Wednesday, August 17, 2022

How 19th Century St. Louis Cast Iron Building Rivaled New York City

The History Channel ran a marathon over the weekend on the history and production of mass-produced food in America. Heinz, Kellogg’s, and Birdseye received surveys about how “democratized” food production moved from American backyards to faraway factories that shipped by railroad to the table. Over the past several decades, American cuisine has moved away from corporate icons like Heinz Ketchup. Instead, the “farm to table” movement with its emphasis on democratization and food has emerged.

While food production was becoming more commodified in America, in the 19th century, St. Louis companies sought to make architectural design accessible to everyone by mass-producing cast-iron building facades. Larry Giles, Director at the Building Arts Foundation, was my guide. He showed me his collection of cast iron storefront elements and a rare product catalog published by the Pullis Brothers (also known as the Mississippi Iron Works and Foundry). Giles placed St. Louis in the middle American’s cast iron industry. “The only place to compare it with would be New York City,” he said.

Numerous companies used to call St. Louis home, just like many other products that have gained national distribution such as beer or shoes. They were created to be cheaper than traditional materials, just like so many innovations in America’s 19th century. Cast-iron building materials are primarily used for storefronts. Although they appear massive and heavy, they can be pressed into shape using stamping or casting molds. Cast-iron building materials are lightweight and can be easily stored and transported. The Pullis Bros. catalog, just like Sears-Roebucks’ catalog, showed examples of storefronts that could easily be ordered and shipped using the extensive railroad networks radiating from St. Louis.

“St. Giles informed me that Louis exported more architectural iron from the city than was used in the city, as we perused the Pullis Bros. catalog. The firm was founded in 1839, is located at 206-8 N. 6th Street, and offers a wide range of products. They manufacture iron fronts, window sills and caps, cast iron plumbers’ ware, enameled grates and iron and slate mantels.

Main Streets across the Midwest have a common style due to the widespread use of cast-iron storefronts. Iron Mountain Railroad brought a large iron ore deposit south of St. Louis to St. Louis, Missouri, as pig iron. This kept costs down and catalyzed the industry.

It was the perfect time in American history to mass-produce architectural ornaments in lightweight materials that featured elaborate and extravagant detailing. The cast-iron elements could be used in the Neoclassical and Greek Revival styles. However, the Second Empire and Italianate styles with their extravagant and elaborate ornament that arrived during the Victorian Period seemed to embrace metal’s capabilities better. We see Corinthian capitals that are not made from one block of marble but instead from individual leaves and tiny volutes. The column beneath that capital is hollow and not necessarily solid. However, it still bears immense weight like cast iron can. This provides a framework for large plate glass windows to allow merchants to showcase their products. Many other St. Louis businesses could offer their variations, in addition to the Pullis Brothers.

In downtown St. Louis, two brothers, Bernard Mesker and Frank Mesker operated the Mesker Brothers Iron Works. They were competing with their third brother George Mesker, who had a similar business in Evansville, Indiana. Giles claims that the Mesker Brothers “repackaged” products from other companies, placing their nameplates on cast iron products and then marketing them throughout the Midwest.

Giles is a good example of a firm that deserves to be mentioned, even if it’s simply because they weren’t the best at self-promotion. Although anyone can see the trademark logo of a manufacturer on cast-iron storefronts, it is not uncommon for people to overlook the name Shickle, Harris & Howard. Giles says, “I read in a journal that they did a lot of work but never signed anything.”

Christopher & Simpson was another prominent firm. Their products were distributed from their St. Louis factory. Many other businesses had operations in St. Louis. Many of these companies were located south of downtown. There are lots of vacant lots and access ramps to the elevated lanes on Highway 40 west from the Poplar Street Bridge. There are thousands of buildings that still exist in St. Louis and across the United States with ornamental cast-iron fronts, made right here in Gateway City. Giles and the Building Arts Foundation plan to conduct a deeper examination of this building material in near future.

By the end of the 19th century, St. Louis architecture had shifted away from its heavy dependence on cast iron decorative elements. Although decorative terra-cotta is a rich and long-storied tradition that dates back to the ancient world, it was in St. Louis that the rich tradition of cast iron became clay. We can see the beautiful results in neighborhoods like Dutchtown and St. Louis Hills. Iron’s creativity evolved into terra-cotta’s creativity.

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