Architecture Historic Preservation Illinois Southern Illinois

A Mesker Storefront in Crossville

by Michael R. Allen

En route to the Storefronts of America: The Mesker Story exhibit at the Evansville Museum in Indiana, I happened upon a fine example of a Mesker front in Crossville, Illinois. Actually, this was no real happenstance. I pretty much figure I’ll see at least one Mesker in any small town I encounter in southern or central Illinois.

Now famous due to the efforts of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s Got Mesker? project, the Mesker storefronts are the work of two foundries within one family. George L. Mesker & Company operated in Evansville, Indiana while Mesker Brothers Iron Works operated in St. Louis. Both companies produced mass-manufactured iron building parts ranging from cast iron columns to sheet metal facades from the 1870s through the 1920s. Builders ordered parts or whole facades (easiest to identify) from catalogs to economically beautify commercial fronts in small towns and big cities alike.

This particular storefront is the work of George L. Mesker & Company. Acanthus-topped solid cast iron columns support a brick front wall hidden under sheet metal. The sheet metal is cored to resemble concrete blocks, and is adorned with continuous foliage-inspired elements at the window surrounds, above the storefront, above the second floor windows and at the cornice line.

Akin to the ornament of Louis Sullivan, the Mesker work references prairie nature. Classical details are minimal, while abstract and direct natural patterns dominate the composition. The belts of vines emphasize the horizontal nature of the wide front, echoing the rugged flat land of southeastern Illinois. Yet the metal front is obviously a modern thing — at least, it was distinctly modern for its time. The design draws together the eager commercial of spirit mass manufacturing (sheet metal ordered by mail, near-uniform concrete blocks) with romantic tinges of natural beauty (conjuring infinite variety and difference).

These fine lines remain a testament to the once-promising outlook of the small towns of the Midwest. The Mesker front in Crossville isn’t a Waiwright Building or a Rookery, but it somehow seems as much a true expression of time, place and modernity as those progressive urban buildings. The storefront building seemed vacant, and the sheet metal was peeling back on one end to reveal backing lath over the plain brick body of the building.

Yet the front is essentially good repair, retaining almost every original piece — the end columns on the storefront probably weren’t originally bare brick — and even its original window sash. There’s only a bit of rust. The building offers itself as a worthy part of the future of Crossville, whatever that may be.

DALATC Illinois landbanking Public Policy Southern Illinois

Illinois Seeks to Get in on the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Action

by Michael R. Allen

On February 14, Illinois State Representative Jay C. Hoffman (D-112th), introduced a bill in the Illinois General Assembly to create a Distressed Area Land Assemblage Tax Credit for Illinois. The bill, HB 5153, takes verbatim the enacted text of the Missouri Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act.

Hoffman represents a district that includes the Metro East cities of Collinsville, Edwardsville, Maryville and Fairview Heights.

Illinois Metro East Southern Illinois Theaters

Edwardsville Plans to Restore The Wildey

by Michael R. Allen

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Alderman Rich Walker of Edwardsville, Illinois, has launched both a campaign to restore The Wildey theater and a public history project on the theater. The City of Edwardsville purchased the theater in 1999 and plans to raise an estimated $3 million for restoration work. It’s admirable to see a city government willing to invest in its cultural resources.

Historic Preservation Illinois Metro East Southern Illinois

Venice Public School Campus Disappears

by Michael R. Allen

The Metro East city of Venice is continuing to demolish its historic public school campus. The 1917 Venice High School has been gone for a month now, while the adjacent 1938 addition partly remains. Once the Tri-Cities of Granite City, Madison and Venice were thriving cities with populations of workers in the numerous steel mills and metal fabrication shops of the area. Things have been different for awhile now, and Venice’s population hovers at about 2,500.

Still, the section of Broadway where the public schools buildings stood features many well-kept homes on whose lawns children play. With a moribund downtown and few noteworthy employers, though, Venice’s chief assets may be its location and its stock of small frame homes. The city has a lot of potential.

The demolition of the schools, though, erase some of that potential. The buildings are among a handful of historic landmarks. These were solid buildings with adaptive reuse potential, standing right off of the newly-reopened McKinley Bridge. New use may have been just a few years away.
As of last weekend, when I took these photos, the 1938 addition retained its basic form enough to demonstrate how pointless its loss is. The building features a restrained art deco program of ornament, executed in polychromatic geometry that is gorgeous. The basic body of the building is unadorned machine-raked brick in different shades of brown and red. The bow-truss gymnasium at rear relieves the boxiness of the school building, providing some variation in the form.

Alas, by now the building is further diminished and reuse is a lost dream. Like its earlier neighbor, the building departs the real world to live only in the fickle realm of public memory.

As the Metro East adapts to its post-industrial and decentralized life — a process that will continue and accelerate once the new Mississippi River Bridge is built — we will continue to watch such losses. Without economic hope, there will be no concerted effort at cultural resource planning in the Tri-Cities or East St. Louis. Time is money, after all, and planning takes a lot of time. And money. What incentives exist in the Metro East for careful planning and historic preservation? Few, so long as Illinois remains one of those states without a historic rehabilitation tax credit.

(Kudos to 52nd City, Curious Feet, St. Louis Patina and Metropolitan Rural for covering the Venice High School demolition earlier.)

Abandonment Architecture Historic Preservation Illinois Southern Illinois Theaters

Massac Theater Crumbles in Metropolis, Illinois

by Michael R. Allen

The charming art deco Massac Theater graces Main Street in Metropolis, Illinois, a small town at the southern tip of Illinois well-known for DC Comics’ designation of the town as “Hometown of Superman” in 1972. Although the front elevation appears well-maintained, the theater has been completely abandoned since the late 1980s, when a radio station using the front section of the building moved out. The theater screened its last film, Superman, in 1978.

The Massac Theater opened in 1938 with 537 seats, a large size for a town the size of Metropolis. The front and side elevations were laid in buff brick; polychrome cream and blue terra cotta disrupt the front elevation with vertical finial-topped piers to each side of the entrance joined a ribbon of portal windows. A jazzy marquee, still intact, further enhances the exterior. Entrances on each side of a box office lead to a low-ceilinged front lobby which expands into a larger lobby space. Although the partition between the lobby and the auditorium is now gone, twin staircases with fine metal rail detailing, probably leading to a missing balcony, indicate some sort of atrium in the lobby. Past the staircases is the bow-trussed auditorium, now cordoned off with a plywood wall.

Here is a view of the lobby.

The view below looks toward the front entrance from inside of the theater. Note the staircases.

The auditorium is shocking — the walls are stripped down to backing block, the seats and flooring missing, and the roof is largely collapsed. Weather-beaten sections of roof deck cover the floor of the auditorium.

Condemned by the city government, the theater sits forlorn. The radio station left behind myriad record, files, desks and other furnishings. No one knows what the future will bring here. Metropolis has not had a movie theater since the Massac closed, but with access to nearby Paducah and its multiplex theater on sprawling Hinkleville Road, the demand for reopening a single-screen downtown movie theater is low. Most of the entertainment in Metropolis nowadays takes place at the giant Harrah’s casino that blocks the downtown area from its riverfront on the Ohio River.

Illinois Metro East Planning Southern Illinois Urbanism

Re-Centering Downtown or Doubling Sprawl?

by Michael R. Allen

A new house rises amid hay bales on Red Brick Lane outside of Columbia, Illinois (July 24, 2005). I grew up across the road from this field. Is this development somehow any different or more desirable than what has been built in St. Charles County?