Columns in a cluster

324 N. Main St., Hannibal, MO. The galvanized upper story facade by Mesker Brothers Iron Works features pairs of their most popular column design—round, with classical capital, and atop a tall base adorned by two square rosettes.

One of several idiosyncratic features of galvanized upper story facades by the Mesker Brothers Iron Works is the pairing of columns between the windows. While this motif would have been a popular architectural feature and the inspiration for its use could have come from anywhere, Bernard Mesker nonetheless noted the idea on several printed plates from numerous American publications on Classical and contemporary architecture which he collected. The best (and with the clearest annotation) is a Sketch of Entrance to Residence, No. 1809 Prairie, Avenue, Chicago by artist L. Braunhold, depicting a detail of the Joseph G. Coleman Residence by Cobb & Frost Architects. The rendering was reproduced in the July 30, 1887 issue of Building Budget (a toned photographic plate of the entire front was printed in the Inland Architect, vol. 12, no.3). Unlike most of Bernard’s annotations, this one is dated to June 6, 1894 and reads: “3 [three] single stone columns in a cluster.” Although paired galvanized upper story columns appeared in Mesker Brothers’ catalogs since 1889 and very few of their fronts utilized more than two engaged columns in a cluster, this annotation nonetheless solidifies Bernard’s idea of combining “structural” elements for a purely aesthetic effect. After all, the columns were made of galvanized sheet-metal and attached to a wooden frame; the only structure they provided was an illusion. Through visual trickery the Meskers sought to create perception of a massive, stone structure—how heavy the parapet and cornice must be in order to require use of multiple columns beneath? They appear to have succeeded since to this day many people are fooled in believing the facades to be of stone.

Sketch of Entrance to Residence by L. Braunhold, depicting the Joseph G. Residence by Cobb & Frost Archtiects. Reproduced in July 30, 1887 edition of Building Budget. Annotation by Bernard Mesker at left. Image courtesy of David Mesker.
Sketch of Entrance to Residence by L. Braunhold, depicting the Joseph G. Coleman Residence by Cobb & Frost Architects. Reproduced in July 30, 1887 edition of Building Budget. Annotation by Bernard Mesker at left. Image courtesy of David Mesker.

The use of single versus paired columns was determined by spacing between the upper story windows. While single column designs were not infrequent, the wider two-column spacing appears to have been utilized more frequently which makes sense based on practical and structural considerations. Many Mesker Brothers facade designs combined the use of single and paired columns, their placement again determined by window spacing. As far as column designs, there were several. The earliest designs from the mid- to late-1880s were heavily adorned and much more Victorian Gothic in character. In 1889, a rectangular design with tapered vertical proportions was introduced. Additional designs were made available shortly thereafter, including the most prevalent, comprised of a distinctive classical column on a tall base ornamented by two square rosettes. The column clusters remained popular throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, despite the introduction of decorative panels and sub-panels that could be placed between the upper story windows at lesser expense.

Whether Mesker Brothers invented the paired column appearance for galvanized upper story fronts or simply popularized it is unknown. Competitors also utilized similar combinations which can make identification more challenging. More often than not, however, this element is a good indication that one may be staring at a Mesker Brothers facade.

J.C. Schmohl Building, 213-217 S. Main, Galena, IL (1892). The galvanized front conceals two much older brick facades. The unusually wide spacing between windows is filled with equally unusual groupings of columns.
Fritts Block, Metropolis, IL (1892). Cluster of three columns at the corner.
Design no. 727 in the 1898 Mesker Brothers Iron Works catalog. This design for a corner building features clusters of two, three, and four columns, the latter as a result of the “octagon cut-off corner.”
314 N. Main, Mt. Carroll, IL. Perhaps the earliest of the standardized upper story column designs (circa 1889).
921 Main St., Highland, IL. Another variation on the upper story column design. This one sometimes received a different base treatment, borrowing the ornamentation from the design featured above.
E. Jackson, Virden, IL. A very simple column design with a recessed panel in the shaft featuring applied stamped zinc ornaments.
151 W. Broadway, Sparta, IL. Popular column design offered by the Mesker Brothers, featuring simple base and capital and a vase motif applied over the shaft. All column designs were sometimes paired with or completely replaced by other embossed pieces, such as the dolphin panel pictured here.
510 N. Side Square, Carlinville, IL. At a quick glance the upper facade may appear to be a Mesker Brothers product, but a closer examination of the details and motifs proves otherwise. It is a very good imitation (or inspiration?) by another, unidentified manufacturer.

3 thoughts on “Columns in a cluster

    1. Thanks Erik. Yes, a lot are still in good shape but I also choose to primarily showcase those that are. There are many more that are in deteriorated condition and it seems I learn of additional demolitions on a regular basis.

  1. Pingback: Pattern of influence | Mesker Brothers

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