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Statewide historical detective effort hits major milestone          Send a link to a friend

Old Okawville bank is 500th Mesker building identified in Illinois

[May 30, 2007]  OKAWVILLE -- It's been one of the most successful historical detective cases ever, with a two-year investigation netting 500 suspects and counting.

The 500th Mesker building has been identified in Illinois. Officials from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency joined city leaders and the building owners in the Washington County community of Okawville on May 25 to officially recognize the Old Exchange National Bank as No. 500 on the state's growing list of buildings with ornamental sheet metal and cast iron facades produced by the Mesker brothers around the turn of the 20th century.

"When we asked the public to help us identify Mesker buildings in their communities, we had no idea that just two years later we would be standing in front of number 500," said Robert Coomer, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency director. "The response has been phenomenal, and as a result we have been able to vastly increase the knowledge of our common heritage."

The Okawville bank was built in 1910 by Fred Moehle as the Exchange Bank of Merrick, Moehle & Co., which in 1920 was converted to the Old Exchange National Bank of Okawville. It operated as a bank until 1961, when the bank moved to a new building. The historic structure became the law office of Walter E. Moehle, Fred's grandson, until the late 1990s, and it was deeded to the village of Okawville in 2003. The village hopes to rehabilitate the building and use it as a museum and visitor center.

"The Moehle family has always been interested in all aspects of life in the village of Okawville, and it is gratifying that a building built by my great-grandfather continues to enhance the considerable architectural significance of this small but intriguing community. We are pleased that the village has plans to continue to add to the history and usefulness of this special building," said Walter W. Moehle, son of the building's last owner and great-grandson of the man who had the building constructed.

The building facade maintains nearly all of its original 1910 appearance, including numerous decorative components manufactured by the Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis. These pieces include pressed metal cornices and moldings, ornamental steel box columns, steel sills, and only the second self-supporting metal Mesker Brothers awning identified in Illinois.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency launched an effort in May 2005 to identify commercial buildings in the state with Mesker facades. The agency created an online site,, to enlist public assistance and urged citizens to examine buildings in their communities that might fit the profile. The response was unprecedented, with previously unidentified Mesker buildings located in nearly every area of the state.

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"When you are batting 500, that is exceptional in any league," said David Mesker, grandson of Frank Mesker, co-founder of Mesker Brothers Iron Works. "Nice going!"

"Meskers" are found across America. However, because the companies that made the components were based in the Midwest, they are particularly plentiful in Illinois and are part of the state's rich architectural history.

The Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis, Mo., and the George L. Mesker Company of Evansville, Ind., produced prefabricated architectural elements and building facades from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The two firms, owned by brothers but operating independently, best demonstrate the mass-produced building parts trade at the turn of the century.

The Meskers specialized in ornamental facades and storefront components that were ordered through catalogs and easily shipped by rail to any interested building owner. Their extensive product lines also featured entire storefront assemblies, fences, skylights and freight elevators. Made of galvanized steel and cast iron, durable Mesker facades often survive despite occasional neglect or lack of maintenance. Their attractive prices made the components especially desirable for small businesses who wanted the look of more expensive carved stone or terra cotta.

According to the 1910 Mesker Brothers Iron Works catalog, the components used in the Old Exchange National Bank could be purchased at the following prices: cornice, $13.00; lintel molding, $2.40; awning, $51.50; columns, $50.90; steel sill, $11.80; millwork, $54.00. The total for the surviving Okawville bank building facade components at 1910 prices would have been $183.70, or roughly $4,000 today -- demonstrating how affordable these decorative, mass-produced materials were for business owners who wanted to spruce up the look of their buildings.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency's drive to identify Mesker buildings continues. People interested in searching for these buildings in their own communities are encouraged to visit

[Text from Illinois Historic Preservation Agency news release received from the Illinois Office of Communication and Information]

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