During last week’s trip to attend the Illinois Main Street Statewide Conference in Galesburg, Illinois, I decided to take scenic routes instead of the interstate. I wanted to drive through several towns I haven’t yet been to. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a handful of Mesker facades in Prairie City, Avon, and Fairview. I also spotted another one in Lewistown and two in Cuba (Illinois, although the country also purchased a few facades), which I missed the first time I drove through these towns several years ago. Although the condition of all of these facades is far from ideal, they are nonetheless welcome additions to the list which now includes over 1,900 buildings nationwide. 1,904 and counting.
The best of this recent batch are from Cuba. The facades were made by George L. Mesker & Company in Evansville, Indiana, and their designs are atypical of most extant examples, which accounts for why I dismissed them at the first go-around several years back. It is only within the last couple of years that I became more familiar with the early designs of George Mesker, those dating from the mid- to late-1880s. The earliest George Mesker catalog I have seen is from 1892, hence making identification of earlier designs more challenging. These early surviving designs can be found mostly in Indiana and Kentucky, in relative proximity to Evansville.
But during this stop in Cuba, and with a more trained eye, I immediately recognized one of the facades. The sunflower motif of the column capital was a certain giveaway, and the rest of the facade also looked familiar (I later confirmed an identical match with a building in Boonville, Indiana). The columns do bear George Mesker nameplates that I would have seen if I bothered to look the first time… Although the missing sheet-metal numbers on the pediment were replaced with wood, the original date of 1888 appears to be correct. Based on other pediments, the entire block seems to have been built in that year. Sanborn Fire Insurance maps also indicate that the building was built as a bank while its neighbor was a hardware and tin shop.
It is this neighboring example that is even more intriguing. The design is very difficult to attribute with absolute certainty as I have not seen a comparable match. However, the facade does feature components and designs found separately on other buildings. The cornice design utilizes the same grid, if you will, and is a very simplified version of subsequent 1890s designs. The decorative quoining on either side is also an element found on several other confirmed George L. Mesker designs in Henderson, Kentucky, and Boonville, Indiana. Perhaps uncovering the storefront structure and the rest of the facade would yield further clues, but the likelihood of that ever happening is very low. I am pretty confident that this is one of George’s early works and will count it as such until I come across information to the contrary.
The same block in Cuba has a few other notable examples of sheet-metal ornamentation by other unidentified manufacturers. One of these is also a full sheet-metal front that used to extend all the way to the Mesker bank building. Its northern two-story portion has been replaced for unknown reason with a one-story structure lacking any character whatsoever. The historic building likely burned down, but that does not excuse poor quality of the infill construction.
Ultimately, it was exciting to discover more information about George Mesker’s early designs and to expand the known motif vocabulary which will make future discoveries and attribution easier. It’s also very cool to encounter these early examples in the heartland of Illinois, such a distance from Evansville. Now we just need to work with the Cubans to ensure that the fate of the other facade is not repeated.
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