Philadelphia Daily News January 28, 2000

Save the Sign, It's One Beautiful...

By Don Russell

The thing about watching old Philadelphia die is you don't know how to mourn the victim properly. The 140-year-old Schmidt's brewery in Northern Liberties, for example. The blighted facility was purchased last week; the new owner says he'll level it. That's how we usually do things around here. Bury 'em and forget 'em. Before Schmidt's is gone forever, someone ought to offer a eulogy.


The brewery, even in its decay, is a landmark in the city's long-gone industrial greatness. Standing at 2nd and Girard, it was a mammoth, 14-acre facility that employed more than 1,000 people to produce rivers of beer. And beer, despite what they say about Milwaukee, was what made Philadelphia famous. For the first 200 years of our history, Philadelphia beer- especially lagers brewed in the 1800's by German immigrants- was the best in America.


Schmidt's was one of the great brand names of this city, standing mightily with Stetson Hats, Baldwin Locomotive, Fels Naptha soap, Whitman chocolates and others. It survived Prohibition and thrived while others- Gretz, Esslinger and Ortlieb- succumbed.


As recently as the 1970's, when the company operated additional breweries in Norristown and Cleveland, Schmidt's was poised to compete with the nation's other giants, Anheuser Busch and Miller. It produced 3 million barrels of beer a year, according to local beer historian Rich Wagner, that's more than every brewery in the city's famous Brewerytown section combined.


Towards the end, the beer was your basic fizzy American lager with a distinct corn flavor. At about $2.25 a sixpack in the early '80s, it was a cheap weekend favorite. Despite the mainstream taste of its flagship beer though, Schmidt's was capable of producing decent flavorful specialty brews. I run into beerheads who still bubble over the taste of prior Double Dark, Ram's Head Ale and Valley Forge Porter.


In 1987, the owners sold the label and closed the brewery. When the last can of Schmidt's rolled off the loading dock, it was the first time the city had been without a brewery since 1682. The last dozen years have not been kind to the memory of this great place.


"The brewhouse was decorated with 8-inch Italian marble tiles," Wagner remembered. "The mezzanine looked like an old-time theater, with decorative plaster molding. It was a sight to behold. It's just crumbling away now. I guess the saddest thing I saw was the marble steps on Girard Avenue. Someone dragged a hand truck across them and broke every one of them.


"That's just the pathos of my work as a brewery historian," Wagner continued, "You see these things and imagine what they were like in their glory days. then see them filled with rats and bums and spray paint. Now they're just going to tear it down. It's one of those things."


The brewery should have been leveled years ago. For nearly 15 years, the hulking brick complex has been a pathetic eye sore, a blight that has disrupted redevelopment of a fine neighborhood and a magnet for crime and vagrancy.


But ripping it down doesn't mean the city or the property's owner shouldn't somehow offer a lasting tribute. A good start would be that handsome stainless-steel sign that adorns the brewery's north wall. There's nothing notably historic about the giant letters, which probably date back to the construction of the brewhouse addition in 1949. But for many locals, that familiar script is part of an indelible memory of a cold one at a backyard picnic or a frosty 20-cent mug at the corner taproom


Daily News Buzz columnist Harriet Lessy reports the new owner, developer Bart Blatstein, is an admirer of the sign. That's good news. Save the Schmidt's sign, I say. Restore it, then place it somewhere appropriate- maybe on our new baseball stadium, whenever they get around to building it.


Schmidt's was one beautiful beer. Saving the sign and displaying it in a public place is the least we can do to honor the people who worked at the brewery while remembering an important chapter in our city's history.