The story of the Stewardson Opera Hall facade disassembly and its subsequent restoration and reinstallation on another building is not a new one, but it remains relevant as it continues to provide insight into patented “house fronts” by Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis, Missouri.
Unlike the original installers, we were not fortunate enough to have a detailed manual that could have aided us during the removal process. On the flip side, it took us a day and a half to remove only the metal, whereas the estimated two days of the original install was for the entire facade including the intricate wooden back up. We also had a bucket truck. More importantly we had contractor Henry Chupp and his son, who despite never before having removed a historic sheet-metal front (who has?), quickly mastered the task. Two days for the installation may be only slightly over optimistic; although it should be taken with a grain of salt since it was an advertised claim of the manufacturer, there are other accounts of comparably impressive construction times. In a testimonial letter to George L. Mesker & Co, Edwin Pearson, contractor and builder from Havre De Grace, Maryland, claimed to have put up with the help of one man a three-story galvanized iron front of similar width to the Opera Hall in 52 hours. Ultimately, with the exact number of hours or days being dependent on several factors including the contractor’s skill, seeing this front being put on and completed in a matter of days must have been immensely impressive in 1893.
So what does the Opera Hall removal have to do with putting it up? During removal, the film crew – we were in the beginning stages of a documentary at the time – also captured still photographs every time a piece of the galvanized metal was taken down. The photos were taken by Tim Borntrager who recently shared them with me. In a sped up sequence the photos offer a classic visual transformation from “then” to “now,” exactly their intended purpose. That’s dramatic enough but what if the sequence were reversed? In a manufactured attempt to simulate the installation of the original facade, I present to you my first (and probably last) short film, “Putting Up a Front.” I don’t expect a sweep at Sundance but a smile of amusement from anyone who views it will be reward enough.
(View on YouTube)