There’s no point in hiding
In documenting historic buildings, Mesker and non alike, we always look for manufacturer identifications and original building owner names. To discover them is always exciting but since they are essentially signs, the only uncertainty lies in whether they survive and not whether they were intended to be seen. There are, however, other labels and inscriptions which were not meant to see the light of day once the building parts made it onto a building. Correspondingly, to find and decipher these some 120 years later is a rare opportunity.
At least when it comes to Mesker facades, it is. One such opportunity came in 2006 during restoration of a galvanized sheet-metal cornice by George L. Mesker & Co., on the First State Bank in Winchester, Illinois. The building was constructed circa 1898 by the original bankers, Frost & Hubbard, and in addition to the extant cornice featured a cast iron and wood Mesker storefront topped by a smaller lintel cornice (the original cast iron columns likely still survive behind the modern ashlar). During the restoration of the cornice several of the larger end brackets were removed for inspection and repairs and to everyone’s delight, one of them featured a factory painted inscription of the original owner’s name and location – Frost & Hubbard, Winchester, Ills. – found on an unpainted side and concealed from view since 1898. I was lucky enough to see it and take a few pictures before the bracket was repaired and reinstalled, and the entire cornice subsequently repainted.
A similar discovery occurred recently in Brady, Texas, on the S.T. Ballou Building located at 300-304 E. Commerce St., which features patented storefront steel columns with galvanized sheet-metal panels and cornice by Mesker Brothers Iron Works. The Ballou Building likewise features the job identification label consisting of the owner’s name and location, but here the label can be found on multiple storefront columns, originally concealed by sheet-metal capitals. The capitals were removed some time ago to install a wooden canopy which was placed flush against the building at that very height. But in the last few years the old wooden canopy was replaced by a steel one, which was raised slightly higher to no longer obstruct the tops of the transom windows, thus also exposing the Mesker Brothers job identification marks. The fact that these have survived the installation of two canopies and remain unpainted is remarkable. They may not remain in this state for long – either rust or a paint brush will eventually get the best of them. Sincere thanks go out to Clint Tunnell for discovering the markings and to Roger Waguespack for their documentation and for permission to use his photos.
These inscriptions or labels appear to have been standard factory practice, ensuring the proper packing and shipment of orders. Without overly romanticizing their significance, in a warehouse full of standardized components it was these painted markings that determined the fate of the parts – Winchester versus Brady, and so on. Aside from packing orders at the factory, they would have also remained useful when they arrived on site, raising a red flag if the owner’s name and town were incorrect. And they remain invaluable today, as in the case of the Ballou Building, providing a name of the original owner and confirming or questioning previous research. And it’s difficult to find a more primary source than that.
Despite their rare sightings, these inscriptions are still likely fairly common, remaining hidden from view as intended, although many were undoubtedly painted over in subsequent repairs and restorations. These job identification marks were meant to remain unseen once they left the factory and were installed onto a building. But that’s exactly why they are so fascinating to encounter today.