Palace of Sweets
“Walk down the main street of any town. You are not a store owner, not a property owner, not a realtor or building manager… you are merely a normal average human being, intent on buying something. What do you see? You see some stores that are old-fashioned, rundown, unattractive. From the outside, they look as though the merchants who operate them are behind the times. You are led to expect that the goods and the service and the values they offer are probably inferior. All you have to judge by is the exterior appearance of those out-moded stores. You have no way of knowing that the shabby store fronts may possibly be entrances to model stores. All you know is… they don’t look like it.
Contrasting with these unprepossessing stores, you see others, selling the same lines of merchandise… but presenting to the passing public an entirely different appearance. Modern. Attractive. Inviting. Up-to-date. Each store an individual retail outlet. Each store saying to you, by its appealing and good-looking front, “This is a progressive store. Our merchandise is right. Our prices are right. We sell goods in the modern way… in the way you like to buy it. You can trust us. Come in.”
As a casual customer… which type of store would you choose to patronize? The answer is obvious and infallible. You’d choose the modern, inviting store over the old-fashioned, unattractive one.
Any one would. And everybody does.”
The above copy would not have been out of place at the turn of the twentieth century in a Mesker storefront catalog. Perhaps a bit indirect in comparison but the message was the same—modern storefronts and facades are better for business so merchants should get rid of their old-fashioned, unattractive building fronts. Except in this case, the terms ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘unattractive’ were referring to a Mesker facade.
While conducting research on structural glass for another project, I came across the above copy and ‘before and after’ for Palace of Sweets in Forest City, Iowa, in a 1936 publication by the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG) entitled “Producing Bigger Profits with Pittco Store Fronts,” abound with countless examples of similar transformations. In the smaller inset photo is an instantly recognizable Mesker Brothers Iron Works storefront and upper facade (possibly the C.H. Lackore Building mentioned in the 1894 Mesker Brothers catalog) which made way for a gleaming and modern storefront with black Carrara glass and Pittco extruded aluminum display sash. ‘Palace of Sweets’ was sandblasted into the surface of the pigmented glass and painted. Undeniably modern.
But ‘modern’ is a relative term. When installed in the 1890s, the Mesker facade too was touted as such, however, forty years later it could not have possibly been considered that anymore. And in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, the modern storefront received even more emphasis as it provided an additional symbolic meaning, standing as a promise of progress, prosperity, and modernity. The old iron front didn’t stand a chance.
There are several parallels between exterior architectural applications of embossed galvanized sheet-metal and pigmented structural glass. Both are cladding materials, affixed over a substrate and dependent on it for structural stability. Both materials were heavily marketed for building facade modernization and enjoyed decades of popular use in such applications. Thousands of building facades and storefronts were renovated with either (between 1933 and 1935 alone, PPG reported a sales record of ten-thousand modernized storefronts fully specified with Pittco products). The companies that successfully manufactured and sold the materials also developed complementary components in order to offer complete storefront or facade packages. Originally, both materials were affordable whereas now, being in limited production, they are very expensive.
While ‘before and after’ photographic imagery was perfected in the extensive marketing of structural glass, it was already employed forty years earlier by Mesker Brothers. Although both Mesker companies relied predominantly on drawings to convey the dramatic improvements possible through their products, at least one catalog from 1894 contained “photographic views of St. Louis fronts” including a section dedicated to remodeled facades (my photocopy of the catalog reproduces the images very poorly so I will not attempt to post them here). Each pair of images included an explanatory copy, concluding with a comparison of the front’s cost to the value of the real estate (per front foot). Whether in 1890s or 1930s, increased property value was being linked to building improvement.
There are differences between the materials, too, aside from the obvious physical characteristics and manufacturing processes. Galvanized sheet-metal cladding was utilized mostly above the storefront, in the form of upper facades and cornices. The use of structural glass, in turn, occurred predominantly at the ground level where it was appropriate and would have the most impact in “modernizing for profit” (though it too could and was used to sheath entire facades for dramatic effect). Many of the renderings or photographs of completed storefronts in publications and advertisements for structural glass did not show upper facades, as was the case with Palace of Sweets, recognizing and promoting a divorce of the storefront from the rest of the building. Although in this example the Pittco storefront that replaced the old-fashioned Mesker one appears to also have prompted removal of the galvanized upper story, in other documented examples the materials do coexist together. Ironically, many times the outmoded upper stories outlive subsequent storefront modernizations, and this holds true across many styles, materials and manufacturers (see example at the end of the post).
Although the Mesker in Forest City hasn’t been around since the 1930s, I am fine with it because the structural glass storefront that replaced it would be considered historically significant in its own right. I say ‘would be’ because it too doesn’t seem to be around anymore, at least not from any possible Google streetview searches. I don’t know who and what replaced it, but I bet it was in the name of modernity (barring demolition by fire or natural disaster). And so what was once modern became outmoded and the cycle continues to repeat. Different eras. Different companies. Different materials. Same timeless message.
But in recent memory, what exactly are we getting as replacements for our Mesker and Pittco storefronts? Vinyl, DryVit, boarded window openings, parking lots and pocket parks? Or perhaps the most deplorable of all, so-called ‘restorations’ that sacrifice layers of authenticity for misguided, revisionist, half-imagined past? Is that what ‘modern’ has become or have we lost sight of that timeless merchandising principle so elaborately explored by PPG in 1936? Perhaps I’m not comparing apples to apples, but it nonetheless appears that in decades past modernity on Main Street really did exist and the latest mass-produced and installed storefronts were innovative, beautiful and befitting of their eras. Perhaps this realization only comes with passage of time and while ‘modern’ is the present, it seems like a force of destruction to those who value the comfort of the proven and familiar. Perhaps and not without irony our definition of ‘modern’ should be redefined to include the old-fashioned and outmoded. Since we can’t replace them with anything better, maybe Mesker, Pittco, Brasco or Kawneer storefronts are modern enough for us to leave alone.