NEVADA, Mo. —
A block off the square, the W.F. Norman Corp. has for 120 years produced something found in towns throughout the region. They are found in churches, historic theaters, downtown businesses, homes and courthouses.
“If you drive around our square, or drive down the main streets in Joplin, in Pittsburg, in Carthage, you’ll see the old building fronts are decorated. They have column capitals, cornice pediments, garlands, finials, sometimes lion heads, all kinds of stuff,” said Mark Quitno, the company’s vice president. “Inside, many have pressed tin ceilings. That’s what we do.”
The company has been doing it the same way since 1892.
Inside a cavernous 50,000-square foot brick factory are hulking machines built at the turn of the 20th century, some of them still powered by a belt-and-pulley system and hand-operated ropes. The sounds of 3,500-pound cast iron molds slamming into a piece of sheet metal echo throughout the building.
Craftsmen still turn out the same patterns of pressed tin and sheet metal ornaments that their predecessors were making before the automobile was invented.
“You do feel like you’re stepping back in time,” Quitno said. “It is a bit Industrial Revolution looking.”
The company had its start when William Franklin Norman, a traveling salesman and budding entrepreneur, entered into an agreement with the Wheeling Corrugated Co., in Wheeling, W.Va. In 1898, Norman then went into business with John Berghauser, a local tinsmith, and founded the W.F. Norman Sheet Metal Co. Norman bought his partner out in 1918. The company stayed in the family, with Norman passing it down to two sons and then a grandson, Franklin Norman, who then sold it to Robert Quitno — Mark’s father — in 1978.
Robert died in 1987, but Mark’s mother, Annette, still works in the front office and his two sisters and brother have each spent time working for the company. Mark, now 59, joined the company in 1982 at age 28.
In the years since, the company has not been able to improve on the factory’s original production methods, Quitno maintains. Pressed tin panels are made one at a time using rope-pulled drop hammers, resulting in better quality control than W.F. Norman has been able to get from modern hydraulic presses, he said.
Decorative rosettes used around light bulbs are soldered by hand. Finials are built piece by piece using the same, age-old spun-metal techniques.
Even the company’s two current catalogs are identical to ones produced a century ago.
In addition to Joplin, Pittsburg and Carthage, the products within those catalogs can be found in hundreds of buildings in Webb City, Neosho, Baxter Springs, Kan., and in many other area towns.
“They all have it,” Quitno said of the tin ceilings. “It’s one of the biggest building materials of that time.”
The company knows no geographic boundaries, however, and has shipped dragon heads and medallions to New York City, ornaments to Hong Kong for use in a Chicago-based pizza chain, decorative elements to U.S. Embassy buildings, and a larger-than-life Lady Justice statue to a Texas courthouse.
Tin ceilings were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s because they imitated more costly and cumbersome alternatives.
“What gave rise to the great popularity of this in the U.S. after the Civil War was the fact that it gave the building owner a similar appearance to an expensive capitol building, mansion, cathedral, at a fraction of the cost,” Quitno said. “Not only did the building not have to be built as strong and as expensively to hold a great big cast iron or stone pediment or cornice, but the products were able to be mass produced, and they could be shipped great distances without worrying about breakage, and they can be installed by ordinary carpenter types.”
Recent restoration of downtowns and other historic buildings has added to the company’s bottom line. If a sample of a historic pattern has survived, the company can use it as a three-dimensional model for casting new dies. It’s time-consuming and complex, he said. To create replacements for damaged sheet metal ornaments on custom order, for example, workers such as Ray Mitchem and his son, Dusty, first must trace an original. They then spend hours using modeling clay and careful measurements to replicate raised reliefs of the original.
When the clay work is complete, they’ll pour plaster on it to make an impression, which will be used as a stamp.
Customers such as Tom Hamsher and his wife, Mary, who are restoring the historic Minerva Candy Co. in downtown Webb City, are among those who have turned to W.F. Norman for help.
The Hamshers say accuracy is vital to achieving the correct look. The pressed tin ceiling of the Minerva Candy building was missing about 30 tiles, and Hamsher wanted to secure exact duplicates as replacements.
“We duplicate a lot of ceiling panels,” Quitno said of such projects. “Right now we’re doing one for an historic theater restoration in Iowa, for example.”
A nod to the new
While the W.F. Norman Corp. has remained the same, and its primary emphasis has been on products that preserve the look of a century ago, the company has been known to create modern items, too, including speaker housings for the New York City subway system, and pieces used in a high-tech national security project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.