June 4, 2015

Milwaukee’s Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery

Best Place exterior

photo by: Best Place

The Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery is now a tavern, event center, and gift shop.

Before it was in the hand of every horn-rimmed, flannel-clad, suspender-wearing urban farmer (read: “hipster”), Pabst Blue Ribbon was a classic, blue-collar American beer down on its luck.

The same could be said for the actual Pabst Brewery, though its hero was a genuine, good-natured guy by the name of Jim Haertel, now the owner of Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery.

Best Place historical photo

photo by: Best Place

The brewery operated from 1844 until its doors closed December 31, 1996.

The Little Brewery on the Hill, as they used to call it, started out as the Best Brewery in 1844 under the direction of German immigrant Jacob Best. (Hence, “Best Place.”) The business eventually passed through marriage to Captain Frederick Pabst, who changed the name in 1889 and turned the operation to America’s largest brewer, a title it held until 1946.

By the 1990s, business had taken a turn for the worse, and no one could stop the owner -- a man who was accused of focusing more on cooking up real estate cash than brewing beer -- from closing the brewery’s doors on December 31, 1996. (Miller now brews Pabst’s products.)

Best Place Blue Ribbon Hall

photo by: Best Place

The Best Place's Blue Ribbon Hall has been lovingly restored.

But the brewery’s luck turned around in 2001, when Haertel’s passion of preserving historic real estate led him to try to buy part of the brewery to restore and open to the public.

“I wanted to save it to preserve it and share it with people,” says Haertel.

He put $50,000 down and was given a year to raise the rest of the $11 million asking price for all of the brewery’s 28 buildings. When a consortium fell apart only a few months before the deadline, Haertel convinced a local utility company that investing in the site made good business sense.

With the help of local preservation groups, 16 of the site’s buildings were saved. All but two will be redeveloped by next summer. Their uses range from apartments, to a boutique hotel, to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Public Health.

Best Place Edgar Miller Room

photo by: Best Place

The former brewery boasts frescoes from famed Chicago artist Edgar Miller (no relation to the beer brewers).

Haertel’s $50,000 bought him the 1880 Pabst corporate headquarters, an 1858 schoolhouse that was incorporated into the brewery in 1890, and a few smaller additions, including the 1934 gift shop and tasting room, both built after the end of Prohibition.

Since 2007, when a decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court granted him full access to the property, Heartel has set about restoring and redeveloping his portion of the brewery as a tavern, event venue, and gift shop dedicated to all things Pabst and Milwaukee beer.

“We peeled back the onion to what it used to be,” Haertel says.

Best Place Captain Pabst Office

photo by: Best Place

Haertel retained Captain Pabst's roll top desk.

The 1934 gift shop retained its original floor, walls, ceiling, lighting, and counter. The only real change that was made was the installation of a few fans in the space’s cathedral-style ceiling.

The first floor of the 1858 schoolhouse has been restored to its 1944 self, when it served as a replica German beer hall, complete with frescoes by Chicago’s Edgar Miller, period furniture, and black wrought iron chandeliers. The room retains its original cupboards, which are also on display in a 1945 photo of Danny Kaye pouring a beer from behind the bar.

Haertel has also brought back the brewery’s tasting room with its terra cotta stone floor, fireplace, original piano, and restored bathrooms. They of course serve plenty of the Milwaukee classics, including Pabst, Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, and, my personal favorite, Blatz. There’s also a nod to modern drinking culture, with Wisconsin microbrews on tap, and plenty of wine and liquor. The focus, however, remains firmly on drinking. The only food available are the free pretzels.

Best Place Great Hall

photo by: Best Place

The Best Place's Great Hall is a favorite venue for wedding receptions.

Elsewhere, Captain Pabst’s office has been restored and retains its roll top desk. The company’s original corporate offices serve as additional event space.

But Haertel’s work is far from finished. He is restoring more of the property, including its old boiler-room-turned-infirmary, which will become a Prohibition-themed speakeasy. And though he originally intended the upper floors of the corporate office as either a beer-themed B&B (with in-room taps!) or a beer museum, Pabst Brewing’s current ownership has expressed interest in possibly renting out space in their original home for a test kitchen or offices.

“That,” says Haertel, “would just be a dream come true.”

I'm sure the hipsters would be cool with it too.

Location: 901 W. Juneau Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53233

Hours: Monday and Wednesday: 12 p.m. - 6 p.m., Thursday: 12 p.m. - 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday: 10:30 a.m. - 10 p.m., Sunday: 10:30 a.m. - 6 p.m.

You're Having: At least one PBR, and then probably some Schlitz, some Blatz, some Old Milwaukee, etc. And probably a free pretzel or six.

Best Yelp Review: "Best Place? Not just a clever name because it IS THE BEST PLACE!" - Allison O.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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