Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Former Piels Brewery office and garage
Address: 317 Liberty Avenue
Cross Streets: Sheffield and Georgia Avenues
Neighborhood: East New York
Year Built: 1892
Architectural Style: Rundbogenstil Romanesque Revival, with Dutch detailing
Architect: Original factory, plus this office building- Weber & Drosser, additions to the factory-Theobald Engelhardt.
Other works by architect: tenements and row houses in Yorkville and Carnegie Hill neighborhoods of Manhattan, former Sheffel Hall, 3rd Ave, and alteration to the Yuengling Brewery complex on 128th St.
The story: The name “Brooklyn” has been branded for so many things lately; it has almost become a cliché to mention it. Brooklyn has been home to a lot of industries over the last hundred and fifty years, but none so famous and near and dear to people’s hearts as the brewing of BEER. Bushwick was at the heart of the Brooklyn brewing industry, but breweries were in many different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, especially those with a large German population. As Bushwick and the rest of the Eastern District swelled with people, they started to move eastward along Bushwick Avenue, and began settling in the newly developed 26th Ward, once called New Lots, but now known as East New York.
Apparently, East New York’s city fathers were so confident that a brewer would settle in their neighborhood, they built a brewery for him, a wood framed building without a tenant. They were right, it was soon leased and beer was being made there, as well as money. The brewery went through a couple of hands before being bought by Frank Lanzer. In 1856 the wood framed brewery burned to the ground, and Lanzer built a large four story brick facility on the site. A series of mishaps and tragedies occurred there, which you know I’ll be revisiting, and eventually, in 1883, the Piels brothers bought the block wide site for their own brewery.
The Piels brothers were Gottfried, Wilhelm and Michael. The latter was the brewer in the family, and he had come up with an excellent pilsner beer. Like lagers, pilsners were bottom fermenting beers, a German innovation, which needed to be stored in dark, cold caves in order to reach their peak of flavor and alcohol content. Lagers and pilsners had made German beermeisters rich, as Americans much preferred them to the heavier warm English style ales. Michael Piels was a brilliant inventor, he had already won an award in Germany for his invention of a centrifuge for processing honey, and he took his affinity for machines to the brewing industry, coming up with ways of utilizing the new mechanics of refrigeration, so necessary to pilsner beers.
The brewery grew, and spread to include the entire block, with several new factory buildings built in the 1890s, and beyond. The firm of Weber & Drosser designed the new main brewery building in 1892, and Theobald Engelhardt, the German-American dean of brewery architects, was on hand to build other parts of the factory, and to retrofit and redesign some of the older buildings. That same year, the Piels Brothers built this two story office wing of the factory, employing Weber & Drosser again. They were a Manhattan firm which was very active with the German community there, having designed several building in the Kleindeutschland area of the East Village, as well as in Yorkville, in the heavily German neighborhood there. One of their projects was to make alterations to the Yuenling Brewery complex in Harlem, Manhattan’s largest brewery.
Making beer is always important, but drinking it, and enjoying German cultural activities such as a round of beer and a round of song in the biergarten, was equally important, and many of the larger breweries had beer gardens attached, where patrons could sit at tables, munch on snacks and pastries and quaff a brew, while singing Schubert lieder. Piels was no different, and had a large area called a casino, which was merely a covered patio, where people could gather. It was very popular, and helped the growth of the brewery, and the popularity of Piels beer.
Michael Piels was really a brewing genius. His innovations in refrigeration and modern brewing techniques brought beer masters over to East New York to study and learn from him, an unheard of phenomenon. He retired in 1900. The factory complex continued to grow, and the company actually was able to survive Prohibition, switching to “near-beer” in the meantime. They weathered strikes and launched a very successful ad campaign on the radio and in print, conceived by the new agency Young and Rubicam, with two animated fictitious brewers named Bert and Harry, voiced by the comedy duo Bob and Ray.
By the 1950s, Piels had expanded to buy another surviving brewery, Trommer’s, in Bushwick, as well as another Staten Island brewery. But they expanded too much, and worse yet, people were beginning to not like their beer, finding the pale pilsner too weak, as Budweiser and other popular brands were taking over the market. In 1972, the company built a brand new office building, very sleek and modern. It was too late. In 1973, this plant closed forever. The brand name was bought by Schaefer, continued to be brewed in their upstate plants. Schaefer was bought by Stroh’s, which was bought by Pabst Brewing Company, which continues to market Piels beer in a limited market.
The old brewery complex was torn down in the mid 1970s, except for the old office and garage on the corner of Liberty and Sheffield. The new office building still stands as well, Old photographs, seen on the East New York Project website, show how extensive the Piels Brewery once was, and how important it was to the economic life of East New York. GMAP
(Photograph: Kate Leonova for Property Shark)