Vanished in Cairo

700 block of Commercial Avenue in Cairo, IL, on the cover of Michael Eastman’s 2008 book, Vanishing America.

The Famous Building on the 700 block of Commercial Avenue in Cairo, Illinois, had a spectacular presence almost entirely due to the galvanized sheet-metal front made by the Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis, Missouri. It’s combination of motifs and arched window openings made it one of few truly distinctive Mesker fronts across the country. The seemingly boastful name—which actually stood for the Famous Clothing Store, predecessor of the Famous-Barr Department Stores—made it a favorite among onlookers and photographers. The building, along with its neighbors on the block, graced the cover of Michael Eastman’s Vanishing America (see the image on the photographer’s website), first published in 2008. It was still vanishing then, and now it has officially vanished. So has most of the block and nearly all of downtown. And so have all of the many Mesker fronts, at least fifteen, that I documented in Cairo. Perhaps ‘vanished’ is not the best verb to describe this act of disappearance that was decades in the works. In fact most of the downtown and its Mesker fronts were long gone when I visited the town for the first time in 2007. However, thanks to the Illinois Historic Structures Survey undertaken by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency between 1971-1975, there are photographs of the then remaining buildings, which I used to identify the Mesker Brothers fronts. Many of them appear to have been custom arrangements without direct parallels to the company’s catalogs.

While Cairo’s haunting demise, fueled by racial tensions and economic stagnation, is of no surprise to anyone aware of the town’s history, it is no less saddening. The following photos are meant to commemorate Cairo’s Mesker fronts, now officially all in the past. All facades were by Mesker Brothers Iron Works, unless otherwise noted.

In the end, all may not be lost after all. The silver lining, at least for the Famous Building, is that the facade was salvaged and a rumored reuse is already in the works. Hopefully, much more on that in the future.

The Famous Building, 702-704 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Left photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975), courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Right photo taken in August 2007.

Famous Building, 702-704 Commercial Ave, Cairo, IL. Close up view of the Mesker Brothers facade.

Famous Building. Close up of the upper story column.

Famous Building. Cast iron columns were by Scherpe & Koken, another prominent building facade manufacturer from St. Louis.

716 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Left photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975), courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Right photo taken in August 2007.

909 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975). Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

911 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

1001 Commercial Ave., Cairo, IL. Photograph from August 2007.

1015 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975). Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Clancy Building (1891), 1201 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975). Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

1715 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975). Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

1807 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975). Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

1815 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975). Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

1800 block of Commercial Avenue. 1970s (top) and October 2013 (bottom).

Patier Block Building/New York Store (1891), 1901 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975). Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Bucher E. Building, 1907 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975). Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

1911 Commercial Avenue, Cairo, IL. Photo from the Illinois Historic Structures Survey (1971-1975). Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

2017 Washington, Cairo, IL. Adjacent building also with a sheet-metal facade (not Mesker) and cast iron columns by Christopher & Simpson of St. Louis. Photograph from August 2007.

A.T. DeBaun Building, unknown address, Cairo, IL. Rendering of the facade published in the 1905 testimonials catalog of George L. Mesker & Co.

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