Of Hope and Heritage
PABST BREWERY HISTORY PRESERVED AND RE-CREATED ON SITES OF THE FORMER BREWERY’S BREW HOUSE AND MILL HOUSE
BY NAN BIALEK | PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN BISHOP
They are inconspicuously known as Buildings 20 and 21, part of a 21-acre industrial complex perched atop a hill on the north end of downtown that once was a symbol of prosperity, hard work and civic identity. But when the Pabst Brewing Co. abruptly closed its doors in December 1996, the once shining symbol that had long been in decline, stood vacant, deteriorating, and festering on the consciousness of our collective and proud German heritage. Even as other areas of the city were reborn through redevelopment, the Pabst site remained untouched, its Cream City brick facades darkening over time.
In 2006, Milwaukee entrepreneur and philanthropist Joseph Zilber purchased the property for $13 million with the goal of revitalizing the former manufacturing site into a mixed-use urban neighborhood formed on the ideals of historic preservation and sustainability.
Since that time, a handful of the remaining buildings (some of the 25 were torn down) have been purchased by developers and universities for use as apartments, offices and educational facilities. But when Buildings 20 and 21 open this spring as the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, they are sure to bring Milwaukeeans to the site of the former brewery graveyard to see for themselves the hope and heritage that are alive there.
For more than 15 years, he was trapped in the dark, behind planks of plywood and layers of soot. Today, King Gambrinus, the unofficial patron saint of brewers, holds court in a stained glass masterpiece two stories tall, raising his glass in a friendly toast to visitors at the new Brewhouse Inn & Suites.
The Gambrinus window is more than 125 years old, says Peter Northard, the hotel’s general manager, and was created by the Milwaukee artist Frederick Wilhelm Heine and manufactured by the Charles Baumbach Co. of Milwaukee. It was uncovered during the repurposing of two of the Pabst Brewing Co.’s old brewhouse buildings at 1015 N. 10th St.
The Cream City brick buildings, originally known as Buildings 20 and 21, were built in the late 1870s and early 1880s and are on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. They have been joined together and renovated by owners Gorman & Co. into the city’s newest destination hotel.
The resurrection of the Pabst buildings was a monumental task. They had been boarded up and maintenance had been neglected since the Milwaukee brewery closed shop in 1996. One of the biggest challenges after Gorman & Co. bought the property in 2011, Northard says, was retrofitting the buildings with energy-efficient electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems.
Northard, who has been working for Gorman & Co. since April 2012, says he was attracted to the project because of the property’s history and the important role that Pabst Brewing played in Milwaukee’s development during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“Capt. Frederick Pabst built it with the intent of having the building be a symbol of the brewery as much as a place to brew the beer itself,” Northard explains. As he was researching its history, Northard learned that Pabst not only wanted a brewery that his employees would be proud to work in, “but one that he could show off to visitors and potential customers. Pabst was one of the first breweries in the world to give public tours, and at one time was the largest brewer in the world.”
Pabst hired some of Milwaukee’s finest masons, ironworkers and craftsmen to build his showplace. “Those who built the various components of the brewery went on to start other industries in the city, especially in the metalworking and machinery areas,” Northard says.
Much of their impressive work at the Pabst Brewery has been integrated into the interior design of the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, giving the hotel its uniquely Milwaukee character.
Two enormous copper brewing kettles have been converted into shimmering domes presiding over the hotel’s lobby. The front desk was constructed using more than 1,500 amber beer bottles. The balusters of a sweeping staircase just inside the main entrance feature the original pounded-iron barley design.
Perhaps the most storied space, though, is just north of the main entrance. Known as the “Blue Room,” it was originally a break room where employees could relax and enjoy a beer. Sue Kinas, sales manager for the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, says when the building was still an active brewery, police officers from the First District would drop by after their shifts and have a drink with Pabst employees in the break room. “That’s why they called it the Blue Room,” she notes.
A doorway in the room, which is now used as a breakfast space for the hotel, has been painted blue as a nod to its past.
Since the buildings were built before the widespread use of electricity, more than 300 windows let the sun shine into 90 guest suites on six floors. Each of the suites, from studio styles to two-bedroom lofts, is a bit different, Kinas says.
The rooms are designed for the extended stay traveler, Kinas says, and include fully equipped kitchens. Tables are topped with repurposed joists from the building, and some joists also were used to create one-of-a-kind headboards. Rooms are outfitted with a stunning combination of antique furnishings, such as four-poster beds and contemporary, steampunk-inspired pieces.
Views of downtown Milwaukee from the spacious sixth-floor “Baron Terrace Suites” are outstanding, especially from the rooms’ private terraces.
One of the show-stopping public spaces in the Brewhouse Inn & Suites is the Kettle Atrium on the second floor. It features the brewery’s original copper kettles, polished to a fine sheen, as well as the original terra cotta floor and subway tiles lining the walls. A spiraling iron stairwell, which was once used to connect the fourth and sixth floors, is now a towering piece of sculpture in a corner of the space. Artist Adam Nilson painted the huge Brewhouse logo on one of the Kettle Atrium’s walls; he also is the artist who created the convincing faux finishes in the lobby and throughout the hotel. Kinas says the Kettle Atrium is used for cocktail parties and other social events.
It seems fitting that Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub is also an attraction at the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, due to open later this month. The restaurant and bar features 30-foot ceilings, and the space’s original tin ceiling, which had been destroyed, has been reproduced and installed in the pub. The bar offers a number of local microbrews as well as well-known beer brands. An outdoor beer garden welcomes visitors seasonally.
“If there is one part of Capt. Pabst’s legacy that we want guests to take away after their stay at the Brewhouse,” says Northard, “it’s that the Pabst Brewing Co. was an integral part of Milwaukee’s early history. Generations of Milwaukeeans worked and toured the brewery, and we intend to keep that history alive through some of the architectural elements that we have retained.”
Northard says the hotel plans to add some multimedia exhibits that will tell the story of the Pabst brewery through the words of people who spent their lives working there.