Valet parking awaits outside the Brewhouse Inn & Suites on Wednesday. Pabst brewed beer in the building from 1882 to 1996, and now it has been renovated into a hotel.
By Isaac Stanley-Becker, Journal Sentinal
It was 1996 when the brew house at the Pabst Brewery Complex last manufactured its trademark Blue Ribbon beer.
On Thursday, the taps flowed once again — but as part of a much different enterprise.
The Brewhouse Inn & Suites, the latest redevelopment project in a growing trend of transforming historic city buildings into modern-day commercial establishments, played host to a grand opening Thursday celebrating the first few months of the hotel’s operation. More than 500 guests attended the event at the inn, affectionately dubbed the Pabst Hotel, and at the adjoining restaurant, Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub.
The Brewhouse Inn is a 90-room extended-stay hotel that opened its doors in April at the northwest corner of N. 10th St. and W. Juneau Ave. It occupies the former Pabst brew house and adjacent mill house, buildings that were abandoned when the Pabst Brewery Complex closed in 1996. The re-purposed buildings are just two of 25 factory buildings that were abandoned in the wake of the complex’s abrupt closing, the result of massive layoffs and pension disputes with the Brewery Workers union, Local 9.
“It was like a neutron bomb went off in the place,” said Pete Northard, the new hotel’s general manager, on a recent tour of the space. “Workers left personal belongings in their lockers, open beer bottles were strewn around.”
The brewery complex stood vacant until 2006, when Milwaukee philanthropist Joseph Zilber’s investment group, Brewery Project LLC, purchased the original 19th century buildings to form The Brewery, a complex that is home to residential, office and retail space.
The Oregon, Wis.-based Gorman & Co. developer purchased the brew house and mill house in 2011 and spent 18 months turning them into a six-floor boutique hotel that maintains many of the brewery’s original features, including spiral stairwells, arched stone doorways in the lobby and the iconic brew kettles, the bottom halves of which were cut off and removed after the factory’s closing. King Gambrinus, the unofficial patron saint of beer, looms over the atrium in a restored stained-glass window on the far end of the large, open space that features skylights.
The hotel, a LEED-certified, self-proclaimed green establishment, has been an experiment in “marrying modern amenities with an old, historic building,” said Northard, who has worked in hotel management in Milwaukee since 1995.
Without a national name, the Brewhouse Inn instead depends on its unique character to lure guests, he said. Since its opening April 25, the hotel has exceeded financial projections, Northard added. He attributed that success to city residents’ pride in their history and to the tourist attraction that comes with brewery artifacts.
Jim Haertel operates Best Place, a tavern at the complex that takes its name from the German immigrant Jacob Best Sr., who established the brewery in 1844. He said his sales had increased since the hotel’s opening. The interest in the redeveloped Pabst buildings, he said, indicates Milwaukee’s enduring reputation as the beer capital of the world.
“There’s so much in Milwaukee that harkens back to the past,” said Jeff Kollath, a curator at the Milwaukee County Historical Society. “Whether it’s our buildings or our traditions, people have a lot of pride in Milwaukee’s history, and projects that tap into that can be hugely successful.”
Because the brewery complex is a nationally registered historic landmark, Gorman & Co. received tax credits in return for maintaining original elements of the buildings, such as the wood paneling that became kitchen tables in the suites.
Anna-Marie Opgenorth, executive director at Historic Milwaukee, said she would like to see funding for those tax credits increase. She described a “value system that prioritizes using our unique architecture” as responsible for the growing trend of redevelopment projects that maintain factories dating back to the 19th century and earlier.
Two additional projects at the Pabst complex are in the works: 127 assisted living apartments in the former malt house, and an international student housing center for universities in the area.