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Charmed Life

American Beauty

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 2/6/2002

Location, location, location. This is what any real-estate broker will tell you are the three most important factors in determining a property's marketability. And one need only look to East Baltimore to see this bromide at work. For it is here that the harsh realities of this one-note tripartite have kept perhaps the city's most splendidly exuberant historic building derelict and abandoned for 29 years. I'm speaking of the hoary American Brewery building, which looms over the 1700 block of Gay Street and the entire Broadway East neighborhood.

I have had brewing on the brain of late, having just finished a story on the abandoned National Brewing plant that real-estate development giant Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse hopes to rehab ("A Beer to Call Your Own," Jan. 16). National may be the city's most famous beer maker, but its brewery--dominated by a boxy, 1950s building--is architecturally bland. Then, it's in booming, water-lapped Canton. The Victorian-era American Brewery is in the Other Baltimore--the Baltimore without roof decks and wine bars; the Baltimore of boarded-up and burned-out rowhouses. But when I heard Struever Bros. was contemplating tackling the American monster, I jumped at the chance to take a tour.

Standing before the five-story red-brick pile, I'm struck by how intact it still is. Despite having been besieged by vandals, arsonists, and the elements for nearly three decades, the ornate brew house looks solid. No fissures mar the amazing brickwork, with its whimsical array of round, rectangular, and arch-topped window openings. The hunter-green trim is weathered, to be sure, but much of it is made of impervious pressed tin. "Structurally, the building is still in good shape," concurs my tour guide, Adrienne Bell, a Struever Bros. development director. The trio of slate-roofed, canted towers are what really tip the building into the realm of romantic wonderment. The design has been described as everything from "Bavarian Gothic" to "Teutonic pagoda" to "circus architecture."

We owe the eclectic heap to Bavarian-born John Frederick Wiessner (1831-1897), who erected a modest self-named brewery here in 1863. His liquid wares must have gone over well, for he erected the pagoda-ish brew house in 1887 as the centerpiece of a sprawling multiacre complex. His sons were at the brewery's helm when it was broadsided by Prohibition and its kettles went dry. The plant was purchased in 1931 by the American Malt Co., which used it to churn out malt syrup (which beer-thirsty Baltimoreans bought to make home brew). When the Volstead Act tossed Prohibition out in '33, American Malt became American Brewing. Its namesake beer became a local favorite, marketed by a grinning Native American woman and the straightforward tag line "Tastes so good." But by 1973, the homegrown beer market had gone bust and the plant was shuttered. Four years later, the white-elephant edifice was given to the city.

Over the ensuing years, developers have considered turning Wiessner's wonder into an art center, a museum and restaurants, and a shopping mall. Nothing has made it off the drawing board yet; the impoverished environs tend to squash most grand rehab schemes. But there is, finally, some encouraging activity in the area. Across the street from the brew house, a local church is converting a handsome three-story Italianate mansion where Wiessner lived, a pair of 1890s brewery office buildings, and a wagon house into a nearly $10 million center for seniors. And now Struever Bros. is nibbling at the brew house itself. Bell says the company is in the "design-development" stage of a $3.5 million-to-$5 million plan to convert the building into offices.

Our brew-house tour begins in the creepily atmospheric basement, a warren of catacomblike, barrel-vaulted brick beer cellars. Access to the upper floors is limited by rotted wooden floors and sagging, sorry-looking staircases, but a cement stairway winding up the east side of the buildings lets us examine at least parts of each floor. Atrophying brewing equipment abounds, including vast hoppers and vats and an electric box reading mash mixer pump. There are even little piles of spilt grain lying about. A shower curtain still hangs in a second-floor bathroom.

The east tower offers stellar views of the city, and the southern vista includes the Key Bridge and the Bethlehem Steel complex; for years, the hilltop brew house and its unmistakable silhouette served as beacon for in-bound harbor vessels. The walls inside this upper room are lined with bizarre graffiti. (Among the cryptic scrawls: today's work is a man-sized job and reshape your future through breast enhancement surgery.) "I'm not entirely sure what went on up here," Bell says. "I'm not sure I want to know."

Alas, what might be going on up here in the future is still up in the air. Bell says her company would like to begin some basic building repairs and stabilization work by next month. At the very least, Struever Bros. wants to seal the roof to prevent further water damage. If this Byzantine beer castle was in Canton, it would be high-end condos by now, but whether any business would want to move into this 24,000-square-foot oddity in the heart of the hardscrabble east side remains to be seen.

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