Landmark lacks lovers

JACQUES KELLY

February 03, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

It's hard not to wince at the condition of the old American Brewery, truly one of the city's great landmarks.

Its massive tower cuts an impressive silhouette across the skyline of East and Northeast Baltimore. It's far more visible these days than Johns Hopkins Hospital's dome, now surrounded by taller buildings.

The American Brewery building has been used for a set in movies. It's been visited by experts from the Smithsonian Institution. It's on everybody's list of Baltimore architecture classics.

But nobody or group is doing anything to save the building now owned by the city. It sits there empty, rapidly decaying, shedding bricks and what's left of its dignity.

John McGrain, Baltimore's most learned student of milling and industrial history, located a revealing article on the brewery in the May 15, 1887, edition of The Western Brewer: and Journal of the Barley, Malt and Hop Trades.

"This new and magnificent structure, now in the process of erection . . . [has a design] entirely unique in brewery architecture," the article said.

The stone, brick and iron building, festooned with forests of wood trim, had a working arrangement that wasn't immediately obvious from its Gay Street front.

Its central tower, the thing that looks like an architectural version of an extravagant hat, was a 10,000-bushel grain elevator.

The commodious building had a malt mill and cleaning machinery on the center portions of floors three, four and five. There were huge copper water tanks on the fifth floor, beer kettles on the third and ample room for storing hops.

The ice and refrigerating equipment, which was made in 1887 by a New York firm, kept the finished product cool on the north side of the ground floor.

The 1887 article reported that the contract for the copper work had been let to Messrs. Reisert & Orth of New York. Charles Stoll, "the well known brewers' architect and engineer of New York," designed the house of hops. He also held the patents on some of the brewery's mechanical equipment.

Architect Stoll gave the building an asymmetrical look.

The brewery's first owner was John Frederick Wiessner, who was born in Bavaria in 1831. He came to Baltimore in 1853 and went to work at the old Rost's Brewery, which became Muth's. He started in business for himself in the 1700 block of Gay Street (then Belair Road) in 1863.

Wiessner's new brewery was a dazzler. The master brewer even had a statue of Gambrinus, reputed as the inventor of lager beer, on the building. The complex once had a beer garden, cooperage shop, a separate bottling house and stables. The family lived across the street.

The old brewery sits on what might be called Brewers Hill, as Gay Street makes a climb toward North Avenue and Clifton Park. Just to the south was the old G. Bauernschmidt Brewery; to the north, at Lafayette and Collington, was the Standard Brewery. The American, at Gay and Lanvale, is the grand survivor.

Brewer Wiessner, who died in 1897, had three sons who succeeded him in the business. After Prohibition, the American Brewery came into being.

Beer ceased being brewed here in 1973 and the property was turned over to the city. A variety of plans to renovate the landmark have failed.

Other city landmarks long in perilous condition have been saved in recent years.

Orchard Street Church, once a wreck, is now the home of the Baltimore Urban League. President Street Station, though not restored, has been stabilized and will probably be taken over by the B&O Railroad Museum. Camden Station sat vacant for many months. Today, it is a civic monument. Why not the same for the American Brewery?

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