What are Meskers?

Mesker is a name of the family whose members operated several independent Midwestern businesses producing architectural iron products. Over the last few years and largely as a result of this identification effort, “Mesker” also became the default term used to describe building facades that incorporate products manufactured by the Mesker companies. It should not be considered as a distinct building type or style, which could falsely imply that all historic commercial blocks with cast iron and/or galvanized iron trimmings are works of the same companies. The term is meant simply to distinguish Meskers from the works of other manufacturers. In the categories below, “Mesker” can be easily substituted with the names of other companies to describe other similar buildings nationwide.

Buildings with a full sheet-metal front

Buildings of this type are typically one to three stories in height with a street level storefront and upper facades consisting of sheet-metal panels stamped with decorative motifs. A cornice, sometimes with a pediment bearing the owner’s name and date of construction, defines the roofline. The sheet-metal elements may include a wide variety of decorative features, such as consoles, pilasters, scrolls, brackets, dentils, and finials, which feature design ornaments characteristic of each company. While the companies employed a certain number of ornaments, the combinations in which they were offered were many. As a result, it is rare to find facades that are exactly the same. Generally, both foundries employed stylized floral motifs. The “fleur-de-lis” was very characteristic of the Mesker Brothers Iron Works, while George L. Mesker & Co favored the “morning glory” motif.

Subtype: Facades with upper story sheet metal, cast iron/steel columns, and wooden storefront

Rarely intact, these building facades feature upper stories composed of elaborate sheet-metal panels and a storefront with cast-iron or steel columns, which sometimes still bear company nameplates, and milled woodwork. In case of one-story buildings, there is a narrow area of ornamental sheet-metal panels connecting the storefront and the cornice. These facades are of utmost significance, as they exemplify the design, manufacture, distribution, purchase and installation of an entire building front.

J. Breith Building in New Harmony, IN, features a complete facade manufactured by George L. Mesker & Co including the wooden storefront.

Subtype: Facades with upper story sheet-metal and cast iron/steel columns

More common than the above type, these facades retain everything except for the milled woodwork. Since the storefront columns are structural, they are often left in place. In facades of this type, it is possible that the original wooden storefront was not purchased from the Mesker companies; hence, its loss does not necessarily take away from the significance of the Mesker elements. However, in many cases the storefront alterations tend to be inappropriate.

Wilder & Pearson Building in Laddonia, MO, retains its Mesker Brothers upper story galvanized sheet-metal facade and patented steel columns at the storefront level.

Subtype: Facades with upper story sheet metal

These facades retain only the upper story sheet-metal and cornice. Storefronts have been either completely altered or existing cast iron or steel columns are hidden behind veneers or paneling. In some cases, the storefronts feature cast iron columns by other manufacturers. Generally, these are believed to be the original columns, somewhat older than the Mesker sheet-metal panels, which were applied later. Due to the fact that the companies promoted their sheet-metal facades as appropriate for both new construction and remodeling of existing facades, these examples are important in conveying that this actually occurred. Other historic materials from a later storefront alteration can exist in place of the wooden storefront, although typically these changes are not historic and tend to be inappropriate.

Traverse Block (1893) in Bloomfield, IA, with a galvanized sheet-metal upper story by Mesker Brothers Iron Works. The storefront has been altered and does not retain any Mesker components. Image courtesy of Nick Kalogeresis.

Buildings with major sheet-metal and cast iron detailing

Buildings of this type are usually one to three stories in height, with exterior walls of masonry. They do not feature decorative sheet-metal panels covering the upper stories not because they have been removed, but because they were never installed in the first place. Indeed, most of the Mesker companies’ contracts appear to have been for “brick fronts,” masonry facades that feature any combination of the following components, all manufactured by the Mesker companies: sheet-metal cornice, sheet-metal or cast-iron window hoods, sheet-metal window bay, lintel cornice or exposed steel girder, cast-iron or steel columns, and milled wooden storefront. Less common elements include metal canopies, balconies with railings, and exterior staircases, all of which could be found on sheet-metal fronts as well. Though rare, these components can also coexist in combination with products made locally or by other national suppliers. In the vast majority of such instances, the original cast iron columns were made by another manufacturer, indicating the use of Mesker products as a remodeling of the facade. In extremely rare cases, products from both Mesker companies can be found on the same building. Mesker “brick fronts” are not only great representative examples of the variety of products offered by the Mesker companies, but also of Main Street architecture in general.

Typical Mesker "brick front." This one in Dongola, IL, features components manufactured by George L. Mesker & Co: cast iron columns with galvanized sheet-metal cornices and window hoods.

Buildings with interior components

In addition to the exterior facade components, buildings may also employ any number of Meskers’ building materials intended for the interior such as structural cast iron columns, steel trusses, pressed steel ceilings, elevators, and skylights. In contrast to the building facades which can be easily assessed from the street, the relative difficulty of access to most building interiors renders a systematic identification of this type impractical and therefore very limited.

Pressed metal ceiling pattern by George L. Mesker & Co from a building in Mason City, IL.

Comments
5 Responses to “What are Meskers?”
  1. Great post. I gave you a shout out and highlighted a photo on my blog. I’m currently in Huntsville, AL (in fact, I used to live close to Mesker Door). There is supposed to be at least one Mesker storefront downtown, so I’ll look next time I’m there.

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  1. […] HomeWhat are Meskers?Where are Meskers?About […]

  2. […] One of the best parts of working in the Archives is uncovering little pieces of history relating to the county’s most well known people and places.  This civil case from 1866 involves John B. Mesker as the plaintiff.  Learn more about the life and family of local entrepreneur John Mesker from the historian at the Mesker Brothers Blog!  […]



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