Say you were setting up shop in Ouray in the late 1880s. The silver mines in the nearby Red Mountain District were booming, and so was the town. From the cribs and dance halls on Second Avenue to the saloons, hotels, banks and dry goods stores along Main Street, commercial buildings were going up like crazy.
For a profit-minded businessman, the name of the game was to stand out from the crowd. But for those who couldn’t pay for fancy masonry or cast iron embellishments, there was an alternative: to pick up a catalogue and order a decorative, galvanized sheet metal facade from the Mesker Brothers Iron Works or George L. Mesker & Co., competing designers/manufacturers who got into the business of mass-produced, prefabricated storefront components in the 1880s.
The appeal of Mesker fronts was that “they could be put up very quickly, and they were rather inexpensive,” said the nation’s leading Mesker expert, Darius Bryjka. The Meskers had special appeal “in towns [like Ouray] that were literally growing overnight.”
An order would come in by train, get hauled up the hill from the depot to its new home by wagon – and in just a few days, a plain brick or wood box of a building would be transformed into an enviably elegant edifice, at roughly one-fifth the cost of a masonry facade.
Purchasers could pick and choose from a range of cast iron and pressed metal mass-produced components (including pilasters, sills, scrolls, brackets, dentils, cornices, and pediments stamped into a variety of architectural motifs) or spring for a lavish top-to-bottom facade.
Mesker iron fronts were produced by the thousands at two massive manufacturing plants, run by brothers from the same family in St. Louis, Mo. and Evanston, Ill., between 1880 and 1910. Although many Mesker buildings have disappeared, some 3,500 still grace small-town main streets across the U.S.
In Colorado, there are 112 documented Meskers in 40 towns. But among Mesker enthusiasts, Ouray is a hands-down favorite, with 14 surviving examples (more than any other town in the state) – including the Wright Opera House, which has one of the earliest and best Mesker facades in the country.
In short, “West of the Mississippi, Ouray is the town to study Meskers,” Bryjka said.
A TALE OF TWO COMPANIES
Why does Ouray have so many Meskers? It was mostly a matter of timing. Ouray’s boomtown years coincided with the Second Industrial Revolution and its burst of railroads, large-scale iron and steel production and widespread use of manufacturing machinery.
Along with this revolution came the new sheet metal technology. The Mesker family was at its forefront, pioneering a way to use it for mass-produced architectural ornamentation for commercial buildings, marketed through catalogues and shipped via the railroad.
The Meskers’ roots were in Cincinnati. Family patriarch John B. Mesker, a German immigrant and Civil War veteran, was trained as a tinsmith. Through J. B. Mesker & Son, he produced stoves, copper and tin sheet-ironware, and eventually began galvanizing iron for buildings. “The business provided fertile training ground for John’s sons,” wrote Bryjka in an article about the family published by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in April 2006. Three of his sons – George, Frank and Bernard (Ben for short) – got into the family business, and in 1879 launched their own company, George L. Mesker & Co., in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. But soon Ben and Frank set out on their own, creating a competing company called Mesker Brothers Iron Works downriver in St. Louis. Both companies offered a combination of cast iron and galvanized sheet metal components stamped into a variety of architectural elements dominated by the Classical Revival style.
To distinguish between the products of the two companies, look for the embossed cast iron column nameplates bearing the company name and foundry location (frequently placed at the base of an ornamental column on the front of the building), and for dominant design motifs (mostly on the end brackets of the top and lintel cornices).
George L. Mesker favored a “morning glory” motif, while Mesker Brothers Iron Works, influenced by the French heritage of St. Louis, embraced the “fleur-de-lis.” The companies also produced a variety of other products, including tin ceilings, iron railings, stairs, roof cresting, ventilation grates, iron awnings, skylights, freight elevators and even prison cells.
SILVER KINGS AND RAILROAD GIANTS
While the two firms ramped up production of their elegant storefronts, Ouray was in the midst of its mining heyday (peaking between 1883 and the silver crash of 1893).
Through that ten-year period, fueled by the long-awaited arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1886, the town evolved from a haphazard mining camp into an established town and regional powerhouse, replete with beautifully crafted buildings such as the Beaumont Hotel and the Miner’s Hospital, both completed in 1887, and the Ouray County Courthouse – a publicly funded project helmed by stonemason and bricklayer Francis Carney in 1888. That same year, Ed Wright – a Canadian-born prospector who became a “gentleman of means” after striking it rich with his brother, George, in the Mt. Sneffels Mining District in the 1870s – commissioned Carney to build a massive, two-story opera house on the 400 block of Main Street in Ouray.
The brick behemoth, originally called Wright’s Hall but now more commonly known as the Wright Opera House, boasts Ouray’s first (and by far most ornate) Mesker facade, dripping with cornices, columns, ornamental sheet metal panels and other decorative elements that encrust the entire front of the building from tip to toe.
Ornamentation details include rare arches above the upper story windows – of which there are only a half-dozen examples among the 3,500 identified Meskers nationwide.
The Wright’s facade was transported by train from the St. Louis factory to the San Juan Mountains less than a year after Mesker Brothers Iron Works filed its first patent on its products (an embossed Mesker Bros. nameplate and patent date can still be found at the base of one of the Wright’s ornamental columns today). As the story goes, Ed Wright had the opera house built at the urging of his wife, Letitia, who wanted to improve the cultural environment of Ouray for their young daughter, Irene. (In 1888, Ouray, like any mining boomtown, had plenty to offer among the less-than-virtuous attractions, down Second Street in its red-light district).
The building went up fast. Construction began in the summer of 1888, and the Wright Opera House opened on Dec. 4 with a grand benefit concert and ball to raise money for uniforms for the Ouray Magnolia Band.
Despite the Wright family’s apparent wealth and upstanding reputation, the building was not particularly well financed. Several clues – from sloppy brickwork to the lack of a central heating system and an unfinished ceiling to the celebrated Mesker facade making the big brick box appear more ostentatious than it really was – suggest it was built on the cheap, unlike Ouray’s other grand buildings of the day.
“My guess is that they ran out of money,” said Dee Williams, board president of the nonprofit organization Friends of the Wright Opera House, which recently raised funds to purchase the building and restore it as a center for the performing arts.
When Ed Wright died several years after the building’s completion, his wife was in debt, and had to sell the building to her brother-in-law to keep it from auction.
Nevertheless, the building and its facade made a big impression on the community – so much so, Bryjka speculates, that Ouray owes its concentration of Meskers to the Wright Opera House.
“I really think it began with Wright’s Hall – it was the earliest Mesker in the town, and one of the earliest in the country,” Bryjka said. “Because the company’s name is proudly displayed on the column bases, everyone would have enquired where it came from. Having surely impressed many building owners, it can be partly credited for the large number of succeeding Mesker facades in town.”
Among those who hopped on the Mesker bandwagon in the wake of the Wright Opera House’s construction were Albert Jeffers and Henry Witterding, who in 1890 erected a two-story building at 633 Main Street that boasts another of Ouray’s premier examples of Mesker, complete with galvanized iron double-bay windows on the second floor.
“The Jeffers Building is probably one of the most unusual Meskers around,” Ouray Mesker enthusiast Tom Hillhouse said. “It’s a combination of a bunch of kits, as opposed to one particular kit.”
The Scott-Humphries Building (c. 1889), next to the Beaumont Hotel at 513 Main Street, boasts another of Ouray’s best Mesker fronts. Now home to the Buen Tiempo restaurant, and meticulously restored by Dan and Mary King (who also poured millions into renovating the Beaumont), the building boasts many ornamental elements on the ground level, and a complete second-floor sheet metal facade.
Bryjka, whose historic preservation and design consultancy firm is headquartered in Springfield, Ill., traveled hundreds of miles to Ouray in August 2008 at the request of Hillhouse and the Ouray County Historical Society to lead a seminar on Ouray’s Meskers.
“It was an unusual request – I don’t get requests from too many other places,” Bryjka said. The Wright Opera House, now on the U.S. Register of Historic Places, was of course already on his radar. “But I didn’t have any idea as to the other buildings. I came, and it was truly amazing, the quality and number of buildings that survive.”
Over the years, Ouray seemed to have had just the right mix of economic conditions to keep the Meskers around. After the initial flourishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the town was never quite prosperous enough to see its historic buildings either torn down or fixed up, in the name of progress.
Then, as Ouray’s economy tilted more and more toward tourism in the latter half of the 20th century, “there was the ability, desire and necessity to keep the buildings up,” Bryjka said. “It all goes hand in hand.”
Finally, in recent decades, there has been a growing appreciation in Ouray for the value of its historic assets, culminating in the creation of the Ouray County Historical Society and the Ouray National Historic District.
THE COLOR OF MESKER
Take a stroll around Ouray, and it’s easy to see from the embossed nameplates at the base of the ornamental columns that most of the Meskers here came from Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis, Missouri.
The one exception is the Powell Grocery Store, at 512 Main Street, built in 1895, which operated as a grocery store for over 40 years before housing various other enterprises, from the Zanett Brothers Hardware store to Buddy Davis Scenic Tours (Ouray’s first jeep company). This brick building, which now houses a clothing and gift store called the Rockin’ P Ranch, showcases Ouray’s only example of a George L. Mesker facade.
“It has a beautiful, wild color scheme,” Bryjka said. “It’s a complete feast for the eyes.”
Down the street a few blocks, the circa-1906 Faussone & Pricco building at 736 Main Street (now home to Salon Envy) has “a very sophisticated and muted color scheme of just tans,” Bryjka said. “At a quick glance, it could pass for stone decoration.”
Either approach to the color scheme is historically accurate. The Mesker brothers often spoke of how a facade could be sprinkled with sand and painted in tans or grays to mimic the local stone.
“But that is also the time period, in the 1880s, when wildly colorful schemes were apparent,” Bryjka said. “All other variables being equal, I don’t necessarily believe that one approach is more historically appropriate than the other, so long as the resulting appearance is tasteful and satisfies the design intent.”
More important than a Mesker’s color scheme is that the building owners cared enough to keep it looking nice. “What I felt I had discovered in Ouray was a town that really takes care of its buildings, and is appreciative of its heritage and architecture,” Bryjka said.
Benji Kuehling owns two historic buildings with Mesker fronts on Main Street; when he bought the Jeffers building in 1965, its front was painted white. But Kuehling, inspired by his wife, Liz, who “likes things kept looking nice,” repainted it in a more colorful “Painted Lady” style, and recently commissioned stained glass windows for the ground floor, where he runs the Columbine Rock Shop, to add to its unique historic beauty.
Maintaining the Mesker front is costly. Three years ago, Kuehling paid a professional painter $6,500 to repaint it. But it’s worth it, he said, because “I love the building.”
Just up the sidewalk from the Jeffers Building is a finely preserved example of a Mesker pediment (c. 1900) on what is now Duckett’s market, a building that has been in the same family for generations.
Once you get a knack for spotting Mesker embellishments, you’ll realize just how much of the stuff Ouray has. It’s on buildings up and down Main Street that may not even look particularly historic, including those that house the Outlaw, O’Brien’s Pub and Mouse’s Chocolates.
The American city with the highest concentration of Meskers is North Vernon, Ind., with 29 of the sheet metal facades. Henderson, Ky. (just across the Ohio River from Evansville, where George L. Mesker first set up shop) is a close runner-up, with 26, and several other Indiana towns have Meskers numbering in the 20s. “Illinois, Indiana and Missouri were the top purchasing states because they were in such close proximity to the manufacturing ironworks,” Bryjka said.
Colorado is one of a handful of states in the country with over 100 documented examples of Mesker, and southwestern Colorado is particularly Mesker-rich. Bryjka’s research shows that Delta and Montrose each have nine Meskers, Durango and Salida eight apiece, Silverton seven, Rico two and Ridgway and Telluride each have one. The galvanized iron upper story of Alamosa’s Masonic Hall (1887), by Mesker Brothers Iron Works, predates even the Wright Opera House facade, and is one of the oldest surviving examples in the country.
More Meskers are being discovered all the time, thanks to a nationwide search Bryjka initiated called “Got Mesker?” The project started in 2004 when he worked for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and has now spread across the country. As spotters travel around and report new sightings, Bryjka catalogs them and updates his various databases, all of which are available online on his blog and website, meskerbrothers.wordpress.com.
One unique find was a “twin” to the Wright Opera House – the Grainfield Opera House (1887) in Grainfield, Kan.
“There is not a week that goes by where there aren’t new buildings being added” to the Mesker list, Bryjka marveled. “Just this morning, someone emailed me about one in Utah.” Shortly before that, a rare pairing of two side-by-side George L. Mesker and Mesker Brothers Iron Works facades were documented in Kentucky. In early June, the number of identified Mesker storefronts across the country reached 3,500.
Bryjka is the first to admit that once you have seen that many Meskers, they start to look the same. “But the fact that they’ve kept being found, that’s what’s amazing,” he said. “Their ubiquity is what makes them fascinating. They are important because they are everywhere.”
Although the response to the Got Mesker? initiative has been phenomenal, a lot of work remains to be done “to make sure appreciation of Meskers is well understood,” Bryjka said.
Often, with the decline of America’s main streets, the problem is not so much a lack of appreciation as a lack of money. Some communities simply don’t have the means to take care of their Meskers. “It’s not a bias – they stand side by side with other buildings that are neglected, and there is no way to provide a viable use and care for the buildings,” Bryjka said.
“We are just lucky that Ouray has the means and foresight and discipline to take care of its buildings.”
OURAY’S SURVIVING MESKERS
EAST SIDE OF MAIN ST., SOUTH TO NORTH
Original: 1888-90 Scott-Humphries Building Today: Buen Tiempo Address: 513 Main St.
Original: 1900 Hammond & Waring Grocers Duckett’s Market 621 Main St.
Original: 1902 Orendorf Building RB Horsetraders 629 Main St.
Original: 1890 Jeffers Building Columbine Rock Shop 635 Main St.
WEST SIDE OF MAIN ST., SOUTH TO NORTH
Original: 1888 Wright’s Hall Today: Wright Opera House Address: 462 Main St.
Original: 1895 Powell Grocery Today: Rockin’ P Ranch Address: 512 Main St.
Original: 1888-90 Carney Hardware Today: Swiss Store Address: 514 Main St.
Original: 1901 Townsend/Witherspoon Building Today: Mouse’s Chocolates Address: 520 Main St.
Original: 1898 Prevost Saloon Today: Citizens State Bank Address: 600 Main St.
Original: 1900 Derry Building Today: Gator Emporium 608 Main St.
Original: 1908-10 Canavan Taylor/ Bonatti Building Today: Outlaw Restaurant Address: 610 Main St.
Original: 1906 Sanitary Market Today: O’Brien’s Pub Address: 726 Main St.
Original: 1906 Faussone & Pricco/ Cascade Grocery Today: Salon Envy Address: 736 Main St.
Original: 1898 Columbus Building Today: Silver Nugget Restaurant Address: 740 Main St.
7 WAYS TO TELL IF YOU’VE ‘GOT MESKER’
1. Cast iron column nameplate
Bearing the company name and foundry location, these embossed nameplates are the easiest way to spot a “Mesker.”
2. Cast iron column ornament
Cast iron and steel columns offer another opportunity to identify a Mesker. While Mesker Brothers utilized only a handful of designs, George L. Mesker & Co. offered a wide array of column capitals.
3. Cornice Ornament
The end brackets of the top and lintel cornices often featured dominant design motifs such as the “fleur-de-lis” used by Mesker Brothers and the “morning glory” by George Mesker.
4. Upper Story Columns
A very distinctive engaged column and base design was used between each of the upper story windows, particlarly by the Mesker Brothers. The double-rosette base design is the most common and is a sure sign of a Mesker facade.
5. Ornamental Sheet metal Panels
Panels depicting the same motif usually spanned the entire width of the facade. In some cases, courses of panels were carried to the top of the parapet, replacing the cornice altogether.
6. Window Hoods
Mesker facades were not limited to those clad entirely in sheet metal. Most of the companies’ contracts were for “brick fronts,” in which an upper story of masonry was adorned with a galvanized sheet metal cornice and structural iron window caps (now known as hoods).
7. Cornice Pediment
The pediment is a crowning element
of the cornice, typically centered
on the vertical axis of the facade. Pediments were either triangular, rectangular or oval and often contained the original owner’s name, date of construction or both.
Identification guide courtesy of Darius Bryjka and Illinois Historic Preservation Agency