Abstracted and stylized floral designs and patterns dominated the design vocabulary of both Mesker companies, and American architectural ornamentation during the Victorian period in general. Nonetheless, a few aquatic-related ornaments also found their way onto Mesker fronts, as was the case with the “dolphin panel.” Another such motif was a seashell.
Like the dolphin, the seashell can be traced to one of the printed plates from American architectural publications which Bernard Mesker collected and annotated with possible ideas for galvanized sheet-metal ornamentation. The specific drawing appeared in the July 30, 1887 issue of the Building magazine and was identified as a “cornice from an old house, Amboise, September 17, 1886” (this is the date of the drawing, not the building). Obviously Bernard agreed that the seashell made a handsome cornice ornament as indicated by his note. In the late 1890s the motif was introduced in two versions and appeared on several embossed galvanized sheet-metal cornice designs that the Mesker Brothers produced.
The original French ornament was likely carved into stone; the Mesker version is also a negative impression in contrast to their typical positive embossing that appears in relief. They also mimicked the motif’s repetition across the cornice designs, though this was their standard modus operandi. Regardless, both of the initial variants were not exact reproductions of the Amboise seashell. Rather, they were simplified versions that in the process of adaptation lost much of the French stonework’s delicate quality. It was not until a slightly later third iteration from the turn of the twentieth century that the Amboise original was replicated more faithfully. And the price for this European derived sophistication? As low as $0.30 per cornice foot.
There’s another, perhaps accidental, similarity between the dolphin and seashell motifs. Amboise is in France and was once the home of the French royal court. Did Bernard consciously select this design based on its origin (as he may have done with the dolphin due to its heraldic connotations), as a nod to St. Louis’s heritage or is this merely a coincidence? Almost certainly the latter, but fun to consider nonetheless.
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