Beer flowed from 'storybook castle' Building: Fate is still unknown for the remarkable American Brewery on Gay Street, closed in 1973.

Remember When

March 15, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It is one of those architectural oddities that lend the Baltimore skyline more than a little distinction, while at the same time arousing the curiosity of those who appreciate offbeat buildings.

Standing on a hill in the 1700 block of North Gay Street, the abandoned American Brewery rises up from the street, a massive red brick structure grown dingy and weary with age, its pagoda-like tower visible for miles.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, the former brewery has served as a backdrop for movies and this season even figured in an episode of "Homicide."

It has survived fires and years of neglect. Now owned by the city, it's been the subject of numerous renovation proposals. Its final fate remains uncertain.

"There is no finer example of a Victorian industrial structure in Baltimore City than the old American Building. This temple of Bacchus rises over the surrounding rowhouse community like a magical storybook castle," said an Evening Sun editorial.

It is an asymmetrical architectural confection that borrows liberally from a variety of periods and influences ranging from its Oriental tower to its Queen Anne-styled columns and Romanesque arched entrances.

'German Carnival' style

Some have described it as a wonderful example of the "German Carnival" style of construction that flourished in Baltimore's German neighborhoods in the late 19th century. Others have described it as "a sort of Victorian Rube Goldberg."

"It is one of the landmarks on the skyline of Baltimore, and I don't know of anything like it in any other American city," said Walter Schamu, Baltimore architect and architectural historian, the other day from his office. "But it is so sad-looking in its present condition."

He adds, with a laugh, "It's a wonderful Victorian, elephantine building that probably came about because of too much beer and schnapps at night. It's schmaltzy, all right."

The eccentric building boasts fancy, forest-green wood trim, intricate brickwork, colorful tiles and stained-glass windows. Its nooks and eaves and its overall sui-generis conception excite preservationists as well as the most casual visitor.

The brewery was founded in 1863 by John Frederick Wiessner, a Bavarian who was born in 1831. After emigrating to Baltimore in 1853, he went to work for Rost's Brewery until establishing his own brewery on the Gay Street site (then Belair Road) in 1863.

His original building consisted of a three-story brew house. By 1887, having outgrown that building, the present five-story building was added. It was designed by Charles Stoll, "the well known brewers architect and engineer of New York."

An 1887 article in The Western Brewer: and Journal of the Barley, Malt and Hop Trades, said, "This new and magnificent structure, now in the process of erection [has a design] entirely unique in brewery architecture."

The central tower held 10,000 bushels of grain and acted as a grain elevator. A malt mill and cleaning machinery were in the center portions of the third, fourth and fifth floor. Large copper water tanks were also on the fifth floor with beer kettles on the third. The building also featured the first ice-making machine installed in a brewery in North America.

The 6-acre site also contained a beer garden, cooperage shop, bottling house, stables, maintenance shop, a keg-washing facility and underground cellars where barrels of beer were kept cool.

Could store 100,000 barrels

"There was a system of tunnels or beer tunnels made out of brick that resembled the catacombs," said Brian Kelly, a partner in the firm of KCM Architects. Kelly, who describes the complex as a "treasure," said that the tunnels, which were covered with dirt and oyster shells, could hold 100,000 barrels of beer.

KCM has designed 60 senior citizen apartments and a day-care center to be constructed across the street in the old FitzSimons Mansion and former wagon house.

During the grand old days of Wiessner's, it was one of 33 breweries in Baltimore that attempted to slack the thirst of the city's beer drinkers, who gathered in bars and beer gardens to clink seidels of beer and sing the great beer drinkers' hymn: "In heaven there is no beer, that's why we drink it here."

Wiessner died in 1897, but the business continued to be operated by his three sons until it was sold in 1928 to Daniel FitzSimons, who with his brothers founded the Baltimore-based American Brewery. Allegheny Beverage, which bought the business in 1967, continued operating the brewery until 1973, when the last barrel of beer rolled out of the keg house and it closed for good.

Perhaps one of the most enduring symbols of the brewery was King Gambrinus, the mythical ruler of Flanders and reputed inventor of beer.

The Wiessner family acquired the 12-foot-high, 800-pound pewter statue of the beer king in 1879 from Switzerland. With its upraised hand holding a mug of beer, it saluted beer drinkers and brewers everywhere. In 1976, it was lent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains.

In 1973, The Evening Sun published an editorial bemoaning the loss of another Baltimore beer -- and worrying that the building it was brewed in might also be lost.

A "peculiar structure of towers, shadowy eaves and arched brick windows," the paper said, "it is perhaps the most eccentric and interesting building in Baltimore. For such a place surely there must be a purpose -- as a museum, a school, a theater. If it falls victim to the wrecker's ball, as the beer within fell victim to the deterioration of popular taste, Baltimore will be twice the loser."

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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