Few names are as widely recognized in Evansville as “Mesker.” After all, the city’s most popular attraction is the Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden. Fewer still, however, are connected with the history behind the Evansville business that made the establishment of the zoo possible.
Between 1880 and 1910, America still was rebuilding after the Civil War. In an effort to bring new life to their stores, small business merchants wanted fashionable storefronts to attract customers. Working in Evansville and St. Louis, the brothers behind the Mesker name had the answer.
After learning the sheet-metal trade in their father’s Evansville factory, three of the Mesker sons — Bernard, Frank, and George Mesker — turned their attention to the manufacturing and design of sheet-metal facades. Between their two businesses, Mesker Brothers Iron Works in St. Louis, and George L. Mesker & Co. in Evansville, the brothers reached a range of merchants.
At street level, the facades boasted decorative cast iron columns, but on the upper floors they were thin, galvanized tin panels pressed into ornate patterns, which were easily adapted to fit over the front of a building. The result was to immediately transform a structure into a Victorian-era building representative of the architectural fashion of the period.
The brothers concentrated on selling their unique product in rural areas where budgets were tight and architectural services were limited or nonexistent. The facades were lightweight, inexpensive to ship, and could be installed by local labor in a few days at 1/4th the cost of wood or brick.
More than 40,000 of these Mesker storefronts were ordered nationwide from a mail-order catalog. Today, most have been lost due to redevelopment, neglect, or fire. Only about 2,500 have been confirmed to still exist nationwide. “There are 29 in Evansville with a full or partial Mesker facade,” says Dennis Au, Evansville’s historic preservation officer. The most notable example is the front of the old Heldt & Voelker Hardware building at 2100 W. Franklin St., now the Gerst Haus.
“That ‘house front’ is a good example of how a Mesker facade can still be impressive after more than 120 years if it is diligently maintained and painted,” Au says. “The Meskers’ ability to combine industrial ingenuity with artistic design is among the most impressive and significant contributions to our nation’s architectural heritage.”
Another example is the ornate pediment and cornice atop the Carpenters Hall at 1035 W. Franklin St. It reveals how elements produced by Mesker could be incorporated onto brick or any other type of construction.
In addition to their storefront services, the Meskers also produced street lights, manhole covers, and decorative cast iron fences, many of which remain in use in Evansville. “The period between 1880 and 1910 was a unique time in American architecture, and it all started in Evansville,” Au says. “Anyone from Evansville who spots a Mesker somewhere in the United States can take pride in the fact that their origin was in our city.”