Mid-Atlantic Brewing News August/September 2014


Philly's Born Again Breweries


By Rich Wagner


It’s been rewarding to see so many old breweries throughout the country adapted to reuse: warehouse space, offices, condominiums, shopping malls, art galleries, restaurants and especially breweries. About ten years ago I was developing a program entitled “Brewery Preservation in North America” and created a list of known standing brewery buildings. It’s on my website and currently has over 600 entries, including foundations, walls, vaults and what could be called “diamonds in the rough.” And while many continue to be torn down, many communities have found it is more profitable to restore some of these hulking structures.


Throughout history New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have led the nation in both the number of breweries as well as beer production, and both states have many surviving brewery structures, some of which have been adapted to reuse.


In Pennsylvania, parts of the Goenner brewery is an art gallery, and the Germania brewery is the Heritage Center, a museum dedicated to the history and culture of Johnstown and Cambria County. The Scheidt brewery complex in Norristown, PA, has been magnificently restored as the Stony Creek Office Center. But perhaps the finest example is the Stegmaier brewery in Wilkes-Barre, PA, which went from derelict to shining jewel as the Stegmaier Federal Building.


Philadelphia has a number of breweries beautifully preserved. The Bergdoll brewery complex was developed as condominiums back in the 1980s and is probably the premier example of brewery preservation in the nation. The Class and Nachod brewery complex was adapted as offices and student housing for Temple University and is one of the most beautiful examples of adaptive reuse I have ever seen.


But for me, a brewery reborn as a brewery, with the aroma of malty steam pouring out of the stack, is the best case scenario. And seeing the abandoned Eberhardt & Ober brewery on Pittsburgh’s northside turned into a business incubator, brewery and restaurant in 1989 was beyond my wildest dreams. It was one of Pennsylvania’s first craft breweries situated in a nineteenth century brewery complex -- what could be better than that?


During the heady 1990s as Philadelphia’s craft beer bubble was expanding to its bursting point, there were two breweries that came back to life as breweries. The Poth brewery in Brewerytown was home to Red Bell (1996-2002) and Henry Ortlieb opened a combination brewpub and production brewery in his family’s “million bottle a day” bottling facility on American Street (1997-2000). The Poth brewery remains empty. Half the Ortlieb complex has recently been razed to make way for housing, but the good news is that KeiranTimberlake architects are renovating the bottling house which will become their new home. The building has a new roof, windows and the exterior looks brand new.


In 2001, Sam Allen realized his long-held dream of having a brewery in the old Bube’s (BOO-bees) brewery in Mount Joy, PA. He had developed the property which included the Central Hotel for fine dining (and living space); the “Bottle Shop” bar for pub grub and a regular entertainment schedule with a huge display of Lancaster County embossed beer bottles; the Catacombs in the lagering vaults beneath the brewery where diners sat among huge wooden chip casks; and a brewery museum which included machinery and tall wooden vats on the second floor. It is heartening to see brewing returned to this wonderfully preserved brewery.


When Yards, the only production brewery in the city to survive the bubble that burst, moved into the old Weisbrod and Hess brewery in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, I was again pleasantly surprised to see another old brewery being pressed into service. After five years Yards moved on but Philadelphia Brewing has been in the old brewery since 2007, continuing to improve the complex which has become a beacon in the neighborhood.


The Finkenauer brewery was a magnificent brewery complex shoe-horned into a triangular property on Germantown Avenue in Kensington, to the west of Philadelphia Brewing. There is one identifiable building that remains on Fifth Street that has been on my Philadelphia Brewery Tour from the very beginning. Old decorative copper sheeting, with its green patina proclaimed “Theodore Finkenauer Stable.” The building was in use but that sign became harder and harder to read with each passing year.


After coming to Philadelphia from Germany, Theodore Finkenauer had worked his way up to brewmaster at Poth before setting up his own brewery (1876) across town as one of nine breweries along Germantown Avenue. Philadelphia’s premier brewery architect and engineer, Otto C. Wolf, did many projects for Finkenauer including a new brewery. He designed the stable in 1895 to house wagons and 75 horses. The new brewery produced just under 70,000 barrels of their Elmer Export (light) and Genuine Old Lager (dark) in the years before prohibition. During prohibition different owners flagged the plant as the Foch Cereal Beverage Co. and were repeatedly caught making “high powered beer.”


When I heard St. Benjamin Brewing was planning to move in I was overjoyed. Tim and Mary Lou Murray Patton have undertaken an ambitious project which has taken years to come to a head. They have already hosted my tour twice, before they were even open. They offered samples of Tim’s beer on the first floor where the wagons were stored and showed us the ramp where the horses walked to their stables on the second floor. We saw how the room was arranged and even got to see the loft above. This spring they hosted the local chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians and I gave my presentation on Otto C. Wolf, in one of his buildings. Most recently I stopped by to see workers restoring part of an archway that had been cut away to make a door by the previous occupants. And as I left, there was an artist painting a picture of the block which includes a knitting mill next door that is condominiums. A brewery turned into a brewery becoming an object d’Art. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Caption. St. Benjamin Brewing Co., whose exterior is hsown above, occupies the stable of Philadelphia's old Finkenauer Brewery, built in 1895 to house beer wagons and 75 horses.


Note: This article, in its entirety, is not as it appeared in Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.