Drop ornament story

Ornament no. 800 removed from the Opera Hall in Stewardson, IL.

A simple and diminutive floral motif by Mesker Brothers Iron Works—referred to only as “ornament no. 800” in Ben’s Bible—is less decorative than most of its brethren, but proved to be more versatile. Majority of Mesker motifs, and classically inspired motifs in general, are either bilaterally symmetrical (mirrored on a central axis) or radially symmetrical (symmetrical around a central point). Either way, they were used very consistently, always in the same position (right side up, etc.) or at least intended so, since owners and contractors did not always follow the included installation instructions. However, no. 800 purposefully played double duty. When it was used in a horizontal course of a cornice or sheet-metal facade, it was displayed with the rosette below (which is perhaps why Mesker labeled it as a drop, or hanging, ornament in its accounting journal) and repeated continuously across the facade. Yet Mesker also decided to use it in triangular blocks flanking the cornice pediments, where it was isolated and turned 45 degrees to the left or right, depending on the pediment side it abutted. Whether it was intended to (very) loosely imitate the guttae of a Classical entablature or simply meant to adorn a horizontal molding with what appears to be either a stylized dandelion or an upside-down coneflower, ornament no. 800 seems to be a uniquely Mesker Brothers motif. It may not be the most easily recognizable of Mesker’s motifs but its presence alone can be used to confirm the identity of the façade.

125 E. Jackson, Virden, IL. Ornament no. 800 used in the architrave above the upper story columns.
133-137 E. Jackson St., Virden, IL. Ornament no. 800 is near bottom of photo, repeated continuously across the architrave right above the upper story columns.

No. 800 made its debut in 1890, with a run of 224 zinc pieces. It was produced regularly in various quantities until 1898—the largest single order consisted of 3,000 pieces in March, 1893; the largest annual production was 6,095 in 1892. Thereafter, just 500 pieces were made between 1904 and 1906. In a span of 16 years, Mesker Brothers manufactured a total of 29,352 pieces of no. 800 at a total cost of $83,636 and an average cost of $2.85 each. Labor accounted for a tenth of the total cost. Aside from the initial pieces which were made of zinc, Mesker used galvanized iron to make the rest; the second run of 2,000 bore some additional costs of galvanizing the iron sheets.

If used continuously across a facade, 29,352 pieces of ornament no. 800 would have been enough for over 1,300 buildings of typical Main Street width of about 22 feet. Once made, the pieces still had to be affixed (usually by soldering) to long horizontal galvanized sheet-metal panels. This was done at the Mesker factory before shipping boxed and crated facade pieces for an onsite assembly. In Mesker’s 1892 catalog, 27 of 45 facade designs used this ornament, indicating that it was fully adopted into Mesker’s operations. This corresponds with the large amounts of the ornament produced during this time.

Ornament no. 800 was just one of many motifs and components needed to complete a facade, its story shedding a light on the complexity and ingenuity of the entire approach of Mesker’s mail-order architecture. The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but these parts are pretty great in and of themselves.

Detailed accounting information regarding ornament no. 800 for years 1890 to 1895. From Ben’s Bible, page 538. Image courtesy of David Mesker (original at the National Building Arts Center, Sauget, Illinois).
Remainder of the accounting info for ornament no. 800, for years 1895 to 1906. From Ben’s Bible, page 529. Image courtesy of David Mesker (original at the National Building Arts Center, Sauget, Illinois).
D.H. Abernathy Building, 103 Quitman Street, Pittsburg, TX. Ornament no. 800 is on full display here, used both in the architrave above the storefront columns and flanking the cornice pediments.
D.H. Abernathy Building, 103 Quitman Street, Pittsburg, TX. Close up view of the cornice.
716 Main Street, Mendota, IL. Ornament no. 800 is seen flanking the cornice pediment.
Cornice pediment of the Stewardson (IL) Opera Hall before its removal, restoration and relocation to nearby Arcola. Ornament no. 800 flanking the pediment.
Restored cornice and pediment of the Stewardson Opera Hall—along with ornament no. 800—featured on the reinstalled facade in Arcola, IL. Image courtesy of Michael Cody Wright.

 

 

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