Yesterday and today
In 1965, the Mesker Brothers reproduced several pages of its 1906 catalog “in hopes that it may bring nostalgic memories to some, and a glance at the past for others.” The selection included primarily sheet-metal fronts, but also windows, siding, and roofing. However, the publication also offered a glimpse at the current, or 1960s, Mesker offerings. The forward continued:
“Since the turn of the century architecture has changed, new materials have been discovered, new construction methods have been devised, esthetic values have changed, but the basic concepts of sturdy, fire resistant walls of metal are still built into every Mesker Curtain Wall Project of aluminum or steel.”
What is a curtain wall? In 1954, pioneering Modernist architect William Lescaze (1896-1969) suggested the following definition: “A curtain wall may be defined as an exterior wall which is nonloadbearing and is supported […] by the structural framework of the building.” Ironically, based on that generally accepted definition, the 19th-century Mesker sheet-metal fronts should likewise be considered curtain walls. Somewhat crude and makeshift, perhaps, but curtain walls nonetheless. Over time these facades changed from an abundance of ornament to its absence, but they were always considered, or at least marketed, as “modern” in their respective eras.
To demonstrate the company’s evolution from metal fronts to metal curtain walls, Meskers included a lovely rendering of an impressive modern office building. The Tower Building in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, was designed by architects Harold A. Berry (1922–) of Dallas, TX—the lead architect and one responsible for the exterior design of the building—and Frank Eugene Withrow (1925–) of Little Rock. When completed in 1960, at eighteen stories the building was the tallest in the State of Arkansas. It is also by far the tallest and most modern Mesker front ever constructed. The metal curtain wall manufactured by Mesker Brothers was made possible by Berry’s use of a composite steel frame, and was a key component in conveying the modernity of the architect’s design.
It is unknown how many other Mesker curtain walls were manufactured or survive. The same Tower Building rendering was used in other marketing material, such as Sweet’s Architectural Catalog File from 1965, with no mentions of any other installations. At least one other was contracted in 1963—the Donata Building in Arlington, Virginia—but it is unclear whether Mesker completed the work because of a legal dispute with the client (Mesker Brothers Iron Company, Appellant, v. Donata Corporation, A & H Holding Corporation and A & H Plumbing Supply Corporation, Appellees. U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. 9 Sept. 1968. Justia. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2016.)
The Tower Building’s architectural significance was recognized by a 2011 listing in the National Register of Historic Places with a statewide level of significance. To my chagrin, the National Register nomination does not include any mention of the curtain wall manufacturer. Since the building is largely characterized by ribbons of Mesker windows and porcelain-enamel panels, both highly important to the building’s expression of the International Style, I would argue that this omission is not irrelevant. However, as luck would have it, the offices of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program are located in the building. Survey historian Travis Ratermann was excited to learn of the Mesker connection and has since guided me in creating a Supplemental Listing Record (SLR) to the nomination to include this information.
Of more importance than an incomplete National Register nomination, however, is that the building survives and retains great integrity (it was renamed Catlett-Prien Tower in 1983). The largest exterior alteration was the removal of aluminum sun screens above the windows (they are visible in the Mesker catalog rendering) and painting of the porcelain-enamel panels, which were originally yellow.
In conclusion, just as Evansville’s Greyhound Terminal from 1939 is important in the evolution of George L. Mesker & Co., so does the Tower Building add to our understanding of Mesker Brothers’ transition from a storefront maker in the late 19th century to a curtain wall fabricator by the late 1950s. It is an impressive example of the company’s work during this period and deserves a spot among its sheet-metal brethren.