Historic Construction Materials and Methods | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Historic Construction Materials and Methods

Historic Construction Materials and Methods | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeCommercial building

Pamperin Tobacco Company, 1879

La Crosse, Wisconsin. Two-story commercial buildings were very common. The owners lived on the second floor while the first floor was for their business or store. Source: Eric Wheeler. View the property record: AHI 31837

If you own a historic commercial building, you should become familiar with the building materials and methods used to construct it. This knowledge will help you make better building maintenance and rehabilitation decisions. You can start by learning about general patterns and transformations in downtown commercial development. This information will uncover the context of your own building’s time of construction.

Early Commercial Buildings Featured Open Floor Space

Wisconsin’s earliest commercial buildings were built of the same materials as dwellings and other buildings — primarily wood and brick. The oldest remaining commercial buildings generally have these three characteristics:

  • One to three stories in height
  • Frame or brick exterior walls
  • Interior framing systems

The early framing systems featured floor and ceiling joists tied in to the brick or frame walls on either side. The spans between joists were limited by the load-bearing capacities of the materials used. This is the main reason why historic storefronts are 20 to 24 feet wide; it is the maximum width that a typical floor joist can span without requiring center supports. Wider commercial buildings required the installation of a central row of wooden support columns. Merchants wanted as much floor space as possible to show off their goods, so they left their interiors open.

Elevators Take Buildings to New Heights

EnlargeHigh-rise building

Bellin Building, 1915

Green Bay, Wisconsin. The development of elevators led to buildings getting taller such as the Bellin Building in Green Bay. Source: Michael Iwinski. View the property record: AHI 37923

The narrow width and multiple stories of early commercial buildings created one problem — shoppers did not like to climb up three or four flights of stairs carrying shopping bags. Because of this problem, the heights of commercial buildings were limited in the mid-19th century. Steam-powered elevators did exist at this time, but the use of elevators did not become widespread until Elisha Otis perfected a dependable braking system in the 1850s. Thanks to elevators, by the 1880s, large downtown areas such as Milwaukee contained many commercial buildings with five or more stories in height.

Steel Framing Allows for More Decorative Exteriors

EnlargeCast iron storefront

Iron Block Building, 1899

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Iron Block Building sits on a street corner, therefore both street facades are constructed entirely of cast iron - not just the storefronts. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office. View the property record: AHI 41147

Commercial buildings also increased in height when steel became widely used in their construction. The perfection of the Bessemer Process in the 1850s led to the economical conversion of iron into steel. By the end of the 19th century, steel production had increased enormously, and commercial buildings were being constructed with a steel framework. This steel framework could hold up a building, so the exterior walls of the building could be much lighter and more decorative. Large expanses of windows became possible along with the use of lightweight cladding materials. As a result, many of the most beautiful and decorative commercial buildings were built at the end of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, skyscrapers were being added to urban landscapes.

Masonry Replaces Wood as the Preferred Building Material

Downtown areas are populated primarily with buildings of masonry construction. Masonry (brick and stone) buildings have long been preferred over wood because of their durability and greater permanence. Masonry buildings also exist today because wood frame buildings had a tendency to catch on fire. After many destructive fires throughout Wisconsin in the 19th century, many towns passed laws requiring commercial districts to be built of brick or stone.  

Although masonry is more fireproof than wood, masonry is also much heavier than wood. Before steel framing was perfected, a masonry building required a substantial foundation and structural support to carry the weight of the building above. The taller a building was, the greater the pressure that was exerted on the foundation and lower floors. As a result, masonry buildings from the mid- to late-19th century were often designed with stone block or brick foundations.

Cast Iron becomes Popular for Storefronts

EnlargeCast iron pilaster

John Pritzlaff Hardware Company Building, 1875

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Cast iron pilasters were used on the John Pritzlaff Hardware Company Building. Notice the rust at the top of the pilasters where the paint is missing. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office. View the property record: AHI 16132

By the late 19th century, cast iron became popular for use on storefronts. Cast iron was strong enough to be manufactured into structural support elements that could carry the weight of a masonry building and allow enough floor space for the viewing of merchandise. Iron was poured into molds and then cast into various shapes and forms. This manufacturing technique allowed for highly decorative columns to be milled in foundries and added to storefronts in the late 19th century.

Advances in Glassmaking Make Display Windows Affordable

The popularity of cast iron storefronts also coincided with advances in glassmaking. Prior to the mid-1800s, plate glass was expensive and difficult to manufacture. With advances in technology, the cost of plate glass dropped considerably. Storefronts could then be designed with large display windows and transoms.

Standardized Plans and Mass Production Spark Popularity of Sheet Metal Facades

EnlargeMesker nameplate

Storefronts that were ordered from the Mesker Bros. catalog came with the standard nameplate. Source: Phil Thomason.

Another common material used on commercial buildings in the 19th century is sheet metal. Sheet metal of rolled iron, tin and zinc was used to sheath an entire upper façade. Other sheet metal building elements were also manufactured, such as cornices for the roofline. Several companies specialized in mass producing and marketing these building designs. The most prominent of these companies were the George L. Mesker Company of Evansville, Indiana, and Mesker Brothers Ironworks of St. Louis.

EnlargeMesker storefront

Charles Hornung City Bakery and Restaurant, 1891

Mineral Point, Wisconsin. The upper story of this storefront was ordered from the Mesker catalog. Source: Photographer Mark Fay. View the property record: AHI 59711

These two companies produced standardized plans for cast iron and sheet metal commercial building façades. Building owners could order the façades from the company catalogs. The metal components were then shipped and assembled on site. Many examples of Mesker sheet metal fronts and cast iron storefronts can be found in Wisconsin.

Expanding Use of Different Materials Leads to Distinctive Exterior Designs

The development of structural steel for building support and framing led to the introduction of other materials for the exterior walls. With the building supported by steel or steel-reinforced concrete, exterior walls could be made of lighter and more decorative materials, such as terra cotta, cast concrete and hollow-core tile. Terra cotta, a fired clay material, could be cast in a wide variety of molds, colors and glazes. Cast concrete could also be molded into various forms. These materials were used to create distinctive designs such as classical columns, cornices, window arches and other elements reflective of specific architectural styles.    

New Century, New Materials

As the 20th century progressed, a much wider array of materials was used in commercial building construction. These materials include aluminum, stainless steel, tinted glass and porcelain. All of these materials were in widespread use by the 1920s and 1930s for storefront design. These materials were used for the smooth walls and angular designs used during the Art Deco and Moderne periods, and then for simpler and more functional designs after World War II.

When the International style became popular for commercial and office buildings after the war, the use of glass curtain walls, structural glass blocks and aluminum and glass storefronts came to dominate commercial building design.