What do dolphins have in common with the prolific American architect Albert Kahn? No, this is not a beginning of a bad joke. It’s far more interesting than that.
The designs and elements offered by the St. Louis firm of Mesker Brothers Iron Works are believed to be designed by Bernard Mesker, the oldest of the brothers. Bernard loved to travel and was likely exposed to various works of architecture throughout the world. In addition, he owned numerous American publications on Classical and contemporary architecture such as American Architect & Building News, Architecture & Building and Inland Architect & Builder, which served as a basis for many of his designs. He often annotated the printed plates, pointing out elements that he thought would translate well into galvanized sheet-metal ornamentation. In fact, several of the company’s designs can be traced to these annotated drawings, which survive in the collection of David Mesker, Frank’s grandson (Frank and Bernard founded Mesker Brothers in 1879). Such direct insight into the inspirations for commercial architectural designs is rarely possible.
One of Bernard’s most unique designs for the company appears to have been inspired by sketches of Classic Roman details by Albert Kahn (1869–1942) published in the June 20, 1891 issue of American Architect & Building News. The publisher awarded young Kahn a scholarship, which afforded him the opportunity to travel to Europe for a year of visiting architectural landmarks and meeting architects. His sketches and articles were printed in several issues from 1891 to 1893. Bernard Mesker’s handwritten note pointed to one of Kahn’s sketches and indicated that the design (or its derivative) would make a handsome panel of embossed steel.
Whereas the Roman Forum fragment in Kahn’s sketch is more floral in nature, the eventual design utilized by Mesker Brothers employed two pairs of stylized dolphins, flanking the top and bottom of a fountain or a candelabrum. In fact, the “dolphin panel” as it was called, did not retain specific details of Kahn’s sketch but was rather inspired by its symmetrical Renaissance design. Coincidentally, between June and September of 1891 American Architect & Building News also ran a six-part series called “Dolphin in Ornamentation,” which provided a historic overview of the dolphin as an artistic and architectural motif. There’s some evidence suggesting that Bernard read at least one of the articles; the series did present several key aesthetic concepts and symbolic meanings that could have influenced him. Perhaps Bernard chose the dolphins as another reference to the French heritage of St. Louis, which the company already demonstrated through their use of the fleur-de-lis. In heraldry, the dolphin was the emblem of the Dauphin of France, title given to the King’s eldest son, the heir apparent to the throne of France. Regardless of its intended connotation, the dolphin is nonetheless a popular Renaissance and Baroque motif, fitting of the opulent and revivalist aesthetic employed by the Meskers.
Beginning in 1896, the dolphin panels were used between upper story windows, often in conjunction with or entirely replacing another prevalent Mesker motif—a distinctive engaged column on a tall base ornamented by two rosettes. The dolphin panel represents one of the largest and most frequently used ornamental panels offered by Mesker Brothers at the turn of the century.
Before Kahn ever dreamed of becoming the “architect of Detroit,” he unknowingly inspired the Mesker Brothers to create one of their most ornamental and recognizable facade pieces. Similarly to Kahn’s own early non-industrial work, the panels were rather conventionally derivative of various historic European styles. But whereas Kahn eventually developed a clearly modern approach and aesthetic evident in his industrial work, the Meskers continued to produce ornaments and facades conceived of in the mid-1880s into the 1910s. Perhaps the popular phrase should be modified to say “If it’s Baroque, don’t fix it.”
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