From Industries of St. Louis to Courthouses of Montana

Chouteau County Courthouse, Fort Benton, Montana. Image courtesy of Ken Robison.

Chouteau County Courthouse, Fort Benton, Montana. Completed in 1884, the courthouse features early ironwork by Mesker Brother Iron Works of St. Louis, Missouri. Image courtesy of Ken Robison.

Documentation of early Mesker work is often a challenging task due to lack of catalogs (needed for design confirmation) and a significantly smaller pool of comparables, especially of the surviving kind. The earliest known extant examples of the work of J.B. Mesker & Son and George L. Mesker & Co. are from 1876 (New Harmony, Indiana) and several from 1884 (Evansville and Mount Vernon, Indiana), respectively. Until recently, a number of facades across the country dating from 1887 were the oldest works of Mesker Brothers Iron Works to still exist. Not anymore, thanks to a vintage publication that has been digitized and made available through the Internet Archive.

Below is a full delineation (spelling mistakes and all) of Mesker & Bro., Manufacturers of Galvanized Iron Cornices and Skylights, from The Industries of Saint Louis: Her Advantages, Resources, Facilities and Commercial Relations as a Center of Trade and Manufacture; Together with a Delineation of Representative Industrial and Commercial Establishments by Andrew Morrison and John H.C. Irwin, published in 1885 by J.M. Elstner & Co. (page 217):

In this department of ornamental architecture and building there has been a marvelous growth in the last few years, and B.T. and Frank Mesker have done much in the promotion and culture of this taste for ornamentation in St. Louis and elsewhere. Establishing themselves here in 1879, on Third street, with the growth of the business they were obliged to move to larger quarters, and in 1883 removed to their present location at 421, 423 and 425 South Sixth street, where their shops and office occupy 65×130 feet. When the shops are running full, an hundred men are employed, but in the present season about sixty constitute the force. While their trade is largely local, yet it is by no means confined to St. Louis or this State; on the contrary it is continually enlarging in territorial extent, and now aggregates about $150,000 a year.

What a great account of the company’s beginnings! But the second paragraph—and relevant to the now oldest surviving work of the Mesker Brothers—goes on:

The firm has successfully competed against Chicago and St. Paul establishments in the same line, as well as some in St. Louis, for large contracts. The galvanized cornice work on the St. Louis Exposition building in this city was done by this house, also like work upon the five principal theatres in this city; and they also did the cornice work upon the Court House at Butte City, Montana; at Fort Benton and a large amount of like ornamentation upon store buildings in Helena, Montana. Messrs. Mesker are now doing a fine piece of cornice work for a Chicago architect upon a building at Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Aside from the St. Louis Exposition and Music Hall Building—designed by Frank Mesker’s former employer, St. Louis architect Jerome B. Legg, and for which Mesker Brothers Iron Works was awarded a metal work contract in 1883—the other works mentioned were previously unknown. All but one no longer survive, including the Old Silver Bow County Courthouse in Butte (1884-1910), or could not be identified at this time.

It was nonetheless exciting to discover that there does exist a courthouse in Fort Benton, Montana, that must be the very same building mentioned in the 1885 account. The Chouteau County Courthouse at 1308 Franklin Street in Fort Benton, was completed in September 1884 by builder Gus Senieur from designs of architects Kees and Fisk of Minneapolis. The building underwent a restoration in 1972 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The imposing Victorian building was constructed of soft local brick and cut granite, and features an array of galvanized sheet-metal cornices, enframements, moldings, and the courthouse’s most striking exterior element: a square metal-clad clock tower topped by a tin or zinc roof and an iron finial. Interestingly, the National Register nomination does not include a single mention of any sheet-metal work, the resulting implication incorrectly pointing to stone as the material of this ornamentation. However, the building’s white-painted features have indeed been confirmed to be of galvanized metal thanks to Ken Robison, historian at the Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton, who also shared photos of the building. There’s nothing about this 1884 ironwork that is overtly or perhaps even remotely Mesker but it predates their mass-produced storefronts and as such has no basis for comparison. Without the account from The Industries of Saint Louis it would not have been identified.

In addition to the exterior ironwork, the ceiling in the court room may also have been supplied by Mesker Brothers although this may be nearly impossible to confirm with any certainty. The company’s very first two patents from 1887 (patent #s 358,405 and 361,438) were for a ceiling of similar design which also appeared in their catalogs well into the early 1900s. Ironically, while a large number of facades from this period has already been documented, this ceiling design has not. Most known Mesker Brothers ceilings, which are relatively few in number since the effort has focused on facades, are later, more ornamental designs and do not resemble those in the earlier catalogs or the Chouteau County Courthouse. Was the ceiling in the courthouse a prototype that led the Meskers to file the patents? Did they manufacture it at all? We may never find out.

The 1885 edition of The Industries of Saint Louis is notable for at least one more thing. Preceding the company information, on page 216, is an equally exciting piece of Mesker Brothers history, what is perhaps the earliest known rendering of their galvanized iron “house fronts,” predating the oldest known catalogs (see the end of the post for image). It was in fact this image, shared on Flickr by the Internet Archive, that spurred the additional research and identification of Mesker ironwork on the Fort Benton courthouse. Is this how the “store buildings in Helena” appeared? Is it a depiction of one of their actual designs or a generic rendering illustrating the possibilities? Yet another puzzle to solve.

It has been terrific to learn of this “pre-house front” Mesker and to know that the building still exists virtually unchanged and in excellent condition. History may have forgotten about this early work of the Mesker Brothers and their contribution towards one of Montana’s oldest courthouses, and it may be a while, if ever, for this information to be recognized and found elsewhere. So be it. We’ll just keep rescuing history one Mesker at a time.

Chouteau County Courthouse, Fort Benton, Montana. Close up view of a gable end with galvanized ironwork in the form of cornices, pediments and enframements. Image courtesy of Ken Robison.

Chouteau County Courthouse, Fort Benton, Montana. Close up view of a gable end with various galvanized ironwork believed to be the work of Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis, Missouri. Image courtesy of Ken Robison.

Chouteau County Courthouse, Fort Benton, Montana. The building's key exterior feature is it's square clock tower, sheathed in galvanized iron mimicking the appearance of cut granite. Image courtesy of Ken Robison.

Chouteau County Courthouse, Fort Benton, Montana. The building’s most prominent exterior feature is it’s square clock tower, sheathed in galvanized iron mimicking the appearance of cut granite. The clock was never installed. Image courtesy of Ken Robison.

On the left: Cropped back page of the 1889 Mesker Brothers Iron Works catalog advertising the company's patented iron ceilings. Image courtesy of David Mesker. On the right: View of the court room on the second floor of hte Chouteau County Courthouse with ceilings remarkably similar to those from the catalog. The court room and its ceiling remain intact. image courtesy of the O

On the left: Page from the 1889 Mesker Brothers Iron Works catalog advertising the company’s patented iron ceilings with cross bars. Image courtesy of David Mesker. On the right: View of the court room on the second floor of the Chouteau County Courthouse with a very similar ceiling. The court room and its ceiling remain intact. Image courtesy of the Overholser Historical Research Center.

Old Silver Bow County Courthouse

Old Silver Bow County Courthouse, Butte, Montana. Also constructed in 1884, with galvanized iron cornices manufactured by Mesker Brothers Iron Works. The building was demolished c. 1910 and soon thereafter replaced by a new courthouse. Image courtesy of The Walkingbird Nest.

This is perhaps the earliest commercial building facade rendering by Mesker Brothers Iron Works. From “The Industries of Saint Louis” (1885), p. 216. Image courtesy of the Internet Archive.

 

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