What’s Preserved and What’s Forgotten: The Louis Bergdoll and Sons Brewing Company Grain Elevator

City Park Brewery in 1948, after the brewery shut down,
from Pennsylvania Ave at 29th and Parrish.

The looming brick complex pictured left, situated at 29th and Parrish, is the brainchild of Otto C. Wolf, a Philadelphia staple in brewery architecture. Louis Bergdoll had the complex built to house his City Park Brewery in 1856 and it produced a popular lager for the city until Prohibition in 1920.

“It’s the crowning achievement of Wolf,” said beer historian Rich Wagner of the brilliant buildings located just north of the Art Museum. Today, the complex is known as The Brewery, a condominium named in homage to the Louis Bergdoll and Sons Brewing Company’s City Park Brewery.

Though we’ll never know for sure, City Park Brewery reportedly turned out one of the best tasting beers of its day.

Despite attempts by the Bergdoll family after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the brewery was never fully operational again. Its demise isn’t unlike the narrative many of the Brewerytown breweries, including those along Philadelphia’s beer-laden Girard Ave., which shuttered for good.

“The brewmaster shot himself in the basement of the brewery,” Wagner says the story goes. “He was the brains of the outfit and when he blew his out that left them with nothing.”

It’s not the only bout of bad luck associated with the Bergdoll name, according to this 1924 Evening Tribune article about the curse associated with the original Bergdoll’s widow and surviving family.

Wagner, who is the author of the book Philadelphia Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Cradle of Liberty, (reviewed by Daily News beer columnist Joe Sixpack here) says it is “the most outstanding example of brewery preservation in the state” because it preserves what Wagner says was the “most beautiful brewery complex when it was in business” — as well as the memory of a once dominant brewery.

“Industry buildings can tend to be utilitarian,” Wagner said. “But in this day and age the brewers were bombastic. They wanted to have the biggest castle on the block.”

THE BREWERY TODAY


The grain elevator in 1932 at 29th and Pennsylvania Ave.

The existence of the Brewery Condominium, as its been known since it was revamped in the 1980s — a complex made of three buildings eponymously dubbed The Main House, The Brewery House, and The Ice House — tells only half of the Bergdoll Brewing Company’s story.

The other half can be told by what’s not been preserved: the grain elevator and malt house.

Ironically, the exclusion is emblematic of the fate of Philadelphia’s malting industry, which helped define Philadelphia beer brewing culture in the years before prohibition.

Malting is a process by which barley is turned into malt, a critical ingredient for brewing beer. The process involves allowing large quantities of barley, fresh from the fields, to sprout before being roasted, Wagner explained.

The malting industry in Philadelphia got its start with Anthony Morris in 1687, whose firm, the Perot Malting Co., had an office in Philadelphia into the 1960s, Wagner said. Most other maltsters weren’t so lucky after Prohibition dried up most of their customers.

The Louis Bergdoll and Sons Brewing Company, like quite a few other breweries in the city, produced its own malt. But Wagner says that of the approximately 20 malt houses in the city at the time, none operate today, as far as he knows.

This grain elevator (pictured left) marks a point where the barley that would become the malt for City Park Brewery’s beer entered the city, probably from Toronto, Wagner said. It’s also where the extra malted barley that wasn’t used at the brewery was shipped out.

According to the Hexamer map below, the Bergdoll Brewing Co. built the grain elevator in the early 1890s, not long before Louis Bergdoll passed away.

Large shipments of barley would be unloaded off railcars into the building and sent, probably in buckets, Wagner said, via conveyor system to the malting house. Then the brewed beer, high in demand, could make the block and a half trip back to the grain elevator for storage and eventual shipment out to thirsty beer drinkers.

The grain elevator was across the street but connected to the brewery’s campus, almost like a sort of strange external organ pumping barley around the complex and ultimately taking up the final, bubbling product and pushing it out to the world.

Wagner estimates that the grain elevator and malting house could have helped Louis Bergdoll and Sons Brewing Company malt about 200,000 bushels of barley a year.

Why wasn’t this critical and outward facing piece of the brewery’s architecture preserved?

Wagner thinks that between the building materials and its location immediately adjacent to the rail line, the grain elevator may have been too difficult to preserve.

If you look closely at this Hexamer map (close-up below) from 1892, you can see that the building was located directly on the rail tracks and made of cement, brick, corrugated iron, and a metal roof. It had “double flooring boards … with layer of Asbestos between,” according to the itemized account on the map.

Not exactly the ideal foundation and location for a condominium complex, particularly not “compared to those beautiful buildings of the brewery that are built to withstand the weight of tanks and tanks full of beer,” Wagner noted.

Still, the grain elevator’s decay reminds Philadelphia of its beer-drenched roots as much as the beautifully redone brewery residential complex just across 29th Street.

Map courtesy of Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. It can be seen in greater detail here.

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