Nearly a decade after Baltimore's vacant and deteriorated American Brewery was placed on a local "endangered landmarks" list, there's new reason for optimism that it finally might be on the way to restoration.
Construction began last month on a $10 million project that will transform much of the former brewery property in the 1700 block of N. Gay St. to a senior living center by mid-2002.
Now one of Baltimore's most hard-charging developers - Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse - tentatively has agreed to work with the nonprofit Council for Economic and Business Opportunity to develop a plan to restore the pagoda-like brew house.
"It's a magnificent, incredible building, and we hope to be able to do something to save it," said developer Bill Struever, who toured the five-story structure two weeks ago with CEBO president and chief executive officer Larry Smith. "It would be a sad day for Baltimore if it collapsed."
Struever said he has looked at the ornate brew house "with great admiration" since he came to Baltimore in 1974, and was pleased to find that it appears to be in basically sound condition even though it has been dormant for nearly 30 years.
"It's a building of magic and mystery, with some very special spaces and very special detailing," he said. "You might expect to see it on Jackson Square in New Orleans or some other place of great dignity. With the work going on across the street, there's an opportunity to save it."
Built in 1887 to house a brewery founded in 1863 by John Frederick Wiessner, the complex was known for its elaborately detailed brew house, called "circus architecture" by the writer John Dos Passos. It later was expanded to contain the offices of the Allegheny Beverage Corp., which produced American Beer there. At its peak, the property had 20 buildings and was an employment center for hundreds.
The brewery closed in 1973, and its buildings subsequently were acquired by the city. In recent years, they have deteriorated badly, and many smaller ones have been razed.
In 1992, the Baltimore Heritage preservation group featured the brewery on a poster of endangered places that it wanted to protect. The preservationists noted that the main building is an East Baltimore landmark and one of the country's last surviving gravity flow breweries. The problem, they said, was not that anyone wanted to tear it down but that no one wanted to fix it up because the surrounding area was in decline.
A year later, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke selected a group headed by CEBO to redevelop the brewery property in phases, as funds become available. Several years ago, a Rite Aid branch was constructed on part of the land, but it has since closed.
The first development to incorporate any of the historic American Brewery structures is the Coel-Grant-Higgs Senior Living Center, under construction across Gay Street from the brew house.
It is a combination of historic rehabilitation and new construction that will provide 58 apartments for senior citizens with incomes at or below 50 percent of the area's median income, and a 6,000-square-foot senior center. Historic structures that are being preserved as part of the project include the former brewmaster's mansion and the wagon house and stables used when the beer was distributed by horse-drawn wagons. New buildings have been designed to connect the older ones into one unified complex.
The development team includes the Southern Baptist Church Community Development Corp., an affiliate of nearby Southern Baptist Church; Savannah Development Corp., and the Enterprise Foundation. KCM Architects is the designer.
The senior living center is named after Nathaniel Higgs, pastor of Southern Baptist Church, and two of his predecessors.
"This is the first major investment in East Baltimore," Higgs said. "It is critical to the church that, as downtown is redeveloped, the existing senior population can afford to live in the area."
"This project would not have been possible if not for the staying power of the church," said Betty Jean Murphy, president of Savannah Development.
Smith said CEBO is counting on the senior center to help build momentum for the area and provide the spark needed to promote redevelopment of the brew house and other buildings on the east side of Gay Street.
He said CEBO recently engaged Bernard Berkowitz, former head of the Baltimore Economic Development Corp., to recommend ways to reuse the 1950s-era bottling plant on the property. He said CEBO is in the process of finalizing a co-development agreement with Struever Bros. to work on the brew house and that others also might join the effort.