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A Walk Through the Obermann Brewery

ObermanBrew.jpg by Erik Peterson, Beer Barons of Milwaukee Building Facts:

— 1,000 square foot cream city brick construction & exterior — Missing cornices — Some bricked-up windows — Shipping docks — Three floors — Two basement levels — Flat roof

A significant piece of Milwaukee’s brewing history is sitting on the corner of 5th and Cherry, only a couple blocks from the Brewery Credit Union. It’s for sale. It could be a brewery once again. Local developers and nationally-known brewery historians have been looking at it for some time now. With the removal of the Park East Freeway, many dilapidated, turn-of-the-century industrial buildings are becoming hot properties. Obermann Brewery opened in 1854, and was Milwaukee’s largest brewery for 20 years. Recently I stopped by the Brewery Credit Union to tell loan officer Steven Koski that I was researching the boarded-up property down the street from him. According to Steve, there was a fire at Obermann around the turn of the century. New investors were brought in, and thus the name was changed to Falk, Jung, and Borchart Brewing Co. Not long after that, Falk went on to pursue other interests (Falk Industries) as young Jung, a former brewing apprentice from Pabst Brewery, bought out Falk and Borchart. The name was changed to Jung Brewery, and business prospered until sometime after its official closing at prohibition. The building survived demolition over the years by functioning as one of the city’s many generic scrap yards. Cans, metals, and pretty much anything picked up in the alleys was brought in to sell. In fact, the basement and sub-basement were packed full of this valueless debris until last year. The City of Milwaukee has owned the building since 2001, purchased through tax remediation. One of the first tasks was to hire a salvage/cleaning company to empty out the lower levels. There is a freight elevator, which was installed about 75 years ago. It would take brewery workers and supplies into the basement and sub-basement. On the main level, the floor is an original wood-plank design. When the elevator is lowered into the basement, its top creates a false-floor on the main level, effectively hiding the elevator and the lower levels from view. There is a pull rope to start or stop the elevator. According to one Department of City Development (DCD) employee, the basement contains vaulted tunnels made of cream city brick. The tunnel on the south end of the basement appears to lead under the street, toward the Hein Electric building. As the first city employees ventured into the basement, their flashlight view from the elevator was one of piles of debris, some of it decades old. Broken furniture, wooden barrels, broken industrial machines, wooden carts with cast iron wheels, bags and boxes full of trash, piles of tin and aluminum cans with pull-tab tops were almost touching the ceiling…and shopping carts from more than a few local grocery chains. Within a few months, the building had been cleaned out, the windows and doors had been secured, a temporary lighting system had been wired in, and the electrical fuses had been restored, at least partially. The first potential buyers were shown the building in 2002. On one early showing, an employee from DCD was giving a tour to a local developer when the elevator quit working. After a brief walk around the lower levels, they had returned to the elevator and found it non-responsive. They looked around the elevator car to see that there was no trap door on the ceiling. They looked around the lower levels to find that there were no staircases going up. There were workers on the main level, but they were using saws, air compressors, hammer drills, and other power tools, so getting their attention was hopeless. The city employee had his cellular phone with him and was able to find a spot in the basement where he could get a signal strong enough to make a call. He didn’t have the numbers of any of the workers above them, so he dialed 911. “We’re stuck in the basement of the Obermann Brewery building on 5th and Cherry.” The fire department arrived and came in through a door that had been left unlocked by the construction workers on the main level. They used axes to make a hole in the floor, then lowered a 20-foot aluminum ladder down to free the men trapped below. A fuse had blown. The City bought some spare fuses and a ladder of their own to keep in the hole, for future escapes. They are still looking for a buyer. The entryway on Cherry Street is simple wood steps. Once inside, the first floor appears to have been remodeled in the ’60s or early ’70s, based on the interior design. There is one restroom and a few offices. The second floor is open with a staircase, drop ceiling, and fluorescent lights. Taking the elevator up, the roof is flat, with a rubber membrane cover and a few leaks. The roof level seems to be about 2500 square feet, with spectacular views in all directions: Brewers Hill, downtown, the Bradley Center, and nearby historic churches. A few blocks away was Stout Bros. Public House, Milwaukee’s newest brewery. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, the brewery closed its doors around September 1. Painted on the wall above the bar were the logos of many of Milwaukee’s original breweries, including Obermann.
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