In Brooklyn, a Ghost of Breweries Past

In 1985, while living on a friend’s couch after being thrown out of a studio in Long Island City, Jay Swift, a young sculptor, spent months scouring the city for a place where he could live and make art for the long haul. While prowling grungy, postindustrial Bushwick on his old Dawes bicycle, he turned the corner onto a one-block street called Belvidere and found himself gawking at what looked like an intimate little castle made of fiery orange-red brick and terra cotta.

“The first time I rode my bike down that street and saw that building, I almost fell over,” Mr. Swift recalled. “That place was magical.”

The object of his affection was a knockout Romanesque Revival showplace built in 1885 as a two-story office for the William Ulmer Brewery, which stood next door and survives today as a vacant shell adorned with a colorful wash of graffiti.

The little brick office was given its castle-like aspect by the pedimented parapet atop its raised central bay, which was adorned with decorative corbeled arches. Added panache was provided by terra-cotta accents: a luscious band of flowers above the ground floor and the Ulmer firm’s trademark “U” in three places — high above the entrance as well as on richly embellished corbels flanking a mansard roof.

Credit…Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

But the place was a wreck. Not one of its 46 windows had any glass, and all of them were sealed with steel plates to keep intruders out. The roof had been leaking for years, and the staircase was nearly in the basement.

“Thirteen-foot cobwebs hung from the ceiling to the floor, and the whole back floor was rotted,” Mr. Swift said. “If I hadn’t gotten that building when I did, it wouldn’t still be standing.”

Mr. Swift bought the place with an artist friend, Lisa Schachner, who cobbled together the $40,000 purchase price by selling a David Hockney print and several small Mark di Suvero sculptures, then borrowing the balance from her parents. For his part, Mr. Swift, a jack-of-all-trades with an arsenal of tools, spent the next six years resuscitating the magnificent ruin.

Now the spiffily renovated brewery office at 31 Belvidere Street is on the market, through Nathan Horne of Compass, for $3.99 million, a whisker less than 100 times what Ms. Schachner paid for it 35 years ago.

“I need to get on with my life, and I need the finances to do it,” she said, noting that she hasn’t lived in the building since 1991. “We both have different directions that we’re going in and we need to move on.”

Separated into two one-story units, the roughly 6,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom building includes an attached stable at the back with wide, segmentally arched doors that once admitted horses and wagons. Light enters the building through round-arched windows on three sides and four skylights, one of them stained glass.

ImageA second-floor room of the old brewery office at 31 Belvidere Street, which receives generous light from a large skylight and four arched windows.
Credit…Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

At the same time, the neighboring four-story brewery is also in play. Travis Stabler, a developer whose office occupies the second floor of the old brewery office, bought the three conjoined brewery buildings next door with two partners, MacArthur Holdings and Brightsky Investments, for $14 million in 2018. They had hoped to transform the hulking structures into retail and office space for lease, potentially with a craft brewery operating both above ground and in the cavernous cellars.

But the Covid-19 pandemic crushed their plans as abruptly as Prohibition killed the William Ulmer Brewery exactly 100 years ago.

“Pre-Covid we were close to a deal with a high-end, James Beard Award-winning baker,” Mr. Stabler said. Now, he added, “we are going back to square one.”

The William Ulmer Brewery complex, which was designated a city landmark in 2010, is a largely intact remnant of an era when as many as 45 breweries operated in Brooklyn, many concentrated in the heavily German areas of Bushwick and Williamsburg. The district was favored by German brewers in part because of its soft soil, which allowed for easy excavation to create the cool, underground caves required to produce lager.

Numerous Brooklyn breweries died of thirst after the National Prohibition Act went into effect in 1920. The industry revived after the act’s repeal in 1933, but was again badly damaged by a labor strike in 1949, which allowed big national Midwestern brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Miller to invade the New York market in force.

By 1952, just four Brooklyn brewers were left, and in 1976, the borough’s last two, Rheingold and Schaefer, were shuttered, done in by high local costs and the inefficiencies of their aging plants. Housing, some of it very upscale, has been built on former Rheingold and Schaefer sites.

After a decade-long dry spell, Brooklyn Brewery brought the brewmaster’s art back to King’s County, selling its first batch of Brooklyn Lager in 1988 and opening a factory in Williamsburg in 1996. The company’s retro label — designed by Milton Glaser with a looping “B” evocative of both classic German beer labels and the Brooklyn Dodgers — projected a renewed pride in Brooklyn.

Today the borough is a place of special ferment, home to 25 breweries, according to the New York City Brewers Guild. Many operate in the same neighborhoods as their forebears: six in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and another seven in Bushwick and in the adjacent Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood. Seven more are clustered in and around the greater Gowanus area.

Many of these new brew houses are small, niche operations, another echo of the late 19th century.

“I have a collection of old New York City brewery bottles, and lots of the brewers were tiny, selling to their neighborhood,” said Steve Hindy, a co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery. “What’s happened today is, I think, a back-to-the-future of that model: The breweries that came back are making most of their money at that location in their tasting rooms.”

The William Ulmer Brewery, by contrast, grew to be a major producer.

Ulmer, a German native, immigrated to America around 1850 at age 17 and took a job at a New York City brewery owned by two uncles. He rose to the position of brew master at a second family firm before cofounding the Vigelius & Ulmer Continental Lagerbier Brewery in the early 1870s.

Credit…Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

The company’s redbrick brew house rose on the corner of Belvidere and Beaver streets in 1872 and was expanded to the west nine years later, according to research by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission. Both sections were designed in the American round arch style common to breweries of the period, featuring projecting brick pilasters and intricate pedimented parapets with zigzag-patterned brickwork.

At ground level, a broad, round-arched door on Beaver Street accommodated horses and wagons. Up top, a ventilating tower was handsomely fitted out with a four-sided mansard roof pierced by round-arched dormers.

In 1885, Ulmer, by then the brewery’s sole owner, undertook a major building program. The architect was Theobald Engelhardt, a Brooklyn-born German-American, who designed many breweries as well as other prominent local buildings, like St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Greenpoint.

To keep pace both with increasing demand and technological innovation, the Belvidere Street side of the brew house was extended by the addition of a machine house and a two-story boiler house, both in a matching American round arch style. The eye-catching new office was separated from the boiler house by a passageway with an ornate iron gate.

“There is somehow more shine, more glitter, more ostentation of wealth about the lager beer establishments” than was typical at breweries that produced English-style ale, the Brooklyn Eagle observed in 1886. The Ulmer office won special admiration from the reporter, who noted that “the counting houses” of Ulmer’s brewery and two of its Bushwick brethren “are not surpassed by anything of the kind in Broadway and Wall Street.”

Credit…Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

The Ulmer office was expanded at the rear around 1890 with the addition of an attached wagon house and stable. The stable had a round-arched doorway at the back, now bricked up, that gave access to a contiguous new three-story brick stable and storage building fronting Locust Street.

That brewery storage building, which came to include a cooperage for making beer barrels, is today divided into residential lofts. At the top of the Locust Street facade is a damaged terra-cotta roundel with a missing ornament, possibly another Ulmer trademark “U” swiped by a gargoyle hunter.

When the Ulmer Brewery was shuttered by Prohibition in 1920, Ulmer’s heirs moved into the real estate business, retaining the office and its attached wagon house and stable. In 1952, the Ulmer office was sold to an electrical appliance manufacturer, which in turn sold it to Acme Lanterns, a company that made lighting fixtures in a loft building next door.

Acme, which was owned by a Romanian-born immigrant named Max Kushner, used the old brewery office for storage and to house big metal presses, one of which cost Mr. Kushner a finger, said Diane Altman, his granddaughter.

When Mrs. Altman and her husband, Neil, walked into the old brewery office for the first time around 1968, they were astounded — despite the general filth — by the fine cherry wood wainscoting, the fireplaces, the roll-top desks and the nine-and-a-half-foot doors with clouded glass, on which were etched words like “Private Room” and “Directors Room.”

“It was like a castle in decay,” Mrs. Altman said, “but still recognizable as something beautiful and magnificent.”

Credit…Diane Altman

Most striking “was a little vestibule with a stained-glass window from 1872,” Mr. Altman added. “It was exactly like the ‘U’ symbol on the top of the building.” With Mr. Kushner’s permission, the couple took the window to their home in Staten Island.

By the time Ms. Schachner and Mr. Swift bought the rain-rotted office in 1985, it was crammed with brass parts from the lamp business and virtually every surface had been covered with ugly brown paint, including the moldings, which were of solid cherry wood nine inches wide and four inches deep. “Jay had this group of artist friends and they would help come and fix up our place,” Ms. Schachner recalled. “It was like a barn raising.”

At the brewery’s peak, its buildings had stood on three sides of a courtyard that today is mostly taken up by a modern, one-story cold-storage building. But a narrow section of the courtyard, paved with original Belgian blocks, survives alongside the office and stable.

Mr. Swift surmised that horse-drawn wagons would be loaded with beer in the courtyard, and the delivery men would stop into a vestibule inside the office’s side entrance.

“There was a little window I took out, and they’d say how many barrels were going out and where they were taking it to — this bar and this bar and this bar,” Mr. Swift said. The window was etched with the words “Collectors Window,” he added, and it “was at an odd height because someone probably sat at a desk on the other side.”

While living in and restoring the building, Mr. Swift scraped off the brown ceiling paint and was amazed to discover an artwork that only a brewer would commission: a fresco of barley and hops.

The brewery buildings next door have also been a source of archaeological discoveries. On the south wall of the boiler house are the remnants of arched apertures now sealed with bricks. The ghostly outlines of a chute can also be seen slanting down to a trough in the southwest corner that was revealed by a recent excavation, right beneath the spot where a 19th-century illustration shows the brewery’s great chimney. (The chimney has long since been removed.)

Mr. Stabler, the developer, said that coal was likely delivered through the arched windows, then directed to the boiler in the corner. “This is the room where you’d have giant pots where you’d heat up the mix,” he said.

Lager was typically produced with a three-vessel system, said Mr. Hindy, the Brooklyn Brewery co-founder. After steeping in a vessel called a mash tun, barley was pumped into a big strainer called a lauter tun, which strained off the liquid, known as wort. The wort was then pumped into a brew kettle, which would be brought to a rolling boil by steam pumped through coils from the boiler. At that point hops, a flowering perennial that imparted bitterness and aroma to the wort, were added.

The hot wort was then pumped into a fermenter, and as it cooled, yeast was added to start the fermentation that would create a beverage containing alcohol and carbon dioxide — in a word: beer. The final stage of production was the cold storage, or “lagering,” of the beer in the brewery’s three cavernous cellar levels. The deepest cellar, 40 feet below grade, has five chambers with 14-foot vaulted ceilings.

Because such storage caves were sometimes not naturally cold enough, especially in summer, New York brewers often used ice harvested from the Hudson River. But by 1887, a landmarks commission report notes, maps showed that an ice machine had been installed on the second floor of the machine house.

When Mr. Stabler and his partners bought the brewery, they were intrigued by a section of the back wall in the first subbasement of the brew house, which was covered with Sheetrock. When they ripped out that drywall, they discovered a broad, brick-lined shaft under the former courtyard. Mr. Stabler speculated that the shaft might have been used for an elevator or block-and-tackle system to haul soil upstairs when the cellars were being excavated. Such a mechanism could also have been employed to convey beer barrels between the cellars and the courtyard level, where a one-story keg-filling room, since demolished, was built in the mid-1880s.

Although the brewery office has been rented primarily as residences since the 1990s and the brew house has been empty since its previous owner, an importer, cleared out his millions of bargain knickknacks, the buildings all still have the unmistakable aura of places purpose-built for hard, efficient work.

In the 12 years Mr. Swift lived in the office, he operated a stone-working business out of the stable and made sculpture there, too. He had a stone shop, a metal shop and a wood shop, as well as a forge and a mini-forklift.

“That building was so easy to work out of,” he remembered fondly. “The way Mr. Ulmer built his building made it easy for him to work out of it. It’s approached from such an honest plan of design, of operation, of quality, that it functions.”

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