At the Forefront of Storefronts: Frank, Ben, and George Mesker

White building with green awnings.
The William G. Preston building, included in the Mackinac Island NHL District, in Mackinac Island, Michigan, serves as an example of the testimonials used by both companies to boost catalog sales.

National Park Service

Although Mesker storefronts and adornments have become embedded in the fabric of Midwestern downtowns and commercial districts, many do not realize their history, identifying features, or importance. Found throughout the Midwest Region and within several of our National Historic Landmark Districts, the Meskers that remain offer insight into the industrial age of progress and expansion throughout the country.

What is a Mesker? A Mesker is any building that displays the pressed metal, steel, cast and wrought iron architectural details created by either of two Mesker companies around the turn of the last century. From the 1880s through the 1910s the two manufacturing giants, Mesker Brothers Iron Works and George L. Mesker & Company, provided the source of these ornate and often colorful storefronts that can still be found today.
Sons of a metal worker, three competitive Mesker brothers gained skills in the field that quickly allowed them to become the leaders of the metal storefront industry in America. Frank and Bernard "Ben" Mesker together formed Mesker Brothers Iron Works in 1879, based in St. and Ben were able to improve their techniques to produce galvanized sheetmetal cornices, columns, and details that were much lighter and easier to ship by rail than the cast iron elements of their competitors. Their catalog business thrived allowing them to distribute over 500,000 catalogs annually during the height of their popularity between 1890 and 1910. Independently, George Mesker created George L. Mesker & Company in Evansville, Indiana, in 1885. He too sold thousands of façade and storefront components to locations across the United States.
Green and red designs on wood.
The morning glory motif of Mesker Bros. & Co.

Photo courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

How can Meskers be identified? There are several key characteristics that distinguish Meskers from other similar metal storefront façades. These include cast-iron nameplates, stamped cast-iron columns, upper story columns, cornicebracket ornaments, window hoods, and ornamental sheet metal panels. Castiron nameplates allow for an easy identification, although these often are missing. George L. Mesker & Co.'s distinctive cornice design motifs include the morning glory, while Mesker Bros. Iron Works preferred the fleur-de-lis. Since many foundries in the St. Louis area used the fleur-de-lis motif to reflect French heritage, this is not a suresign of a Mesker façade. Sheet metal panels often featured stone or brick patterns. In addition both Mesker companies extensively used the recessed entrance as a part of their designs, not only allowing a sheltered entry for customers, but also providing more valuable window space for the showcase of goods. Although less identifiable, the Mesker companies also created cast-iron railings, fences, doors, and many other products. Mesker Brothers Iron Works and George L. Mesker & Co. catalogs can still be found today and serve as a great reference for identifying their work.
Silver writing printed on silver painted wood.
Nameplates like this help to easily identify a Mesker storefront.

Photo courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Both Mesker companies issued mail-order catalogs that offered complete storefronts, design services, and individual components for store owners eager to create their own unique storefronts. These pieces allowed storeowners, not educated in the architectural styles and trends of the time, to quickly and inexpensively alter existing buildings, or create inexpensive new frame or brick structures with elaborately detailed façades.

Mesker storefronts have been identified throughout the United States, especially in the Midwest, where the two foundries were located. An ever-expanding database of identified Mesker storefronts is being maintained by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Several of the National Historic Landmark (NHL) Districts of our region feature Mesker façades on contributing structures, including Deadwood, South Dakota; Calumet, Michigan; Mackinac Island, Michigan; and Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Lockport, Illinois, a community along the Illinois and Michigan Canal NHL, also includes a positively identified Mesker. Often brightly painted to both appeal to customers as well as to protect the castiron and metal beneath, these Mesker elements remain in commercial districts due to proper care and maintenance over time.
White building on the left and drawing of the building on the right.
The Chippewa Hotel, in the Mackinac Island NHL District, is a great example of a Mesker storefront featuring recessed entryways, pressed metal cornices, and pressed metal sheet siding resembling stone. A drawing of this building also appeared in the 1904 George L. Mesker Catalog.

Photo courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Why are Meskers important? As the form of the American storefront began to develop and take its place in commercial districts, Mesker Brothers Iron Works and George L. Mesker & Co. were at the forefront of design and distribution. The use of their various components and façades allowed a quickly-built frame structure to become a beautiful store simply by encasing it in pressed metal sheets and components, thereby saving time and money as Midwestern America continued to grow. While many other companies created such decorative elements, they are not as easy to identify as their catalogs and records are not as complete and their designs lack the distinctive characteristics that the Mesker companies created. The remaining Mesker storefronts not only serve as an example of what we can retain from our past with proper maintenance and care, but they also provide a glimpse into the vernacular architecture and building techniques used as Americans spread westward and established new communities at the turn of the last century.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 3, 2008, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Hallie Fieser.