Mid-Atlantic Brewing News April/May 2005
A Stroll Through Brewing History: The Past Preserved in Philadelphia
by Rich Wagner
Historically, Philadelphia has always been a major brewing center. Its breweries were shipping beer around the world during colonial times, and in the nineteenth century the city was home to some of the nation’s largest firms. Unfortunately, when prohibition became law in 1920 everything changed. Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and some breweries returned but died off one by one until Schmidt’s, the lone survivor, closed in 1987. After a two-year hiatus, craft breweries resumed a proud centuries-old tradition, and, fortunately, some of the brewery buildings from yesteryear have survived.
The Bergdoll brewery complex at 29th and Parrish Streets is a short walk down Pennsylvania Avenue past the Art Museum. It was a masterpiece of Otto C. Wolf, preeminent Philadelphia brewery architect and engineer who designed and built most of the city’s prominent breweries. The brewery offices, bottling house, brew house, ice house, cooper and wagon houses have all been converted into condominiums. Essentially the only buildings torn down were the malt house and grain elevator that used to straddle the railroad tracks.
The Class & Nachod brewery at 10th and Montgomery is another beautifully preserved complex. Built in 1911, it underwent multi-million dollar renovations after repeal and became the Poth brewery from 1936 to 1941. Poth was the only Brewerytown firm to survive prohibition and moved to this location after three years in their old plant. Temple University has restored it and adapted the bottling house and stables/garage as offices and recently converted the main building into dormitory space. There are beautiful stone medallions of a lion and medusa “guarding” the entrance on the corner and a two story curved bay window, or “oriel,” on Montgomery Street. Riders of the Septa rail line can still read the sign “Home of Black Eagle Beer” painted on the wall facing the tracks south of the Temple station.
What’s left of the F.A. Poth brewery in Brewerytown at 31st & Jefferson Streets became home to the Red Bell Brewing Company from 1995 until 2002. Another Otto Wolf brewery, it is the last complex of the dozen or so that gave Brewerytown its name. It is destined to be demolished to make way for new construction. This could prove to be a formidable undertaking since these industrial behemoths were built to last. So sturdy, in fact, that the government figured it could survive a nuclear attack and was used to store water and Civil Defense supplies during the Cold War.
In Kensington, the old Weisbrod & Hess brewery is located just off Frankford Avenue near York Street. It was designed and built in 1891 by A.C. Wagner, Philadelphia’s second most famous brewery architect. While the main brew house was torn down long ago and the adjacent boiler house is in sad shape, Yards Brewing Company has done a remarkable job restoring the buildings on the other side of Martha Street since they moved there three years ago. Yards inhabits the “new” bottling house which was built in 1912.
In Northern Liberties the Ortlieb’s bottling House is the newest building of the Ortlieb’s brewery complex and was built in 1948. It is located on American Street just south of Poplar. Much of the rest of the complex remains but does not look long for this world. It was home to Henry Ortlieb’s brewpub/microbrewery from 1997-2000. The old brewery saloon on Third Street still operates as the Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus.
Closer to center city, the Esslinger brewery complex at Tenth and Callowhill is a factory. Many of the buildings remain and are identified with the stone signs so common in classic brewery architecture.
Unfortunately, the massive Schmidt’s brewery complex, located at Second and Girard, was leveled three years ago, but a few blocks to the east the Proto brewery stands on Frankford Avenue just north of Girard. The building was used as a cold storage warehouse for years and was recently purchased by an artist who intends to renovate the building.
More of the city’s breweries have been torn down than anyone can count and many of the ones left standing won’t be standing for long. But the brewery architecture that survives gives testimony to the city’s brewing heritage and a time when Philadelphia was known as the “Workshop of the World.”
Rich Wagner has been researching Pennsylvania breweries and brewing history for twenty five years. He recently posted a list on his website entitled “Brewery Preservation Success Stories” which lists standing breweries around the country.
Addendum July 23, 2020:
Since this article was written the Philadelphia B.C. replaced Yards in the Weisbrod & Hess brewery complex. St. Benjamin's B.C. was in the Finkenauer B.C.'s old stable but they went out of business this year. Both the Poth brewery and Bergner & Engel stables have been or are currently being renovated for housing. And the Charles Maas weiss beer brewery is currently an event center. There are currently efforts to put a brewery in “Esslinger's Plant #2” on American St. above Susquehanna.
Wagner, Rich. "Yards Brewery - Kensington's Brewing Tradition Continues." Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. April/May, 2003.
Wagner, Rich. “Eastern Pennsylvania's Historic Beer Trails.” Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. June/July 2007.
Wagner, Rich. “Philly's Born Again Breweries.” Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. August/September 2014.
Wagner, Rich. “Philadelphia Brewery Tour Revisited: Linking a City's Past and Future. Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. April/May 2016.
Wagner, Rich. “Otto C. Wolf: brewery architect and engineer, Philadelphia, PA. Brewery History (Journal of the Brewery History Society). Issue 155. (2014).
Wagner, Rich. Preserving the Legacy of Brewery Architects: A.C. Wagner of Philadelphia. American Breweriana Journal. September/October 2017.
Wagner, Rich. “Brewery Vaults I Have Known and Loved... and Some I've Only Heard About.” American Breweriana Journal March/April 2020
Wisniewski, Dan. “What's Up With the Gretz Brewery?” Hidden City.