The below article appeared in the May-June 2015 issue of ‘The Alliance Review,’ a bi-monthly periodical with news relevant to local historic-preservation commissions and their staff, technical assistance, and case studies published by the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions (NAPC). The NAPC is the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting local historic preservation commissions and the historic resources they help protect. ‘Full Metal Jacket: Mesker Building Fronts on Main Street’ was the cover/feature story in the issue which focused on ‘Heritage in the Heartland: The Power of Place.’ Special thanks to Catherine O’Connor, former member of the NAPC Board and ‘The Alliance Review’ editorial committee, who asked me to contribute the article, aimed at who I consider to be the critical audience that may otherwise be unaware of Meskers and their potential significance.
Full Metal Jacket: Mesker Building Fronts on Main Street
If the term ‘Main Street’ is synonymous with a small town historic commercial district, then ‘Mesker’ may be Main Street’s prototypical turn-of-the-20th-century mass-produced storefront. The term, coined over the last decade through the efforts of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s ‘got mesker?’ initiative, refers to architectural sheet-metal products manufactured by two Midwestern companies—Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis, Missouri, and the George L. Mesker & Company of Evansville, Indiana (although the two companies were owned by brothers, they were operated independently and were in fierce competition). Collectively, from the mid-1880s to the mid-1910s they produced an estimated 50,000 plus sheet-metal building fronts, cornices, cast iron storefronts, and other related façade components and, through their catalogs, sold and distributed them all over the country. It would not be until the extruded metal storefronts of Kawneer and later the structural glass of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company and Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company, that a manufactured product would exert similar influence in shaping the architectural expression of Main Streets from coast to coast.
The business of both Mesker firms was based on mail-order sales. Their handsomely designed catalogs sought to impress would-be customers with the quality of their products. Mesker building fronts also alleviated the need for an architect, designer, or skilled craftsman, as the only aesthetic decision a building owner needed to make involved selecting an engraving from the catalog. The two Mesker companies also offered to provide a rendering based on a rough sketch with dimensions sent in by the potential customer. Their extensive product lines ranged from sheets of galvanized steel, to entire storefront assemblies. They sold cornices, window hoods, and columns, as well as stairs, elevators, skylights, steel roofing, and stamped steel ceilings. They also offered wooden millwork and glass for storefronts. Their customers could put together any combination of stock elements that they wished or take advantage of pre-selected packages. Custom work was also available, but naturally it was more expensive than stock designs. Combined with efficient production, this marketing strategy allowed the Mesker companies to distribute their ornamental iron wares to countless small towns across the country.
Despite the popularity of their cast iron offerings, the companies’ primary architectural product were upper-story facades of sheet metal, which were affordable, elegant, fireproof, and easily installed. Though developed in the early 1870s, it wasn’t until the following decade that these “fronts” seriously competed with the more established but more expensive cast-iron facades. Cast-iron storefronts, on the other hand, remained popular throughout the period. The Meskers offered both materials in combination. A cast-iron storefront would often accompany galvanized sheet-metal components on the upper story. The structural requirements as well as wear and tear of street activity demanded the sturdiness of cast iron on the ground floor, but at the upper levels ornamentation was more easily achieved with sheet metal, which was lighter, easier to use, and cheaper.
The same spirit of lavish eclecticism that marked the Victorian age in general also prevailed in Mesker-made architectural ornamentation. The galvanized-steel sheets were stamped into a variety of motifs that were a fusion of late-nineteenth century popular architectural styles. Through the years, the companies tended to employ several design motifs that were repeated throughout the various facade components. George L. Mesker fronts often featured a stylized ‘morning glory’ motif, while the Mesker Brothers utilized the ‘fleur-de-lis,’ a nod to the French heritage of St. Louis, where architectural iron work had been a principal manufacture since the early 19th century. The two companies also offered less overtly decorative cladding, for instance, panels pressed in imitation of brick or quarry-faced stone. As with their more ornamental facades, such cladding was recommended for sheathing old buildings whose facing had deteriorated as well as for installation on new structures. Easily nailed over a wooden frame, the pressed panels could quickly give the appearance of a substantial masonry building at a fraction of the latter’s cost. Given the large number of installations across the country, this stylistic dissemination is of tremendous importance when assessing the influence of these prolific manufacturers.
Preservation challenges facing Mesker facades as well as pre-fabricated galvanized sheet-metal ornamentation in general begin with misconceptions about their historic significance. Unlike arguments made for unique or last-remaining-of-their-kind resources, building facades by the Mesker companies are significant precisely for opposite reasons—their extraordinary commonness. They may be ‘dime a dozen’ but that’s precisely the point which means that communities should not have to choose the best remaining example (of course the typical mantra still applies in districts with a singular survivor). Besides, despite a finite range of motifs, the façade arrangements could be customized to no end making it difficult to find two building fronts that are exactly alike, demonstrating the technology’s effectiveness in adapting to various building types and tastes of the original owners. Encapsulated in each Mesker front is a microcosm of late 19th century architectural and manufacturing innovation beginning with improvements in iron and steel making, patented methods of manufacture and construction, ingenious catalog printing and marketing processes, improvements to railways and other modes of transportation and distribution, and finally the architectural end product which created or transformed an existing building, often in mere days, into the most desirous and elegant building in town. That’s a lot to take in simply by looking at a building but that’s precisely what Meskers have and continue to deliver.
An added difficulty in ensuring the proper protection of these oft overlooked resources is a connotation of cheapness, best summed up by the incorrect moniker ‘tin’ (with a few negligible exceptions neither the facades nor the ever-popular ceilings were made of the metal while most iron and steel sheets used for these applications were coated with zinc and not tin). Although it is true that galvanized iron facades and related products were marketed as an inexpensive alternative to masonry and especially carved stone, the material has more than proven its durability especially when properly maintained and painted. The convincing, if not somewhat ironic, argument to save the facades rests in their outmoded ‘cheap’ technology, which though still available is tremendously expensive to resurrect and implement. A Mesker may have cost next to nothing in 1890 but would require a small fortune to recreate in 2015.
The pre-fabricated and modular nature of the resource often results in salvage as means of rescue. On one hand, since the significance is arguably limited to the exterior of the building it can be resurrected elsewhere, perhaps on another building that lost its Mesker façade. The components can be labeled and stored until a candidate is found; there have been several successful transplants of the sort. On the other hand, while this approach may salvage the architecture it does not preserve the context of the original installation and ignores the role of the owners who chose specific catalog designs or ordered customizations for their respective buildings. The Mesker companies provided the technology, components, and much of the design guidance, but it was up to each client to determine the appearance of each façade. Without the owners and their specific buildings to which the façades are adhered to, there would be no Meskers to save—a symbiotic relationship at its best. Hence, as with other historic property types, historic setting and location are important determinants of form and the preferred preservation approach for Mesker fronts should always be in situ. Salvage must not be the knee-jerk reaction but truly a last ditch effort.
In approving certificates of appropriateness for repairs and alterations to Mesker facades, reviewers should keep in mind not only retention of character-defining elements but also material conservation matters specific to galvanized sheet-metal and related components. Rust removal methods and coating selection should be carefully matched with the substrate and its condition. Smaller repairs and painting jobs are often completed in place which is preferable in order to keep the integrity of original joinery. Soldering in place, however, should be avoided as it can be extremely dangerous due to the flammable wooden back up to which cornices and facades are nailed. Although since the 1860s many new fire codes prohibited the use of wooden cornices and Mansard roofs, ironically sheet-metal cornices and facades depend on a wooden frame for structural stability. After a century, the wood is often very dry while hidden bird and insect nests and other debris can help to ignite a fire. Galvanized iron and steel facades may have been touted as fireproof, but have never truly lived up to this claim. Last November alone, several Meskers were lost to fires in two Indiana towns.
Replacing missing components in kind, whether cast iron storefront column ornamentation or stamped zinc cornice urns, is an available option but usually a cost prohibitive one, especially in remote locations with depressed economic values. The repetitious nature of the pre-fabricated components allows for die and mold making but historically authentic materials are not inexpensive or without flaws. In recent years, the Mesker cast iron column ornaments were replicated in limited runs in both cast aluminum and fiberglass and epoxy composites, successfully reproducing all visual qualities of the original material while, in the case of aluminum, providing better corrosion and breakage resistance. Upon painting, the new parts are undistinguishable from the historic and were determined to meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation as part of recent federal historic tax credit rehabilitation projects.
Painting and related preparation of cast and galvanized metal is necessary maintenance and should be carefully considered as a preservation treatment. For instance, the overlapping metal panel joints should not be caulked allowing for the wooden frame behind the metal to “breathe.” Color, however, is a design consideration that should be left to the owners. This doesn’t mean that historically appropriate color schemes are not an often debated topic with some preservation ordinances and design guidelines adhering to strict rules of color selection. The original intent of cast- and pressed-metal ornamentation, as professed by the Mesker companies, was to imitate the look of cut and carved stone. To advance the illusion, Meskers recommended adding sand to the paint. The suggested color palette of earth tones and particularly natural grays, yellows, tans and even pinks tends to offer the best chance at convincingly mimicking the appearance of stone. However, historic evidence confirms that galvanized sheet-metal facades were often painted in multi-color schemes, including wild colorful concoctions so characteristic of the Victorian era. Because of its abundance of ornamentation, the material allows for tremendous versatility in color selection. And since paint has to be regularly applied to sheet-metal facades as part of their maintenance, there’s always an opportunity to correct unsightly color choices of the past. As the familiar saying goes, “don’t faint, it’s just paint.” Conversely, an effective color scheme makes it easy to appreciate the resource.
In order to save them we have to know where they are. In June a major milestone was reached with 4,000 facades in over 1,600 towns across the nation having already been documented but the search is far from over. Identification of Mesker facades can be a challenging task especially without surviving maker’s marks at the bases of storefront columns. However, both companies utilized very characteristic and easily recognizable motifs such as the ‘morning glory’ or the ‘dolphin panel’ which aid attribution while many of the original catalogs have been digitized and are available online for reference at www.meskerbrothers.com The same resource regularly updates newly identified Mesker products across the country, providing historians, preservationists, and property owners with an opportunity to learn more about their treasures and to contribute to the nationwide and volunteer-based identification effort. In a recent collaborative effort, the Kansas Historical Society updated KHRI, its online historic resources database, to include information about extant Mesker facades in the state. Similar opportunities await at all survey, documentation, and designation levels.
Despite some unique challenges, commercial building facades by the three Mesker brothers share the typical plight of other historic resources, often driven by deprived economic conditions and unsuccessful advocacy. However, judging by IHPA’s decade-long effort these often underappreciated resources can still garner populist appeal, whether through their historic context or simply because of their architectural merit, which remarkably can still fool many passersby into believing the facades to be stone. Meskers may not be considered a rare historic property type, but the resource pool is finite and it will only diminish with time. There has never been a better time to recognize their historic significance and to put up a ‘preservation front.’