Columnar paradox

Comparison of the three diagonal nameplates applied at the base of cast iron columns.

Comparison of diagonal nameplates by three different Indiana manufacturers, applied at the base of cast iron columns, the two flanking designs mimicking the one at center. From left to right: Convery & Recker, Vincennes; George L. Mesker & Co., Evansville; Thatcher A. Parker, Terre Haute.

It is the Mesker spotter’s curse—he cannot traverse a historic downtown or Main Street without examining the buildings for traces of their work. He does this whether he has time or not, whether alone or with company, on business or for pleasure (oh, how his family suffers). The rewards come often, but then again so does disappointment, especially if he discovers a particularly neglected or deteriorated building. His procedure and results are simple—he will either find a Mesker or not. Sure, some finds can be ambiguous but those are few. He looks up and down every building, because every building has the promise of next “acquisition.” The recognition is based on familiarity, he has seen the elements before. He makes out a cornice, same one as hundreds before it. Check. He spots a window hood, again a match with his memorized photographic inventory; there’s no need to cross reference with the catalog. He walks on and sees a column, recognizes the shape, the profile, the details. A diagonally angled nameplate that he knows only one company has used. It’s all as it’s supposed to be. It seems so pointless but since he’s so close to it, he gets closer to bend down and read the name he’s read so many times before… only to read something completely different.

Who the heck is ‘Convery and Recker, Vincennes, Indiana’?

Palestine, Illinois, is the state’s unofficial capitol of Mesker fronts with 15 surviving examples, all by George L. Mesker & Co. whose Evansville, Indiana iron works were located merely 80 miles to the south. Many buildings feature combinations of cast iron columns with galvanized sheet-metal window hoods and cornices on the second floor, while numerous iron canopies also made by Mesker, give the historic downtown, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, a distinctive appearance. This large concentration of George’s architectural iron products is not atypical in the region. Unusual, however, is a building at 200-202 S. Main St. (southwest corner of Main and Grand Prairie) with very similar cast iron columns made by two different companies. A single column by Mesker exists in the southern storefront at 202 S. Main. To the north and around the corner onto Grand Prairie St. are two columns by Convery & Recker of Vincennes, Indiana, whose foundry was located enroute to Evansville, some 25 miles down the Wabash River. The two designs, flanking the upstairs entrance in the center of the Main Street elevation, are remarkably similar particularly at base and shaft levels, both of same width, flutings, and both with diagonally angled maker marks. The real difference, aside from the text on the nameplates, exists at the capitals—Mesker’s a stylized acanthus leaf atop a large rosette, while Convery & Recker’s a smaller, less ornamental but also leaf-like motif. While completely exposed in present day, these capital differences were originally less conspicuous and visible only from underneath an iron canopy that spanned this and three other buildings to the south.

Convery & Recker was a general foundry and machine shop in Vincennes, started in 1893 by Garret R. Recker and August Convery, both former employees of Clark & Buck, another local machine shop. The foundry, located at the corner of Eighth and Hickman Streets, was described as being one of the most complete plants in Indiana and employed 14 to 20 men. Recker succeeded Convery as owner upon the latter’s death in January 1902. The foundry enjoyed only brief success and closed in 1907. In 1919 it was acquired by the Hammon Optical Machine Manufacturing Co., maker of lens surfacing machinery and other optical manufacturing equipment as an extension to its plant.

It’s unclear whether the use of two different column manufacturers on an otherwise very cohesive façade at 200-202 S. Main is an original condition or result of a subsequent remodeling. If the latter, was the similarity between the columns deliberate or merely a coincidence? Other pairings of Convery & Recker columns with Mesker products (such as at the Marone Building at 101 N. Second St. in Vincennes) would suggest a purposeful combination, perhaps by the Vincennes foundry itself. Mesker certainly did not need to supplement its line of offerings but the same cannot be ruled out for a smaller iron works. It is clear, therefore, at least to this COMPLETELY unbiased and objective historian (ahem, just look at the name of the blog), that the firm of Convery & Recker consciously emulated the column design by George L. Mesker & Co. After all, they would have been familiar with it, seeing it frequently in nearby Illinois and Indiana towns, including Vincennes. Though there’s very little information available about any other column designs they may have produced and how popular the Mesker imitation may have been, there is a strong probability that Convery & Recker produced an even more deliberate and convincing imitation, surviving on several storefronts in Vincennes and in the region, but nothing short of seeing the purported forgery up close can provide a definitive answer.

And what about ‘Thatcher A. Parker, Engineer and Builder, Terre Haute, Indiana’?

30 miles north of Palestine, is Marshall, Illinois, whose historic commercial district (also listed in the National Register of Historic Places) is home to several George L. Mesker & Co. storefronts as well as cast iron columns from Vierling, McDowell & Co. Iron Works (Chicago, IL), Schreiber & Sons Co. Iron Works (Cincinnati, OH), Prox & Brinkman Manufacturing Co. (Terre Haute, IN), and Union Iron & Foundry Co. (St. Louis, MO). Nearly unnoticed among this impressive collection are several columns with applied nameplates of Thatcher A. Parker of Terre Haute, Indiana, a larger city located directly across state lines from Marshall.

Thatcher A. Parker was one of the most prominent contractors and manufacturers in Terre Haute. After stints with the Carnegie & Phipps Steel Company in Pittsburgh, Eagle Iron Works of Terre Haute (twice), and Murray Iron Works in Burlington, Iowa, where he served as superintendent, Parker began contracting in steel structural work on his own in 1896. In 1900 he opened his own plant at 202-208 North First Street, for the manufacture of structural iron and steel bridge components. In May 1902 a fire destroyed the foundry but it was rebuilt and remained in business until 1913, when financial problems led to its closure.

Unlike the Convery & Recker columns which although similar can ultimately be distinguished from the source of their inspiration, the columns at 620 and 702-704 Archer Avenue in Marshall are identical to those offered by Mesker. The only difference are the nameplates, which too are diagonal but angle in the opposite direction (from the left corner up). The, once again unbiased, explanation is fairly simple. The columns look the same as those by Mesker because Mesker made them, but Parker, as engineer and/or contractor for these two storefront installations, supplied his own identifying mark. Since the Mesker columns were bolted on and not cast into the column, they could be easily removed. This was a fairly common practice and architect nameplates affixed to various cast iron columns can be found here and there around the country. Other foundries and iron works sometimes did the same, including Mesker Brothers Iron Works whose earliest known commercial building facades appear to employ cast iron columns by Christopher & Simpson of St. Louis, Missouri.

The Mesker spotter’s lesson from these encounters is a tale of caution—he shouldn’t judge the column by its nameplate. And vice versa! But more importantly he’s even more aware of the wondrous tapestry of historic commercial architecture and the incredible stories lurking behind each and every element.

200-202 S. Main St., Palestine, Illinois. The storefront has cast iron columns by two different Indiana foundries: George L. Mesker & Co. from Evansville, and Convery & Recker from Vincennes.

200-202 S. Main St., Palestine, Illinois. Close up of the two different cast iron columns found on the same storefront. To the right is a column by George L. Mesker & Co., Evansville, Indiana; to the left is a column by Convery & Recker, Vincennes, Indiana. Aside from the capitals, the columns are very similar, including the diagonally applied nameplates at the base. The steel lintel design does not appear to be one of Mesker’s.

200-202 S. Main St., Palestine, Illinois. Close up of a cast iron column capital by Convery & Recker, Vincennes, Indiana. The capital design is distinctively different from those offered by George L. Mesker & Co.

200-202 S. Main St., Palestine, Illinois. Nameplate at the base of the column identifies the maker as Convery & Recker from Vincennes, Indiana. The overall column design and diagonally applied nameplate are very similar to those offered by George L. Mesker & Co. Coincidence? Not likely.

200-202 S. Main St., Palestine, Illinois. Close up of the galvanized sheet-metal cornice which is not one of George L. Mesker & Co. designs. The maker is unknown, but possibly Convery & Recker.

620 Archer, Marshall, Illinois. Cast iron columns manufactured by George L. Mesker & Co. but supplied and/or installed by Thatcher A. Parker of Terre Haute. Photo of storefront prior to repainting. Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

620 Archer Ave., Marshall, Illinois. Cast iron columns manufactured by George L. Mesker & Co. but supplied and/or installed by Thatcher A. Parker of Terre Haute. Photo of storefront taken in 2007 prior to repainting. Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

620 Archer, Marshall, Illinois. Applied nameplate of Thatcher A. Parker, Engineer & Builder, Terre Haute, Indiana. Image courtesy of Jamie Franklin, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

620 Archer Ave., Marshall, Illinois. Nameplate of Thatcher A. Parker, Engineer & Builder, Terre Haute, Indiana, applied to cast iron columns by George L. Mesker & Co. Image courtesy of Jamie Franklin, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

702 Archer, Marshall, Illinois. Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Wright House Hotel, 702-704 Archer Ave., Marshall, Illinois. Another storefront with cast iron columns by Mesker and nameplates by Parker. Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

702 Archer, Marshall, Illinois. Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Wright House Hotel, 702-704 Archer Ave., Marshall, Illinois. Mesker cast iron column with Parker’s nameplate, along the 7th Street elevation. Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Update (Jan. 15, 2015)

With the assistance from Mr. Dennis Latta, Knox County Historian, my assumptions regarding the second imitative design by Convery & Recker were confirmed. At least two storefronts in Vincennes have columns even more deceptively similar to those offered by Mesker. The likewise diagonal nameplates bear the name of G.R. Recker, which would seem to indicate that they postdate Convery’s death in 1902.

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