Two Meskers Under One Roof
I hope we are experiencing a trend, because similarly to the previous post this Mesker is also undergoing rehabilitation. The Gowan Building (1898-1900) in Bainbridge, Georgia, was purchased in June of this year by the Downtown Development Authority with plans of developing apartments on the second floor and commercial/retail on the first floor. City Hall will be temporarily moving into the first floor space of the building while the current city hall is renovated. Therefore, major work on the Gowan Building will not take place for another year. Earlier this month, however, the non-historic metal slipcover that covered a portion of the facade was removed to reveal cast iron storefront columns by George L. Mesker & Co. from Evansville, Indiana. This prompted Amanda Glover, the Community & Economic Development Director for the City of Bainbridge, to contact me and add the newly uncovered Mesker to the national database. Among the photos she sent, one can distinguish two additional columns by George Mesker on the secondary facade (far right in the above photo). Although unmarked, the columns feature one of George’s most popular designs.
Interestingly, we could have identified the Gowan Building as a Mesker facade based on the two unmarked columns or the pressed-metal cornice design. However, our identification would have attributed the cornice to the other Mesker company, that of Mesker Brothers Iron Works in St. Louis, Missouri. Is it possible to have two Meskers under one roof? This must be a mistake, right? It is certainly an anomaly—the Gowan Building is one of only thirteen buildings identified thus far with components from both Mesker companies. Despite this small number, facades with components by various manufacturers (Mesker or not) are quite frequent. As such, our anomaly really falls into this larger category, which can be explained through different functions and building technologies employed for various facade components.
Since the 1850s and into the early 1900s, American storefront columns were made of cast iron (Mesker Brothers Iron Works used steel but that’s another story for another post) and due to their primarily structural role, were put up with the rest of the facade. Galvanized iron and steel cornices, along with other sheet-metal trimmings, however, did not become widely available until the 1870s, reaching the height of their popularity in the 1890s. Metal cornices were predominantly ornamental and, lacking a structural function, were applied to the tops of building facades upon completion. Galvanized cornices could also be installed at a later date and represent one of the most popular forms of updating building facades, typically as replacement for wooden cornices. Thus since cast iron columns began to be utilized several decades prior to sheet-metal cornices, there are countless facade examples with columns by one manufacturer and cornice by another. In present day attribution, this often results in mistakenly crediting the column manufacturer—identified through a column nameplate—with the rest of a facade’s metal ornamentation such as a cornice, window hoods, etc. Although numerous companies, including both Meskers, did provide entire facade kits, we must not automatically assume that all parts came from one company. In an example from New Vienna, Ohio, a single building front features components from both Mesker companies as well as a local foundry!
Time lapse between the installations of columns and the cornice can account for most instances where the manufacturers of these components are different. Many Mesker facades fall into this category and consist mainly of older cast iron columns by another, typically local foundry and a newer Mesker cornice. This explanation can also hold true for the Gowan Building and other two-Mesker facades, although components could have been installed simultaneously, since both Mesker companies operated during the same time period. What’s puzzling is why the owners did not choose the same Mesker company that supplied the columns to provide the cornice.
There are several possibilities, none of which I am able to prove. Firstly, because there were two Mesker companies, the owners simply confused one for the other or assumed that the companies were one and the same (this still happens today). Unlikely, though not unfathomable, is the possibility that an owner preferred cast iron columns of George Mesker over the steel composites provided by Mesker Brothers Iron Works, but found the latter’s cornice prices unbeatable. In his catalogs George Mesker often took jabs, undoubtedly directed at Mesker Brothers, over the “so-called steel or sheet iron columns” of his competitors and since cast iron was the material of choice during this era it is easy to understand a potential owner’s preference in this regard. However, Mesker Brothers’ cornices, as well as their other products, tended to be more affordable and this fact could have swayed many owners to supplement their Evansville cast iron columns with a galvanized cornice from St. Louis. Whether these savings were worth the hassle of ordering from separate companies and paying for separate shipping costs when both companies offered nearly identical products is difficult to determine. It also doesn’t explain why several of our examples are reversals of the above scenario and have Mesker Brothers columns with George Mesker cornices. Furthermore, other examples are not necessarily columns-and-cornice Mesker combinations but could be facades with canopies, columns with window hoods, or cornices with railings.
Another possibility is that an owner found his dealings with the initial Mesker company unsatisfactory so when it came to purchase additional facade components, he decided to go with its largest competitor—the other Mesker. There is some evidence to support this. In a testimonial from a 1905 George Mesker catalog, John F. Drew, a contractor and builder from Ballinger, Texas, states that he “[…] bought from a firm in St. Louis, but I will tell you I think it will be my last one. I thought your figures were too high, but […] there’s no comparison. Your fronts are worth more than theirs any time, but you see I have to figure cheap work sometimes.” By publishing the testimonial, George L. Mesker & Co admitted that they were not the cheapest, at the same time indicating that their products were of higher quality.
Mr. Drew’s testimonial points to yet another plausible explanation. Builders and contractors often ordered facades and components on behalf of the owners and whether they utilized leftover components from another job or had a discounted bulk or shipping rate on a particular item, either instance could have resulted in a mishmash of Mesker parts on a particular facade. This would also allow for these parts to have been installed contemporaneously, and not as a result of a remodeling.
We may never know the real reasons behind the curious Mesker mash ups like the Gowan Building—were they intentional choices or oblivious mishaps? I’m fine with either as long as they are being preserved.