Read Part 1 of this post, covering the Sonora portion of the Ruffini Collection, here.
Oscar Ruffini was based in San Angelo, where he reportedly designed over 30 buildings. Therefore, it is not surprising that eight of ten Mesker Brothers’ blueprints in The Ruffini Collection at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission are for buildings in San Angelo. However, as fascinating and useful they are, the blueprints tell only a part of the story. Fortunately, thanks to another Ruffini archive, we now have a much fuller understanding of the relationship between the architect and Mesker Brothers.
The Oscar Ruffini Papers held at the Fort Concho National Historic Landmark Archives and Library in San Angelo, Texas, include more than 16 linear feet of letterpress copybooks, scrapbooks, specifications, and drawings. Of relevant importance are series of letters from Ruffini to Mesker Brothers Iron Works, regarding several buildings in San Angelo, including those on the blueprints from the Ruffini Collection. While the Fort Concho collection includes only Ruffini’s letters and not the replies from Mesker, the information they contain is nothing short of amazing. A special and huge thank you goes to Roger Waguespack for taking upon himself to sort through this collection, as well as scores of others, to identify all relevant information and all San Angelo Meskers, past and present. What follows would not be possible were it not for his efforts.
First off, the various letters clarify the important role that Ruffini played in the design and construction process of these various buildings. In addition to providing overall design services and writing specifications, he represented the building owners (his clients) in all communications with various tradesmen, requesting bids, issuing change orders, inspecting material delivery, supervising construction, and authorizing payments. The usual process of soliciting bids from Mesker began with Ruffini providing a rough facade sketch, general building description but with detailed dimensions, and any other instructions as to specific designs or stock items. The architect often sketched little details in the body of the letter for clarification purposes. While Mesker Brothers provided the drawings, Ruffini ensured they were correct and if necessary, because of change in design or an occasional mistake by Mesker, requested revised drawings and updated bids. He informed the company of his clients’ acceptance of their bids, issuing further instructions or revisions. The correspondence for each job continued until Mesker successfully delivered all necessary components (sometimes parts were missing or damaged), and the architect authorized a final payment. The frantic construction pace and haste were constant reminders issued by Ruffini at all stages—from bid to manufacture to product delivery—and Mesker Brothers always seemed to oblige in order to get the job.
Even beyond the broad picture, the Ruffini Papers are chock-full of useful insights. For example, Ruffini’s specifications for the U.G. Taylor Building provide for a pre-manufactured sheet-metal front to be installed by a local contractor over a wooden backup and lookouts based on special drawings (likely issued by Mesker). Furthermore, the painting specifications for the galvanized front called for 3 coats of paint (heavy coat of red mineral followed by two coats of lead and oil), trimmed in 3 different colors as selected by owner, with the date and owner’s name in the pediment painted in pure gold leaf and black for the sides/projections. If anyone is looking for appropriate paint color suggestions, it doesn’t get any more authentic than this.
Example of another gem can be found in an April 18, 1903 letter regarding a front for Mrs. E.C. Fitzgerald, where Ruffini informed Mesker Brothers that George L. Mesker & Co. was also bidding on the job and asked them for their very lowest figure and a bid turnaround of three to four days. As per the resulting correspondence, Bernard and Frank outbid their brother (though no figures were provided) and received the contract. Ruffini asked Meskers not to produce a separate drawing and work off the one he supplied, in order to avoid any delays. It took a little over a month for the front to arrive on site—the order was placed on April 25 and the front was in San Angelo by June 2 (though not without delay concerns from Ruffini)—and by the end of June the architect wrote that the construction was nearly complete and that it was delayed only because of rains. From start to finish (bid request to final construction), the process took a little over two months! Pretty impressive for 1903.
By far the most fascinating series of letters are regarding Ruffini’s own building, for which he solicited a Mesker Brothers’ front in desire “to keep down all unnecessary cost,” indicating a high level of confidence in their product and services. He gave them but two weeks to get his front F.O.B. (freight on board) in St. Louis. Ruffini paid $184.61 for his Mesker facade, which he received without delay and began putting it up in February, 1898. In the same thread of correspondence, Ruffini revealed a long working relationship with the Mesker family. He recollected a three-story galvanized iron front that J.B. Mesker (father of the Mesker brothers) made for Ruffini while he was in a partnership with Levi S. Clark in Evansville, Indiana, during 1880-81. He further recalled meeting their brother George there and meeting Bernard and Frank in St. Louis in the early 1880s, when Ruffini was a foreman at the office of Francis D. Lee.
While a Mesker front on Ruffini’s own building implies his true allegiances, his May 1901 reply to Union Iron and Foundry of St. Louis, a Mesker competitor, regarding an estimate for a one-story building, took a very different tone. Ruffini wrote that “Mesker has done considerable work in this place” and that “it seems almost impossible for people to break away.” He offered comfort in that “change will come some day, expect I will have to keep trying.” Given Ruffini’s serious contributions to Meskers’ success in San Angelo, this letter seems like a tactful and calculated response to keep his options open.
Sadly, all but 3 of at least 16 identified Mesker facades in San Angelo no longer survive, including all of the buildings from the correspondence and blueprints. Two of the three still in existence reportedly involved Ruffini, although they are not mentioned in either the Oscar Ruffini Papers or the Ruffini Collection. The R.E. Harris & Bro. Building at 114 S. Chadbourne features a Mesker Brothers cornice with cast iron storefront columns by Christopher and Simpson. The A.J. Baker & Co. Building, which was moved from its original location at 113 S. Chadbourne Street to Old Town Park on Orient Street, is indicated on one of the blueprints as being an adjacent facade that was already constructed. It retains its Mesker storefront columns and pedimented cornice. According to information about Old Town Park, a repository for restored endangered historic buildings, the bank was designed by Ruffini. The most intriguing, however, is a one-story building at 19 E. Concho. The building’s wide end columns are by Mesker Brothers, with adjacent brick piers of matching width and what appear to be cast stone/plaster bases that match the design of the Mesker cast iron column base ornamentation—someone went through a lot of effort to create this match. The building’s intermediate columns bear a mark of San Angelo Foundry & Machine Co. It is possible that this is the aforementioned 1903 building constructed for Mrs. E.C. Fitzgerald, which upon a later alteration lost its Mesker front, retaining only the end columns.
Perhaps this is too much information about buildings that no longer exist. But perhaps it is interesting enough to help us better appreciate and save others that still survive.
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