Last week I received an e-mail from a building owner in Wisconsin, who wanted to let me know about his Mesker facade. Although the order in which I’m cataloging the Meskers is essentially irrelevant—since it is not connected in any way to original dates of construction—it is still nice to arrive at a milestone. Or near one. The building at 236 High Street in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, happened to be number 1,800 on my list of identified Mesker facades. So while we await 2,000 this is a definite step closer towards that goal.
Yet infinitely more exciting than the arbitrary order of rediscovery are the building itself and its future. Built in 1891, the facade was supplied by the Mesker Brothers Iron Works from St. Louis, Missouri. It is somewhat unusual for a Mesker, with its three shallow semi-octagonal bays reminiscent of buildings in the Italianate style. This arrangement and the pediment design do not appear in the company’s 1891 catalog hinting that this was likely a custom order. The plentiful motifs, however, are all very characteristic and easily attributed to the St. Louis iron works. The upper facade is simply lovely and with an extremely high level of intactness—only a handful of small elements are missing and that is neither obvious to most passersby nor too shabby for a facade of this vintage.
The storefront, on the other hand, has undergone some unfortunate alterations. Just compare the current and historic photos. In addition to complete removal of three storefront columns (due to a relocated/enlarged entryway), the transom and bulkhead zones have been covered over with inappropriate materials, while the column ornamentation has been stripped off the building.
However, this is where this building’s story gets really good. Ried Knapp, the new owner of the building, is in the process of rehabilitating the structure with an upstairs living space and an art gallery on the ground floor. Because the entire town of Mineral Point is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Mesker is a contributing building, the owner is working with the Wisconsin Historical Society and the National Park Service to achieve a certified rehabilitation eligible for the federal historic preservation tax credit. He already began investigating the condition of the bulkheads, which are hopefully intact behind the cementitious stucco over a wire mesh, sculpted to imitate ashlar stone. The missing columns can be rebuilt using steel square tubing and angles. Missing column ornamentation may present the biggest challenge, simply because this building needs three pieces per column and in two different column widths. I have one size available but that still leaves 20 pieces to find. Ultimately, the missing pieces are purely ornamental and can be reattached as budget (or luck) allows.
Ried and I were also able to identify the missing motif above the outer columns, visible but not legible in the historic photo, to the left and right of the signboard. Although this square rosette ornament is not available as a reproduction from companies like W.F. Norman, a similar design is. Rosette no. 647A from W.F. Norman, may suffice as a replacement. It is of the same size, shape and general design (the Mesker ornament is actually composed of four pieces arranged to form the square motif), and is an authentic rosette design that was available during the period of this Mesker’s original construction. Furthermore, the stamped zinc ornament is extremely affordable at $26.18 per piece, as opposed to a custom replica which would cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Ried plans on having a master sheet-metal smith fabricate the area below the bay windows and behind the signboard in the historic photo, sometimes referred to as a lintel cornice. Aside from ornaments at either end, such as the square rosettes, this portion of Mesker Brothers facades was often unadorned.
I have seen so many of these buildings go to the wayside that it’s extremely gratifying to instead see one being rehabbed and to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards at that. Congratulations to Ried and his wife on a fantastic building and good luck in their facade restoration efforts. I hope to check in with them throughout the project and post an “after” photo of the facade upon completion.
But that’s not all for Mineral Point. In communications with Ried I learned of another Mesker Brothers Iron Works front in town (no. 1801 and counting!) Located across the street is a two-bay version of his facade with a different pediment, dating from 1892. Reportedly, the owners sought to improve the appearance of their “outdated” 1860s limestone building and were so impressed by the new galvanized sheet-metal facade that they ordered nearly an exact copy. In contrast to Ried’s building, this facade does not require any work and has been painted in a colorful scheme. The storefront does not bear any Mesker ornamentation or markings, but this is not uncommon for a remodeling—the original storefront was retained and a new upper facade was installed over existing. We can assume that the building underneath the Mesker front is similar to the other limestone facades in the photo. While such an update would be blasphemous today, it is exactly what the Meskers advertised and hoped for. I, for one, am grateful for these owners’ choice—in a town with many wonderful examples of stone facades dating as far back as the 1830s, this sheet-metal one offers an interesting alternative and an amazing layer of history. After all, is it not appropriate for a town famous for zinc mining to have at least a couple of galvanized sheet-metal fronts?
Update (Feb. 10, 2012)
With the help of the Mineral Point Historical Society we can confirm a former existence of one more Mesker Brothers iron front, also of nearly identical design to the two remaining facades. The building, at 251 High Street, survives but the galvanized iron front has been replaced long ago.