There are countless historic markers across America commemorating important people, events or buildings from our past. These typically cast metal signs seek to inform about and contextualize their subjects in a mere sentence or two. Many are attached to a historic building, providing a tangible connection with the past. Others simply mark the spot but require imagination without a direct sensory experience. Occasionally, one can come across a humorous plaque that reads “On this lot nothing happened.” I recently discovered a lot that should have a marker claiming just the opposite, but not in jest. On this lot—No. 1 Smith Street in Carmi, Illinois—everything really did happen.
ca. 1887 – German immigrant Paul Fickert (1857-1922) erects a one-story wooden structure to house his hardware store named Fickert & Kokal Hardware.
ca. 1900 – As business prospers, Fickert & Kokal erect a two-story building beside the original one-story structure. In an attempt to unite the separate buildings and concurrently modernize the appearance, the owners choose a complete galvanized iron front by Mesker Brothers Iron Works from St. Louis, Missouri. Since the 1890s, Mesker Brothers are leading manufacturers of these cheap yet modern iron facades. The new storefront features Mesker Bros’ patented steel columns, while the upper facade employs several of their characteristic motifs including engaged columns, rockface stone steel siding, swags, seashells, and the ubiquitous fleur-de-lis.
ca. 1920 – Time for another modernization and thrifty Mr. Fickert (now sole owner of Fickert Hardware) selects another pre-manufactured solution, this time from the International Steel and Iron Company in Evansville, Indiana (one of George L. Mesker & Co’s foremost local competitors). He retains the Mesker Bros galvanized iron upper facade and only replaces the storefront. The new storefront does away with visible intermediate vertical structure in favor of larger display windows. The storefront has cast iron end columns, low marble bulkheads and a prismatic glass transom. In an early attempt at sustainability (undoubtedly driven by financial savings), Fickert retains and reuses the glass from the earlier storefront.
January 21, 1945 – A devastating fire completely destroys the building and its contents. Fickert Hardware is being operated by Gladys and Bob Dixon. Gladys, Paul Fickert’s granddaughter, manages the store after the fire in a nearby building while her husband is serving with the U.S. Navy. Bob returns from the war and begins the store reconstruction efforts in the spring of 1946.
May 2, 1947 – Fickert Hardware holds an open house in its new building, rebuilt on the site of the original. The store is equipped with a modern front, with a 6 in. bulkhead without permanent window platforms to permit window display of major appliances, and structural glass blocks above the show windows and on the upper facade. The new store is 48 feet wide and 100 feet long and includes a basement, part of which is used for merchandise displays. The second floor is utilized for surplus stock and is equipped with modern type stock bins. Both first and second floors are concrete over wire-mesh form and steel joists. 24 in. I-beams span from wall to center column and provide approximately 200 lbs. per square foot load capacity on the second floor. Interior lighting consists of fluorescent fixtures while the woodwork and furnishings are all finished in natural wood. The finishing touch, a structural glass facade, is to be installed later in the summer.
August 14, 1947 – The new building is the subject of an article in Hardware Age magazine. The modern storefront and interior arrangement are both praised for their effectiveness in quadrupling the sales for the month of May (as compared to May 1946).
January 1955 – The building, by now complete with a deep blue and ivory structural glass facade, is featured in the January 1955 edition of Mid-West Hardware, a monthly publication issued by the Illinois Retail Hardware Association out of Chicago.
ca. 1980 – The building receives a “much needed update” in the form of a rigid wooden shake shingle canopy. It’s a feature that defines many similar alterations across the country. It’s lack of quality provides a stark contrast with alterations and materials from previous eras.
January 2012 – The building survives and retains much of its original appearance sans the structural glass, removed at an unknown date. Though seemingly in good condition, evidence of water penetration is evident through rust jacking—displacement of masonry caused by expansion of corroded steel— of the upper story steel lintels.
New construction, series of alterations, fire, another new building followed by yet more alterations, and eventual disrepair—these events spanning over 120 years at No. 1 Smith Street do not suggest anything remarkable. In fact, they are quite ordinary and true of thousands of similar downtown lots across the country. The building designs and materials employed at No. 1 Smith Street were not pioneering uses—modern but conventional. Galvanized fronts by the Mesker Brothers were over a decade into their popularity and structural glass was used on building facades for nearly 20 years before finding its way onto Fickert Hardware’s exterior. And there were no master designers or architects involved in any of the projects. So what’s the big deal?
What is remarkable is the body of evidence that has survived to tell this story. From the exceedingly rare Mesker Brothers blueprint to the International Steel and Iron Company storefront drawing to the black and white photos of the illuminated 1947 storefront taken for the Hardware Age magazine, these documents chronicle the evolution of not just No. 1 Smith Street but innumerable quotidian commercial lots since the mid-19th century. This collection may not be as impressive were it concerning a masterwork or other singularly important building(s); in fact the amount of information would have appeared inadequate and disappointing. However, these kinds of documents simply don’t survive for “average” buildings. On this lot everything happened. It may be the same “everything” that happened everywhere else, but that’s precisely why the documentation is important.
I am thankful to friend and historian Dennis Au of Evansville for unearthing this treasure trove at a local antique shop and for acquiring it on my behalf. The Mesker Brothers blueprint alone was compelling enough—aside from a few digitized copies it’s the first real blueprint I’ve seen—but collectively the entire archive provides a representative timeline of small town commercial architecture. I would have purchased this archive regardless of the other information (and I didn’t have an opportunity to see it ahead of time) only to get my hands on the Mesker blueprint. It was a gamble but when you bet on history it’s pretty hard to lose.
Special thanks goes to the wonderful folks at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum for digital scanning and archival conservation of the large format drawings.