What happened to you, Gipfel?Last week I mentioned the demolition of Gipfel Union Brewery and alluded to its ultimate demise; a relic of Milwaukee’s pre Civil War history that spent its last two years resting on stacked palettes and beams, gaping holes in its shell providing views of the dilapidated interior, the cream brick an enigmatic shade of pale blue, wrapped in steel ties. There it stood leaving passersby to wonder how this crumbling structure had gotten there asking, what happened to you, Gipfel?
After reviewing historic designations, study reports and Journal Sentinel articles published over the course of fifteen years, I’ve attempted to recreate the story of Gipfel, briefly.
Three years prior to the signing of Milwaukee’s City Charter, German-born Johann Christian David Gipfel established a small brewery in 1843 in the heart of Kilbourntown at 417 Chestnut Avenue, what would presently be 423 West Juneau Avenue, along a strip that would come to be known as “brewery row”. It was here that David Gipfel produced just eight to ten barrels of lager beer annually. After ten years of operation, a new building was constructed under the direction of David Gipfel’s son, Charles Wilhelm, and its new name, Union Brewery, changed between 1849 and 1851 following David’s retirement. A severely simple Federal style building constructed of pressed cream brick mostly devoid of ornament except for a corbelled cornice, stone veneered lintels, and stepped parapet gables; a simplicity emphasized by the facades geometric ordering, and a style popular in the first two decades of Milwaukee’s settlement. It was here that Charles lived upstairs and interchangeably acted as a saloon keeper, wine and liquor dealer and brewer of lager beer and later weiss beer in 1872 until his retirement in 1893. Over the following seventy years the building would change hands several times and house a variety of businesses at ground level including the Elsner harness and leather goods store, the Marmon soap company, a barber shop, a men’s furnishing store and a shoe repair firm while the upper residential floors were eventually used as a boarding house. In 1966 the building landed in the hands of its last individual owner, meaning not that of a corporation or developer, who would establish a restaurant supply company in the old brewery building.
Rather than belabor you with all the details of the subsequent years, I prefer to provide a summation of the fifteen years of articles published in the Journal Sentinel beginning in 1995 concerning Gipfel’s fate, one common for Milwaukee’s historic buildings. During the duration of Gipfel’s ownership by said individual, the building suffered a degree of neglect that likely led him to request its demolition in 1995. However, the building received a reprieve from the wrecking ball as it had been historically designated by the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission and ultimately the Common Council in 1985. In 1998 the owner again requested the demolition before a judge insisting that the Historic Preservation Commission was being unreasonable by not allowing him to tear it down. Further investigation of the property revealed that said owner had only invested $3,000 worth of repairs to the building in his thirty years of ownership and had neglected to amend a lengthy list of building code violations. Subsequently, not only had the mortar softened, the walls bowed and cracked, and the floors pulled from the supports, but a 1996 building inspection showed extensive water damage, debris throughout the building and a lack of basic maintenance. Ultimately, city officials and Alderman D’Amato felt that the owner was responsible for Gipfel’s disheveled condition. As it were, property value assessments valued the crumbling brewery itself at a measly $1,000, but the land it presently sat on just a half-block north of the Bradley Center was valued at a whopping $100,000.
In March of 1998 it was decided that the owner was to actively attempt to sell the building within the subsequent 90 days at which time the demolition request would be granted after an additional 30 days; a resolution that some felt perpetuated an awful formula of owner’s neglecting historic structures to the point of demolition only to profit from the sale of the development opportunity they once stood upon. May I also add that as of March 1998, city engineers felt that most of the building was sound despite its poor condition.
Not wanting to be perceived as the “bad guy”, the owner agreed to mothball the building and over the course of the following eighteen months entertained several prospective buyers interested in rehabbing Gipfel for use as a restaurant, a brewpub, and even a brewing museum in the interest of preserving its historic significance. Though the owner declined to say what he was asking for the property, prospective buyers said to be quoted between $170,000 and $180,000 for a property that was valued at $101,000, perhaps influenced by Gipfel’s position amidst a hot bed of redevelopment opportunities in the Park East freeway corridor. Coupling this with the building’s level of disrepair made it a near impossible feat for the interested buyers to succeed in any effort to profit after purchase and rehab was all said and done. Meanwhile the property owner’s lawyer reportedly stated that, “it has been our commitment from the beginning to turn the building over to someone willing to pay the price”. Subsequently, Gipfel was acquired by the Bradley Center at the close of 1999 with the intention of incorporating the brewery building into its expansion as the then 11 year old performance center had hoped to expand and possibly construct another performance center adjacent to the current facility …
After six years of dormancy, developer Rob Ruvin proposed that Gipfel be incorporated into his redevelopment of the Sydey Hih building which planned to convert the buildings at the northwest corner of West Juneau and North Third Street into a hotel-condo-retail-parking development; at which time the Bradley Center president said they would likely give the brewery building to Ruvin and perhaps help with its relocation in order to free the land north of the performance center for development or possibly relocation of the Potawatomie Casino.
September of 2006, the County Board approved the plan and sale of the lot bounded by North 3rd and 4th streets between Juneau and McKinley to Ruvin Development partnered with Dallas based real estate investment firm, Gatehouse Capital Corp. Three months later at the close of 2006, Ruvin announced plans to include a luxury hotel within the development averaging a rate of $180 per night as well as anticipating the ground breaking in 2007 and estimated completion date of 2009.
March 18, 2007, with funds allocated from the Wisconsin Preservation Fund and the Bradley Center, the 300-ton Gipfel Union Brewery building was moved east down Juneau Avenue to its temporary home north of Sydney Hih; its bottom few feet sacrificed in the move.
July of 2007, without a sign of construction, Ruvin’s anchor tenant backed out as the project continued to be delayed. Ruvin and other developers saying that the Department of City Development needed to be more aggressive in supplying financial assistance and the Department of City Development replying that Ruvin and said developers needed less speculation and more anchor tenants, essentially put your money where your mouth is.
March of 2008, after a sixth month extension on Ruvin’s option to purchase the County owned portion of the land to be included in the development (on which Gipfel presently sat) and standards for commercial loans tightened given the economic downturn, the $160 million hotel and condo tower project was delayed once again now relying on enough condo sales to procure the loan needed to begin construction in the fall of 2008. The condos, which started in the mid-$600,000 range, were expected to sell despite the declining housing market as the developers felt wealthy condo owners would be isolated from the economic turmoil as well as be attracted by the services available to them from the luxury hotel such as valet, child car, laundry, and pet sitting. It was also decided that neither Sydey Hih nor Gipfel would be included in the project; Gipfel would again be moved to the 1100 block of Old World Third, and Syndey Hih would be razed…
January of 2009 Ruvin’s major partner Gatehouse Capital Corp. dropped the project. The lot that Sydney Hih and Gifpel sat on remained county owned. The Aloft hotel, which was proposed for privately owned property, was the only portion to constructed along the east side of the 1200 block of North Third Street, Gipfel became an obstacle amidst the staging area for Aloft’s construction, and Sydney Hih sits a disheveled eyesore with neon painted doors.
The order to raze Gipfel Union Brewery came on October 15, 2009 from the Department of Neighborhood Services stating that it was “unstable, poses a threat to the safety and welfare of the public and must be removed”; an order to raze that overrode the buildings historic designation status fourteen years after the initial instigating request to demolish.