Crescent City Rivals
Meskers had many competitors over the years. Some were imitators, with varying degrees of success, while others were innovators in their own right. But only one competing enterprise was begun by three former employees of George L. Mesker & Co.
The International Steel & Iron Construction Company of Evansville, Indiana (and later Chicago, Illinois) was started in 1909 by four young enterprising men: Henry Bohnsack (co-owner of Baker & Bohnsack Co., a produce supplier), Oscar Oehlkuch (accountant at Geo. L. Mesker & Co), F.O. Weber (salesman at Geo. L. Mesker & Co), and Henry F. Decker (designer at Geo. L. Mesker & Co). In the beginning, the three Mesker employees apparently continued to work at the Mesker plant while they operated their own steel business on the side. Their first job was to furnish the steel for the Schelosky Table Co. Building in Evansville, which they did for only $868.75. Once they incorporated in 1910, they “deserted” Mesker to devote themselves to International Steel full time; both Weber and Oehlkuch had been with Mesker for eight years. Among many other Evansville buildings they soon constructed were the Metropolitan Building at the corner of Main and Fourth (c. 1910), branch libraries in Bayard Park and on W. Franklin St (1911), and the YMCA Building at Vine and Fifth (1913).
With an insider’s access to all of the major departments (accounting, sales and design) of their certainly well-established and likely largest competitor, it is not surprising that some International Steel products appear like those made by the Evansville Mesker. And it is no wonder that the two companies were bitter competitors—stealing company secrets (or the perception thereof) can understandably produce such a result. By at least one account from a former Mesker employee, the rivalry included an informant at the Mesker plant who fed business related information back to International Steel. It is unclear whether International Steel competed with Mesker for the share of the galvanized sheet-metal products market which the latter continued to manufacture into the 1910s. Although a circa 1919 company advertisement listed ‘sheet metal products,’ it is unknown whether this included cornices and building fronts. Like Mesker, International Steel designed and provided a full line of storefront components, whether of their own manufacture like cast iron columns and steel girders or complimentary such as display window sash and marble bulkheads. The aforementioned 1919 ad listed the following product offerings: cast iron, wrought iron, steel highway bridges, concrete reinforcement, complete public garages, private portable garages, modern store fronts, skylights, steel ceilings, sheet metal products, steel sash, elevators, mill work and glass. The same ad also listed three divisions or separate companies operated by International Steel—International Store Front Co., International Woodworking Co., and International Bridge Company. Unlike Mesker, International Steel not only furnished structural steel, but also constructed the buildings, at least in Evansville and vicinity.
In decades to follow, International Steel Company (name change occurred in 1931) specialized in steel roof trusses of various kinds—bowstring, flat, gable, warren, and so on—directly competing with Geo. L. Mesker & Co. (by then renamed George L. Mesker Steel Corporation) whose main business were also roof trusses and structural steel. International Steel’s truss catalog from 1947 (reproduced below) lists several buildings completed with “International trusses”: Paramus Skating Rink in Ridgewood, NJ; Pasco Growers Cooperative in Dade City, FL; Indianapolis Speedway Grandstand in Indianapolis, IN; and the Purdue University Hangar in West Lafayette, IN. During WWII the company utilized the truss technology to make Bailey bridges and M-4 pontoon bridges for the U.S. Army, employing some 1,500 people during the period. Postwar prosperity led to continued structural steel manufacture as well as to other related opportunities. Perhaps the most interesting were steel contracts for semi-subterranean gymnasia, patented by prolific Modernist architect from Evansville, Ralph Legeman (1904-1974). Reportedly, 37 high school and college gyms and physical education centers in three states—Indiana, Illinois and Michigan—were built according to Legeman’s patent (patent #2,761,181) with International Steel erecting steel for at least 10 of them. By the mid-1980s, International Steel’s primary product was revolving doors. In 1986, the company successfully came out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy and in 1992, its name and assets were bought by Evansville Metal Products, Inc. Conversely, it’s Mesker rival closed it’s (non-revolving) doors in 1981.
Although International Steel trusses may be impossible to identify without previous documentation (how do you tell a difference between a Mesker truss and an International truss?), examples of their Mesker-like cast iron columns are scattered throughout the region and have been identified in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi. The resemblance to the popular Mesker column designs is uncanny and sometimes it’s easy to confuse the two especially at a distance. The overall column proportions, and a fluted shaft with a torus molding atop a tall plinth base must have been derived from one of the George L. Mesker & Co. column designs which was utilized since the 1890s. But the capitals were different and provide a definitive way of distinguishing the columns of these rivals. Sometimes, as in the Berman Building in Evansville, the columns can be seen standing side by side, neither friend nor foe, their makers’ fierce and bitter relationship unbetrayed to the viewer’s gaze.
Update (May 25, 2014)
An undated catalog (likely from the early 1900s), Supplement 22, can be downloaded from APT’s Building Technology Heritage Library. The catalog shows several sheet-metal cornice designs and at least one galvanized iron front.