By David Blanchette
An important historic milestone was achieved recently, and Jacksonville has one of the buildings that helped to reach it.
A two-decade-long campaign has identified number 1,000 in the ongoing search for original Mesker buildings, structures that incorporate ornamental sheet metal and cast iron facades made by two brother-owned companies in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Mesker building number one thousand has been located at 404 S. Main St. in the Adams County community of Liberty.
Still, years ago when the original “Got Mesker?” campaign began, historic preservation experts identified Jacksonville’s sole entry on the list at that point, the building at 315 W. State St. that is now occupied by Bill’s West State Tavern. The structure features cast iron adornments made by Mesker Brothers Iron Works from St. Louis.
“It’s a stamped metal facade that was made down in St. Louis,” said the building’s owner, Brett Hannant. “I think it’s pretty cool that it’s one of 1,000 of these buildings in Illinois.”
The building at 315 W. State probably fools just about everyone who casually walks by and doesn’t give it a second thought — but a tap on what appears to be carved stone trim pieces reveals the material is iron and not masonry.
That trim adorns a Queen Anne architectural style building that was constructed circa 1885 and during its history has been the Boone Bros. sanatorium and cleaning business, Sperry Hutchison & Co., and around 1930 was a Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store.
Jacksonville building owners more than 100 years ago were certainly not unique in their use of Mesker components, according to Darius Bryjka, the coordinator of the Mesker identification program.
“At the time buildings were constructed cheaply with wood or as really substantial brick and stone buildings. Wood was affordable but not fireproof, and masonry was much more expensive,” Bryjka said. “Meskers kind of bridged that gap and provided an alternative that was safer, not as expensive, and provided the look pretty convincingly of a much more substantial building made of stone.”
Bryjka has spearheaded the Mesker identification effort beginning in 2004 as part of his job at the former Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Bryjka currently works in a similar capacity at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, but he now operates the Mesker program on his own time.
“It sort of fits my collector personality. Some people might collect bottlecaps, I collect Meskers,” Bryjka said. “This will never be completed, there will always be some that will never be found. But the potential for discovery is still out there so I think this effort will continue for many years to come.”
The Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis, and the George L. Mesker Company of Evansville, Indiana, produced prefabricated architectural elements and building facades from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The two firms, owned by brothers but operating independently, best demonstrate the mass-produced building parts trade of the turn of the century.
Meskers, as they are often called, are found across America. However, because the companies were based in the Midwest, they are particularly plentiful in Illinois and are part of the state’s rich architectural history.
“The two companies were in St. Louis and Evansville with Illinois being right in the middle,” Bryjka said. “Property owners in Illinois were the beneficiaries of the competitiveness between these two companies, and that’s why I think Illinois ended up with the most Meskers in the country.”
The Meskers specialized in ornamental sheet-metal facades and cast iron storefront components which were ordered through catalogs and easily shipped by rail to any interested building owner. Their extensive product lines also featured entire storefront assemblies, fences, skylights and freight elevators. The Meskers’ attractive prices made the components especially desirable for small businesses, who wanted the look of more expensive carved stone or terra cotta.
Made of galvanized steel and cast iron, durable Mesker facades often survive despite neglect and lack of maintenance. While not all buildings may feature elaborate sheet metal facades, individual building components, such as cornices and window hoods, are quite common throughout the state, especially in smaller communities.
“The catalogs that the Meskers produced often advertised that the convincing appearance would be furthered if the buildings were painted with paint that was sprinkled with stone to provide texture,” Bryjka said. “I have found during the past two decades that many people have been fooled by these facades into thinking they were made of stone.”
Those interested in Mesker Buildings can visit the Mesker Brothers – Storefronts of America Facebook page or read Bryjka’s blog at www.meskerbrothers.com that documents the ongoing effort. Several years ago, Bryjka expanded the Mesker identification project nationwide and has amassed a list of more than 5,800 such structures across the country.
“The success of this ongoing effort really is because there is continual involvement and feedback from the public,” Bryjka said. “There are Mesker enthusiasts across the country and they email me photographs or post them to social media. This is very much driven and constantly sustained by others.”