structural glass products that render beautiful and economical functionality in a broad range of scenarios.

GBA glass block products have been used in office designs, exterior claddings, walkways, and stairways throughout North America to admit natural light while optimizing the use of interior space.

For more information about glass block architecture for offices or other applications, contact GBA Architectural Products & Services.

Visit the GBA website or phone:

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East Coast - (212)-255-5787

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Tags: Architecture, Vault Lights