Oscar Ruffini (1858-1957) was an architect based in San Angelo, Texas. He designed a variety of buildings in San Angelo and West Texas including courthouses, commercial and public buildings, residences, and churches. His older brother, Frederick Ernst Ruffini (1851-1885), was also a prolific architect who from his Austin office designed many buildings throughout Texas.
The Ruffini Collection at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission contains a wealth of information—records, architectural drawings, prints, photographs, and correspondence—about the Ruffini brothers and their work. A relatively small but exceptionally relevant component of the collection is an assortment of ten blueprints by Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis for various buildings in San Angelo and Sonora. I was extremely excited to discover the blueprints since they are so incredibly rare; I just recently came across one for a no longer extant building in Carmi, Illinois. To date, this is the largest repository of the company’s blueprints. Thanks to John Anderson, the Preservation Officer at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, the blueprints were digitized and the scans are now available to anyone upon request.
Aside from the rarity of the blueprints, these in particular raise some interesting questions regarding the role of architects in the Mesker design and manufacturing processes. Mesker building fronts alleviated the need for an architect, designer, or skilled craftsman, as the only aesthetic decision a building owner needed to make involved selecting an engraving from the catalog. Although their catalogs did not openly exclude the architect from the process, offering to work with design professionals whenever desired, the logical conclusion was that if even available, an architect was not needed. That’s not say that the companies didn’t work with architects. It happened frequently enough but typically on larger projects where the Meskers were simply one of several manufacturers or contractors. If they were to provide an entire facade, including the design, an architect’s involvement would seem redundant for the reasons already mentioned.
The ten blueprints are in the Ruffini Collection because Oscar Ruffini was the projects’ architect. But what exactly was his role? Since the Mesker Brothers designed and rendered the facades of the otherwise very simple commercial buildings with shared party walls, what other role could he fulfill? I can’t imagine that the interiors of these ordinary structures required his services. Perhaps Ruffini requested, modified and approved the Mesker designs on behalf of the building owners. He may have also supervised the installation of the facades. He certainly would have been an authority in San Angelo, where he was based, and was likely well known in Sonora where he already designed the Second Empire-styled Sutton County Courthouse (1891). Ruffini was obviously more than qualified and capable of designing the facades himself but his services in this regard were rendered unnecessary by Mesker Brothers who offered this service free of charge. Nonetheless, he seems to have maintained a supervisory role in the projects. Although it is unknown what Ruffini’s involvement added to the overall cost of the projects, their quality seems to be unaffected either—the Meskers provided these designs to anyone and there doesn’t appear to be any customization beyond adjusting for heights and openings, modifications that occurred for all facades they manufactured. More than likely the utilization of the Mesker design service and facades was simply a way to meet low budgets. If nothing else, they made the architect’s role an easy one.
In Sonora, having already designed the Sutton County Courthouse (1891) and the Sonora Opera House (1893), Ruffini was probably the architect of choice for other projects, including the Fred Koenig Building (ca. 1900) and the First National Bank (ca. 1902), both with Mesker Brothers facades and blueprints in the Ruffini Collection. Neither building survives but the Sutton County Historical Society was able to dig up some historic photographs confirming that the buildings were built, and then some. Adjacent to the Koenig Building, better known locally as the Craddock Building named after a doctor who had offices upstairs, stood a one-story bank building with a galvanized cornice by Mesker Brothers. The Koenig Building itself featured the very popular “dolphin panels,” large embossed sheets with pairs of stylized dolphins. But a more impressive grouping of Mesker Brothers facades was erected on the other side of Main Street, following a September 12, 1902 fire that destroyed nearly the entire block. Built by E.R. Jackson, founder of the First National Bank, and anchored by the two-story Jackson Building at the corner of Main and Water were seven Mesker Brothers storefronts, several of double width; their characteristic cornice designs can be distinguished in several historic photos. The tragic fire was caused by explosions of dynamite stored in the Mayfield Store. In addition to leveling the south side of the block, the explosion also knocked out the windows in the Koenig/Craddock Building and caused it to lean, which led to an apt nickname of “The Leaning Tower of Sonora.” It is unknown whether Oscar Ruffini was involved in the design or construction of E.R. Jackson’s new buildings other than the First National Bank on the Mesker Brothers’ blueprint, but it seems likely that he was. Since it was standard practice Mesker Brothers likely also prepared blueprints for the other facades.
Most of Sonora’s Mesker facades were altered or removed altogether in favor of newer more fashionable designs; their slow disappearance can also be tracked through the historical society’s photos. Once they’ve outlived their architectural relevance, they weren’t needed any longer and in that regard they are part of a larger continuum of Main Street’s development. However, three buildings known locally as the Jackson Block still stand. Best faring is Jackson’s two-story corner edifice, with a complete storefront and a well-maintained upper facade featuring “dolphin panels.” The only major missing component is the triangular cornice pediment with the owner’s name and date of construction. The double storefront to the west was heavily altered but the main identifying Mesker features remain on its southern half. Last to survive is a First National Bank building, but not the one on the blueprint which stood to the west. Its missing half-circular pediment is visible in the historic photos but the rest of the facade remains intact. Interestingly the date on the cornice is not the date of construction but of the bank’s founding—remember the 1902 fire that destroyed most of this block. More Meskers are better than few, but few are better than none—I’m grateful that part of the Jackson Block survives and together with the blueprints and a connection to an important regional architect allow for an even richer story.
Special thanks to John Anderson at the Texas State Library and Historical Commission for digitizing the Mesker Brothers blueprints, and to David Smith at the Sutton County Historical Society for the historic photographs and background information.
Upcoming Part 2 of this post will cover the San Angelo portion of the Ruffini Collection.