1,000 “house fronts” and more

Radulovich Block (1892), Tucson, Arizona. This impressive Mesker Brothers "house front" stood on the northeast corner of Congress and State Sts. in downtown Tucson until it burned during an 1898 fire. Interestingly, the one-story building that replaced it also featured sheet metalwork by Mesker Brothers. It too no longer exists. Image from the University of Arizona.

Radulovich Block (1892), Tucson, Arizona. This impressive Mesker Brothers “house front” stood on the northeast corner of Congress and Stone in downtown Tucson until it burned during an 1898 fire. Interestingly, the one-story building that replaced it also featured sheet metalwork by Mesker Brothers. It too no longer exists. Image from the University of Arizona Libraries Digital Collections.

Lost in the recent updates was another milestone – the identification of the 1,000th “house front.” The various Mesker categories and subtypes are described in detail here, but in summary “house fronts” are what Mesker Brothers (from St. Louis) referred to as buildings with a full sheet-metal facade. Buildings of this type are typically one to three stories in height with a street level storefront and upper facades consisting of sheet-metal panels stamped with decorative motifs. These are the prototypical Meskers, the ones that draw our attention because they are so unusual. In contrast, “brick fronts” are buildings with some sort of cast iron and sheet-metal detailing but installed over a wall of masonry or another non-metal material, i.e. they are more conventional and typical of turn-of-the-20th-century construction. Since the updates were a bundle and I don’t know which of them was #1,000 (which itself is of no importance), above is a  photo of one of the more impressive examples from Tucson, Arizona (sadly, the building no longer exists). Technically, the facade is also a “brick front” because of the small masonry section to the north of the corner, but the impressive sheet-metal frontage on both sides is clearly the character defining feature. The image came from the University of Arizona Libraries Digital Collections and can be viewed in much higher resolution here.

Due to the fact that the survey and identification efforts are ongoing it is probably too soon to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding the identified sheet-metal fronts, but where’s the fun in that! Besides, our sampling is certainly large enough (3,158 Meskers as of the date of this post) and there are a few interesting trends worth pointing out. Only time will tell if they hold true.

The 1,005 fronts are a combined total for both companies and account for roughly a third of the identified examples (the remaining 2,153 Meskers are primarily “brick fronts”). The first disparity exists once we separate the work of the two companies. The 1,005 fronts can be broken into 798 fronts by Mesker Brothers Iron Works and 203 by George L. Mesker & Co (additional 4 are found on buildings with elements from both companies). That’s a substantial difference which carries over into the percentages: MB fronts are 45% of the total (1,747) and GLM fronts are merely 14% of identified examples (1,387).  At least on the surface, the evidence seems to indicate that Mesker Brothers Iron Works were far more prolific in selling full sheet-metal facades than their brother George in Evansville. We already knew that they had a larger volume but the different totals do not necessarily suggest such a big difference in the types of products made and sold. Was it the patents held by Mesker Brothers? Or do these numbers even mean anything since they are incomplete?

The other disparity concerns Mesker Brothers specifically, and exists between the identified total and Ben’s Bible, the company’s financial record book meticulously updated by Bernard (Ben) Mesker. The records for years 1885-96, separate fronts from other jobs for a total of 2,057 and 10,720 respectively. Based on these figures, fronts constituted only 16% of their contracts (though financially they brought in almost as much as the other jobs), while the percentage in our identification is nearly three times that. Is it because the full metal fronts are easier to identify (the likely cause for the disparity; perhaps the same can be said regarding MB versus GLM fronts), more of them survive due to their architectural interest (less likely but probable; the identified examples include demolished buildings too), or that after 1896 the fronts constituted an overwhelming majority of their business therefore altering the earlier percentages? (least likely and not supported by available data).

All of this is of course merely speculation and only a complete documentation of existing and demolished Meskers could clarify these differences. So let’s keep going.

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