Conservatory Heurich House Museum

photo by: Sam Kittner

Preservation Magazine, Spring 2024

How a Beer Baron's House Became a Dynamic Washington, D.C., Museum

In a gated garden behind a fairy-tale castle, I’m sipping a cold beer at an umbrella-sheltered picnic table. Crickets chirp in the background, and small white flowers linger on the bushes. Strings of lights twinkle overhead, illuminating the nighttime sky. I consider getting up to buy a giant pretzel.

Despite appearances, I’m not on a European vacation. I’m in Washington, D.C.’s busy Dupont Circle neighborhood, and outside the garden gates, the city ebbs and flows at its regular pace. In here, there’s a distinct alternate-universe vibe. A helpful sign on the table reads, “Did you know you’re at a museum?”

I am indeed at the Heurich House Museum, a standout cultural gem in a city packed with museums of every ilk. The Victorian-era castle served as the home of brewing magnate Christian Heurich and his family, and its biergarten (open limited hours four times a week) occupies their former backyard and part of a carriage house on the property. One beer on the menu is crafted according to Heurich’s original instructions—and speaking of original, the house’s landmarked, highly ornate interior contains an eye-popping assortment of ceiling frescos, onyx-and-marble staircases, and hand-carved wooden scenes from German folklore. It all makes for a striking departure from the austere beauty of Washington’s many Neoclassical museums and monuments. “There’s always something a little bit different about us,” says Heurich House Museum CEO Kimberly “Kim” Bender.

Exterior Street Heurich House Museum

photo by: Sam Kittner

The museum occupies a prominent corner. It rents space at below-market rates to mission-related tenants such as The L'Enfant Trust, a preservation nonprofit.

Heurich House Museum Garden

photo by: Sam Kittner

The garden is open to the public on weekdays (in addition to the regular biergarten hours).

The Heurich House owes its existence to beer. Born in 1842 in what would later become Germany’s Thuringia region, Christian Heurich learned brewing and butchery from his tavernkeeper parents. He spent his late teens and early 20s working as an apprentice and a journeyman brewer in various European locales, building a deep store of knowledge about beermaking techniques and traditions. His beloved older sister wrote from Baltimore, urging him to follow her to the United States to make his fortune, and eventually he was ready. Heurich traveled across the Atlantic in steerage class on the passenger ship Helvetia, arriving in 1866.

The ambitious young brewer bounced around different jobs and cities for a few years, trying to figure out what he wanted to do. He purchased a small brewery in Washington in 1873 and gradually leveled the old business to build a new, more sophisticated one, with an adjacent German-style beer garden. After a third fire at that location, he opted to build a larger, fireproof headquarters in the capital’s then-industrial Foggy Bottom neighborhood. When completed in 1896, the massive Chr. Heurich Brewing Co., built of concrete, brick, and steel in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, had the capacity to make 500,000 barrels of beer a year. Heurich Brewing became the largest private employer in Washington for a time, and the company’s beers won international awards.

Foyer Heurich House Museum

photo by: Sam Kittner

An Italian suit of armor greets visitors in the entry hall against a backdrop of decorative metal paneling, wall medallions, and frescos.

Around the time he committed to building the new factory, Heurich also decided he wanted a house that would reflect his success. His first wife, the former Amelia Mueller Schnell, had purchased a lot on New Hampshire Avenue in Dupont Circle, one of the couple’s many prescient local real estate investments. Three years after Amelia’s death from pneumonia in 1884, Heurich married Mathilde Daetz. Construction of the house on the New Hampshire Avenue site began in 1892, and Mathilde furnished its elaborate rooms, working with the New York interior design firm Huber Brothers. Architect John Granville Meyers, who designed the Richardsonian Romanesque residence, wove a gargoyle-topped porte-cochere, a dramatic four-story turret, and curved wrought-iron detailing into the sandstone main facade. Like the Foggy Bottom brewery, the house’s fireproof structure consisted of concrete and steel.

Mathilde only had the chance to live in the house for a short time before she died in 1895, after a brief illness following a carriage accident. Her husband decided that all the furnishings she had chosen would stay permanently as a tribute to her, and they did—even after he married his first wife’s niece, Amelia Keyser, four years later. Christian and Amelia Keyser Heurich had four children, one of whom died as an infant. The family and their pet dachshunds inhabited the 14,000-square-foot building for six decades, with Amelia managing the household and its many staff members.

Christian Heurich died in 1945 at the age of 102, having witnessed enormous political and cultural changes over his lifetime. “I’ve always considered him to be the Methuselah of brewing,” says Garrett Peck, a historian whose books include Capital Beer (History Press, 2014). “He’s a person who saw it all.” Unfounded accusations of spying followed Heurich, a naturalized American citizen, throughout World War I. Prohibition kept him from making beer for 13 years, though he still sold ice and a non-alcoholic cider during that time. After Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, he was one of only two Washington brewers to reopen.

Amelia Keyser Heurich died in 1956, leaving the house to the nonprofit Columbia Historical Society, now known as the DC History Center. As for the brewery, the Heurichs’ heirs sold it to the federal government, which demolished it and built the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on the site. The house, meanwhile, served as the historical society’s offices and a public museum. But by 2002, the society planned to sell it. Worried that it would be developed commercially, some of Heurich’s descendants created a nonprofit, the Heurich House Foundation, to purchase and maintain the mansion. The site remained open for tours and could be rented for events and office space, but its presence on Washington’s cultural map was muted.

Historic Photo of Heurich Family

photo by: Heurich House Museum

The Heurich family circa 1910.

In 2010, Kim Bender took a tour of the Heurich House Museum. She had recently moved to Washington from Boston, after becoming a lawyer but feeling uncertain whether she wanted to continue that career path. Intrigued by her tour, she offered to volunteer at the museum, and within a few months she began doing paid legal and marketing work for the site. Bender saw opportunities for the property to be managed differently, “so I wrote up a plan,” she says. The museum’s board liked what it saw and hired her as director of operations, soon promoting her to executive director.

Part of Bender’s plan was to highlight the museum’s connection to beer history, aligning it more closely with the area’s burgeoning craft-beer renaissance. “The idea that there was this rich brewing history in Washington, D.C., and such a successful one, really was inspiring,” says Brandon Skall, cofounder of craft brewery DC Brau, which opened in 2011. “It was the thought that this was important to the city once, and we believe it’s important to the city again, and we believe that this business can thrive here. Looking at Christian Heurich, that was proof of that.” In 2014, under the museum’s auspices, Bender helped start the District of Columbia Brewers’ Guild, a nonprofit trade organization of independent craft breweries. By tying the Heurich legacy into the experiences of these local businesses and the communities around them, she created new interest in the museum. “Kim actually makes Heurich a part of today’s brewing culture,” Skall says.

Portico Heurich House Museum

photo by: Sam Kittner

The porte-cochere.

Dining Room Heurich House Museum

photo by: Sam Kittner

The dining room.

Despite Christian Heurich’s best efforts, a three-alarm fire did happen inside the Heurich Brewery in 1933. No one was hurt, but most archival documents were destroyed—including the records of the process for making Senate Beer, one of the brewery’s flagship brands. Around 2015, local historian Peter Jones was deep in research at the National Archives and stumbled across a lab report from 1948 analyzing the makeup of the popular American lager. “It was a magical document to us,” Bender says. She asked beer experts at Oregon State University’s Research Brewery to take a look at the report, and scientists there were able to re-create the recipe. The Heurich House Museum partnered with local craft brewing company Right Proper to produce a limited edition of Senate Beer, and it proved so popular that Right Proper began selling it regularly. Graphic designer Mike Van Hall even created a can logo based on the designs of old Senate Beer cans. “It’s our most fun public history project,” Bender says—and it creates valuable revenue for the museum via a licensing agreement with Right Proper and on-site sales at the biergarten.

Bender’s efforts in the local beer community helped crystallize her thinking around how the museum could be relevant to more people. She rewrote the Heurich House’s mission in 2019 to reflect a new, dual goal of public history education and public service. Not only does the latter encompass the museum’s work with craft breweries, but it also applies to a newer area of focus: a small-manufacturer incubator program started in 2020, while the museum was closed because of the pandemic.

“The idea that there was this rich brewing history in Washington, D.C., and such a successful one, really was inspiring.”

Brandon Skall, DC Brau

This program builds on the success of the Heurich House’s Christmas Markt, an annual fundraiser held in the garden and modeled after traditional German holiday markets. Dozens of local artisans—candlemakers, fine artists, handbag designers, and the like—set up booths selling their wares, and fragrant glühwein (mulled wine) flows. On a rainy day in December 2023, the line to get into the Christmas Markt included people of all ages, stretching down the block and around the corner. “The Heurich House appeals to all generations,” says Ann Blackwell, executive director of the nonprofit Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets, part of the National Trust subsidiary Main Street America. “That has been Kim’s golden spot. She’s introducing people to preservation at a very young age.”

Now the market has offshoots. A Maker Month is filled with events that introduce the artisans, many of whom come from underrepresented communities, to the public. The Heurich House’s biergarten, known as 1921, started as a way to provide outdoor programming during the pandemic and never stopped. Today 1921 hosts “Mini Markts” throughout the year, supplying opportunities for two or three vendors to pop up next to the picnic tables. In 2023, the museum founded the District of Columbia Makers’ Guild, similar to the Brewers’ Guild, as another way to bring local craftspeople together and help their businesses thrive.

Heurich House Museum Biergarten

photo by: Sam Kittner

The biergarten in full swing.

As interesting as Christian Heurich’s life story is, Bender and her team longed to dig into other areas of research—such as the contributions of his family, his employees, and the craftspeople who helped build the house. “His first wife was the widow of the brewer whose brewery he [initially] took over, so she knew exactly how the business worked, and she was helping him run the business,” Bender says. “There are all these other people along the way that were key to his success.” During the COVID-19 shutdown, the museum’s employees had time to rethink the programming and education work they were doing.

Using Amelia Keyser Heurich’s diary, they began researching the household staff and sharing their findings on social media. Descendants of staff members contacted them and, in some cases, donated artifacts. In 2023 the museum opened a new exhibit, Working Title, which highlights the stories of the cooks, maids, drivers, and others who took care of the house and the family.

Tourgoers will also notice a revitalized approach, one inspired by a couple of National Trust Historic Sites. “I got an idea from Drayton Hall, and from [James Madison’s] Montpelier: the idea that each tour guide can have a personal tie to the story they’re telling, and they do their own interpretation,” Bender says. “It feels so good to hear a tour from a person where it means so much to that person, where they’re not just reciting, and then they become an expert in that subject.” Most of the guides are part of a graduate fellowship program created by Jenna Febrizio, the Heurich House’s curator and director of education. “The fellows do their own research and their own tours,” Febrizio says. “We had a whole tour on Spiritualism. There’s one on women and one on immigrants. We’re about to dive into a new project on craftspeople.” Every time a visitor comes to the museum, they can take a different tour about a new aspect of the house, creating a richer overall experience.

“Structurally, the house is very strong and stable. All the doors still close perfectly, and it hasn't settled or moved.”

Dan Rudie, Heurich House Director of Preservation

When Febrizio mentions craftspeople, she’s talking about the experts who helped build the Heurich House, such as master woodcarver August Grass and his employees. They and many others were so skilled at their trades that the overall construction of the house took just two years, a relatively short timeframe. The museum’s staff scrupulously (and very gently) cleans the house’s staggering quantities of decorative woodwork, which still gives off a burnished glow. The wood has never undergone a restoration, which dovetails with Bender’s general philosophy of preserving the house as it is, rather than restoring it to a certain period.

Bender and Director of Preservation Dan Rudie do plan to conserve the entire building envelope—the masonry, windows, and roof—as soon as they’ve raised enough money to do so. “It’s key to the future preservation of the house,” Bender says. They’ve worked with architecture firm Quinn Evans to create a conservation management plan that includes the eventual envelope project. And in the fall of 2023, Rudie completed a restoration of an original cast-iron porch and staircase on the rear of the house, working with local iron restoration expert Fred Mashack. “He’s very much an artist,” Rudie says. “He doesn’t work on stuff under 100 years old.”

Many visitors name the conservatory (shown at top), renovated in the 1920s, as their favorite space, with its red flash-glass windows throwing hunks of cherry-colored light onto the bark-textured plaster walls. Rudie restored this room in 2011. After an act of vandalism shattered one of the windows in 2019, he found a glass factory in France that could reproduce an irregularly sized piece of flash glass (a thin pane of colored glass layered over a pane of a contrasting color). “Structurally, the house is very strong and stable,” he says, sliding a pocket door open. “All the doors still close perfectly, and it hasn’t settled or moved.”

Detail Heurich House Museum

photo by: Sam Kittner

Original woodwork appears throughout the house.

Bender is constantly thinking about both the past and the future. In the crowded local museum landscape, the potential role for the Heurich House that she spotted when she first arrived—and the one she has been shaping for it over time—is that of a key D.C. history resource. She and her colleagues have turned the dignified mansion into a welcoming hub of social activity and cultural experiences, but it’s a place of scholarly research, too.

“My vision is for us to be an important local history organization and to work to be a leader in the strengthening of the value of local history,” she says. Bender serves on a committee that advises on a planned move of the city’s archives, and says that once the move happens, access to materials that let people explore Washington’s past will increase exponentially. “That will change the way we think about our city and our history,” she adds. “I’m hoping we can be part of that network and support learning about [local] history and what it can mean for how we can be a better city.”

Learn more about a National Trust grant that helped the Heurich House Museum plan for the future.

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Headshot Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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