Supporting cast

Patent no. 371,089, for a sheet metal column. Issued on October 4, 1887, this was the first of nineteen patents that Mesker Brothers Iron Works obtained for various versions of the plate metal column. Image from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Mesker Brothers Iron Works may be best known for their ornamental upper facades of galvanized pressed metal, but perhaps their most inventive architectural offering was to be found at the storefront level. While the overwhelming standard in the storefront construction industry were columns made of cast iron, Mesker Brothers designed and patented columns made of steel.

Weighing considerably less than cast iron, steel cost less to ship, was easier to handle, and provided a smooth and even surface and a greater carrying capacity. The Mesker Brothers steel columns were composed of plates and flanges, with the cast iron ornamentation bolted on at the base, mid, and capital levels. This meant that the parts could be boxed and shipped separately to avoid damage. For further cost reduction, the column capitals, less likely to be impacted by wear and tear of street activity, were made of pressed metal—formed galvanized steel for the body and stamped zinc for the ornamental motif. Upon painting, the difference in materials between the various components was undistinguishable. Mesker Brothers clearly favored the steel column, discontinuing the cast iron column—which they were already outsourcing to St. Louis foundries such as Christopher & Simpson—when the steel version was introduced circa 1887 (round cast iron and steel pipe columns continued to be offered). In contrast, George L. Mesker & Company preferred cast-iron columns, claiming that they were superior over their steel counterparts, as in the following statement from the company’s 1904 catalog: “We furnish cast iron columns for brick buildings and do not advise the use of so-called steel or sheet-iron columns. A steel column must be necessarily very light and depends upon the wood core furnished with same to support the brick work. This form of column is condemned by all authorities upon building construction.” Although Mesker Brothers Iron Works were unnamed, this is an evident but rare public display of sibling rivalry. George L. Mesker & Co. did offer steel columns when used with upper story sheet-metal panels on a wooden back up, but always asserted their inferiority to cast iron and did not allow them to support masonry facades. However, the real reason for the Evansville Mesker not utilizing steel columns more thoroughly may have been because of his brothers’ patents.

Mesker Brothers obtained numerous patents for various versions of this plate metal column, nineteen to be exact. They were all issued between 1887 and 1892, along with twenty-five other patents for related facade components, for a total of forty-four obtained during this six year period (out of the company’s total of sixty-two). The first of the column patents was dated October 4, 1887, which is the date included at the bottom of one of the column nameplate designs. This same date was included on columns regardless whether they were manufactured in 1887 or 1910 and hence should not be mistaken for the construction date of the building to which the nameplate is affixed. A brief analysis of each column patent and a link to the original is at the end of this post.

From 1887 until 1898, the column construction was composed of steel plates forming the face and sides of the column, held together at the corners by continuous angle irons or flanges. The back of the column, depending on its size, was either wood (smaller widths) or wrought iron stays (larger widths). Ornamentation was bolted on separately upon construction. Most likely in order to address any alleged structural deficiency of their steel columns, in 1898 Mesker Brothers replaced the composite design with a continuous steel plate, bent to form the face and sides of the column. They also had the columns tested for strength by Professor Calvin M. Woodward of Washington University in St. Louis, and began publishing their safe carrying loads in the catalogs. Everything else, including the ornamentation, remained virtually the same. Both pre- and post-1898 columns were offered as box columns (square or rectangular) or angle columns, where only the face and one side were diagonally connected by wrought iron stays. These angle columns were intended for masonry end walls, where they were “filled” with brick and served a more decorative than structural role.

In terms of ornamentation, the initial 1887-88 design was unique. Beginning in 1889 it was replaced by a different set of floral ornaments which continued unchanged until the company ceased their manufacture around 1910. To further streamline efficiency and decrease production costs, the same design was made possible for each of the four column widths (6, 9, 13, and 18 inches) through repetition and stretching of the basic motifs. These designs are very distinctive and there is no evidence that they were utilized by any other manufacturer, providing an accurate means of identification when they survive.

A subtle variety can be found in the nameplate designs. Following a very simple 1887-88 design composed of only lettering, each column base cast iron ornament thereafter included a slightly more elaborate manufacturer’s nameplate, contained within a rectangular border and cast into the ornament. The first to be utilized was the design bearing the patent date, while the sans date mark seems to have been introduced in the early 1890s. Both marks have been used interchangeably and can even sometimes be found on the same building. It is possible to encounter a few other simple nameplate designs utilized for other column types, including those outsourced to other foundries, but these are extremely rare.

Mesker Brothers plate metal columns epitomize the company’s technical ingenuity and impeccable business acumen. With some columns as old as 125 years, many continue to perform very well, despite their condemnation by brother George. But in the end George’s claims of cast iron’s superiority over his brothers’ patented plate metal designs may have been true. Cast in one piece, the cast iron column seems to have outperformed the composite column over the long term, especially the pre-1898 version which relied on more parts and connections, in turn providing more opportunities for failure. Thinner steel plates are more susceptible to corrosion while the heavy cast iron ornaments bolted on at base and middle levels have often fallen off due to fastener failure. Despite certain shortcomings, which can be addressed through maintenance and repair, Mesker Brothers storefront columns provided a very inventive and competitive alternative to cast iron. The number of surviving examples is a testament to their popularity.

Diagram showing components of a Mesker Brothers plate metal column (1889-1898). Beginning in 1898, the corner steel angles were dispensed with in favor of a continuous metal plate forming the face and sides of the column.

Plate metal column options including prices and safe carrying loads, from an 1898 Mesker Brothers Iron Works catalog.

Ornaments for Mesker Brothers plate metal columns in 1887-88. From left to right: base, middle, capital.

Ornamentation for each of the four column widths was made possible through repetition and stretching of one set of motifs.

Two nameplate designs of Mesker Brothers plate metal columns, found on the cast iron base ornaments. The earlier design (left) featured the original patent date.

Broken base ornament reveals the construction of the plate metal angle column. The front steel plate is connected to the side(s) with corner angles or flanges, while the masonry of the end wall is utilized for structural stability.

Patent analysis:

  • No. 371,089 — Sheet metal column (patented Oct. 4, 1887, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards, assignors to Mesker & Bro.). The column is a combination of sheets and angle-irons. The sheets make up the sides and the front of the column, and the angle-irons of same height connect the front sheet to the sides and protect the joints from weather. They are attached with rivets. A wooden piece is placed between the side sheets at the back of the column and is secured in place by screws. In large columns this piece may be of metal. Angle-irons may be used at the back of the column but do not project from the sides of the column, as they do in the front. Cross-pieces should be added at the top, mid, and bottom of the front plate, between the angle-irons, to stiffen the structure and aid in ornamentation. The ornamental portions – base, capital, and center ornament – are attached to the front plate with a bolt (base) and straps (all), confined between the cross-pieces and the face of the column. The column is preferable to cast iron columns because it is stronger in proportion to its weight, and can be shipped at very low rates (cheaper to the consumer). In addition, the ornamental portions are shipped separately and can be better protected from damage.
  • No. 385,762 — Plate metal column (patented July 10, 1888, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). This column is composed of a single continuous piece of metal, shaped to form the front and sides of the column. This eliminates joints in the front, making it absolutely water-tight. The front maybe of any shape, with recesses or projections (as shown it has beveled corners). Wooden piece is placed between the rear edges of the column to unite and hold them in place. Angle-irons should be used to connect the wooden piece to the column. Ornamentation (base, capital, center) may be added.
  • No. 385,763 — Plate metal column (patented July 10, 1888, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). This column consists of a face extended at each side to form a flange, two sides, two angle-irons (optional but recommended for stiffening) and a wooden filling-piece. The face is a plain or molded metallic sheet. Sides are flat and are riveted to the face flanges at the front and angle-irons at the rear. Ornamentation can be attached to the face.
  • No. 385,764 — Plate metal column (patented July 10, 1888, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). This “angle column” is composed of an angle-iron, a face, and a side. The side piece has a flange at both ends and is made of one piece. The three parts are riveted together. Ornamentation can be attached to the face.
  • No. 385,765 — Plate metal column (patented July 10, 1888, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). This “angle column” is composed of an L-shaped piece forming the face and the side of the column, and two angle-irons riveted to the edges. Ornamentation can be attached to the face.
  • No. 385,766 — Plate metal column (patented July 10, 1888, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). The column consists of face and back plates (flat sheets) and two sides with flanges at both edges. Face and back are riveted to the flanges. Ornamentation can be attached to the face.
  • No. 385,767 — Plate metal column (patented July 10, 1888, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). The column is composed of six parts – face, two sides, two angle-irons, and the filling piece. The face is a sheet without flanges. The sides have flanges at the front edge to which the face is secured. The angle-irons are riveted to the rear edges of the sides, and the filling-piece is secured to the angle-irons. Ornamentation can be attached to the face.
  • No. 385,768 — Plate metal column (patented July 10, 1888, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). The column is composed of two L-shaped metallic plates with flanges at their ends, and a wooden plate. The metallic plates are joined to form the front and the wooden plate constitutes the back. At the front, the flanges of the L-shapes can be turned inward or outward. At the back, the flanges are turned inward or can be omitted altogether and the wooden piece can be secured to the side plates without them. Ornamentation can be attached to the face.
  • No. 386,151 — Plate metal column (patented July 17, 1888, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). Two metallic plates, with inward flanges at both ends form the column (each plate constitutes a side and half of face and back). When riveted together, the joined plates create recesses at the face and back, which are filled in with a wooden strip at the back, and a bead-strip at the face. Ornamentation can be attached to the face, securing the bead-strip in place.
  • No. 386,152 — Plate metal column (patented July 17, 1888, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). The column is composed of a single plate of metal, shaped to form a box column. At the rear of the column it has a flange, which comes within and against and is riveted to the rear side edge. Ornamentation can be attached to the face.
  • No. 397,868 — Plate metal column (patented Feb. 12, 1889, by Frank Mesker). This column consists of a single plate forming the face and sides of the column, with a wooden piece filling the interior and forming the back. Principal improvements here are the front corners of the column, which are rounded instead of square. Rounded corners of thin metal are generally stronger, less brittle and better protected from damage. The column is also better suited for many architectural designs. Ornamentation can be attached to the face and adapted to the rounded corners of the face.
  • No. 399,202 — Plate metal column (patented Mar. 5, 1889, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). The column consists of three flat plates for the face and sides, two angle irons at the rear, and two quarter-turn curved angle irons connecting the face and sides, strengthening the column and providing ornamentation. The face does not touch the sides and is in front of them. To unite and stiffen the column, a flanged plate is riveted to the face and sides horizontally within the column. To avoid contact with fastenings, the plate is scalloped at the corners, and it is open in the center to lighten it. Ornamentation can be attached to the face. When opposite the internal stiffening plate, rivets can be extended to include the ornamental attachment.
  • No. 416,693 — Sheet metal column (patented Dec. 3, 1889, by Herbert Symonds, assignor to Mesker & Bro.). The column is formed by two sheets of iron, steel, or wrought metal. One sheet forms the front and sides while the other is within the first’s shape and fastened to the front and to the sides at rear. A third sheet or a piece of wood forms the back. Same rivet may unite all three sheets at the rear. The formed sheets create a cluster of three tubes. The column may be termed to be of “tubular” construction. Center sheet may have a re-entering angle and face can be recessed or paneled in various styles. Ornamentation can be attached to the face.
  • No. 435,848 — Building front column (patented Sept. 2, 1890, by Frank Mesker). This column consists of a metallic plate face with flanges projecting backward and connected to two thick wooden column sides. At the rear of the column, these are connected to several stiffening pieces placed between the sides (it could also be a one continuous piece). Alternatively, a solid piece of wood can be used instead of the two side pieces and the stiffeners. The face can be ornamented as desired. Advantages of such a column are: a column sufficiently stiffened at its sides without increasing the weight and cost (as it would be if the sides were also metallic), can be readily shipped and used as a nailing surface not only at its back but also at its sides. In addition, the face could be shipped to remote locations and combined with locally available wooden backup to form the described column (flanged face is the only item shipped).
  • No. 435,849 — Building front column (patented Sept. 2, 1890, by Frank Mesker). This “angle-column” consists of a metallic column face with flanges. A wooden side is attached to one flange with a fastener passing through it. The column is completed through braces which are riveted to the other flange of the face at one end, and bolted to the side of the wooden piece at the back. Column face may be ornamented as desired.
  • No. 437,669 — Plate metal column (patented Sept. 30, 1890, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). The column consists of three metallic plates and a wooden plate. The two sides are flat and extend from the back to the front. The front plate has flanges at both ends and is attached to the sides by fitting it in between and riveting its flanges to them. The wooden plate is also fitted between the sides at the back of the column and held in place by screws. Ornamental pieces may be added to the front and can either extend across the front or be fitted between the flanges. The flanged connections can receive a vertically extended ornament and the face plate can be paneled between the flanges.
  • No. 437,670 — Plate metal column (patented Sept. 30, 1890, by Frank Mesker & Henry F. Edwards). This column consists of a front plate, slightly narrower than the full width of the column, with inward-facing flanges, two side plates also with inward facing flanges and a wooden piece at the rear, attached by screws passing through he rear flanges of the side plates. The front and sides are attached by angle irons placed at the corners and whose flanges are riveted to the flanges of the sides and the front. The angle-irons are on the outer side of the connection but may be placed inside, or the entire construction can be modified so one flange is outside and the other inside. Ornamentation can be attached to the face of the column.
  • No. 449,554 — Building front column (patented Mar. 31, 1891, by Frank Mesker). This improvement is for the wooden back portion of a metallic plate column. The metallic plate consists of a face (flat, paneled, etc.) and two sides. The wooden extension at the front is wide enough to be inserted between the two metallic sides and attached to them by screws, but narrower at the rear to create offsets on both sides of the piece, which help in connecting the column to the façade. The wooden back can be made of one, two or three pieces, screwed together to create a single unit. It may be extended to come closely or partly to the inner side of the column-face.
  • No. 460,481 — Building front column (patented Sept. 29, 1891, by Frank Mesker). This improved column can be adapted to various locations in a façade. It is also adaptable to both brick and wood work. The column can be widened or narrowed inexpensively. It consists of two metallic sides, both having inwardly turned flanges at the front. The front or face of the column is a flat metal piece without any flanges. The sides have a uniform depth and the column is made narrower or wider by applying a face of desired width. This allows columns of any preferred width to be readily and economically constructed since the sides can be kept in stock and the fronts being entirely flat are very easily supplied. The pieces are united by placing the face between the sides and against the flanges and riveting. The rivets can also provide an ornamental effect, creating vertical lines at the sides of the column front. Washers can be added to enhance this effect. Rivets can be extended to not only unite the column but also to attach any ornamental pieces. When attached to brick work, the rear of the column is united by metal cross-strips, usually four or five of them spaced apart throughout the height of the column and whose flanges are riveted to the column sides. This provides openings into the column interior where the brick fits in. When columns are connected to wood work, a wooden filling piece or pieces are used at the rear of the column, extending the full height of the column. Its exact connection to the wood work can be varied depending on the adjoining pieces (doors, windows, etc.) but in all cases the wood work is screwed to the filling piece of the column. This is allowed by dispensing with angle-irons at the back of the column, and using wooden filling strips instead.
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  1. […] located near the top. (For more information on Mesker Brothers storefront column construction see here). In terms of appropriateness and durability, nothing beats a cast aluminum reproduction, which […]



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