May 6, 2013

Old Milwaukee Is New Again: Pabst Brewhouse Becomes Brewhouse Inn & Suites

  • By: David Weible
Original PBR campus. Credit: Brewhouse Inn & Suites
The Brewhouse, part of the original Pabst campus, built in 1892.

Milwaukee is a hard-nosed town. It was built on heavy machinery, third shifters, and the no-nonsense beer they drank after the whistle blew. And though decades of decline had left the city largely stale and generally unpalatable, Milwaukeeans -- true to form -- brewed up a solution and followed a cue from one of their city’s icons, Pabst Blue Ribbon: They started to take old Milwaukee and make it cool again.

“Everybody’s always thought of [Milwaukee] as an old, upper-Midwest industrial community,” says Peter Northard, who’s been managing hotels in the city for 20 years. “[But] in the last decade [...] a lot of the really formerly depressed areas of the downtown or just outside the downtown [are] all being populated by the 20-somethings that are moving to the city. So they’ve really provided a catalyst for a lot of this development.”

Much of the development, including four hotels, is based on adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and it just so happens that the latest and maybe best example is the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, a 90-room boutique hotel that opened this April in the 1892 building where PBR was born.

The original brew kettles. Credit: Brewhouse Inn & Suites
The original brew kettles.

Part of a massive development project on the 20-acre site that was home to everything Pabst from the late 1800s until the company pretty much picked up and walked out of town in 1996, the Brewhouse is the centerpiece of the former Pabst campus.

“It’s funny because I’m a little older so I thought of [Pabst] as an inexpensive beer,” says Northard, the general manager of the Brewhouse. “But for the 20-somethings, it’s like the happening, hipster kind of beer. So when we built the hotel, we wanted to capture that hipster feel a little bit, and that just fit with the building.”

Preservation tax credits were used extensively to help fund the restoration and repurposing of the National-Register listed building. Everything from the six massive copper kettles in the building’s five-story atrium to the late-1800s stained-glass window of the patron saint of brewing that sits above them still remain -- not to mention the metal beam work that still sports the Carnegie Steel stamps and the exposed cream city brick walls throughout the building.

Renovated brew kettles. Credit: Brewhouse Inn & Suites
The restored brew kettles.

“That cream city brick is kind of ubiquitous to Milwaukee,” says Northard. “It’s very beige, very light brick and it has to do with the kind of clay that they harvested around here, so anybody that’s from Milwaukee knows what cream city brick is.”

The entire 20-acre campus surrounding the hotel, which also includes apartments, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Zilber School of Public Health, and other ventures, is LEED-certified. The hotel itself, which started construction in 2011 and finished with a price tag of roughly $20 million, made the headboards for its beds out of lumber salvaged from the building. Same thing with the tables in the soon-to-open bar and those in the kitchens of the hotel’s extended-stay rooms.

Before the development of the old Pabst campus began, the area was 20 acres of abandoned buildings. Now, with the Brewhouse opening, about 70 percent of that land has been developed and there are plans for the remaining buildings.

Renovated studio within the Brewhouse campus. Credit: Brewhouse Inn & Suites
Renovated hotel room within the Brewhouse campus. Cream city brick is visible on the far wall.

“You [eventually] reach critical mass, and that’s kind of where we feel we’re at with the brewery right now,” says Northard. “This area is really poised to explode.”

But for all the excitement about the hotel, the former Pabst campus, and Milwaukee’s future, the city’s unique past isn’t lost on anyone, least of all Northard.

“We’ve had a lot of former Pabst employees who have been coming in here in the last week,” says Northard. “Literally generations of Milwaukeeans worked here. So this was an important piece of a lot of people’s lives and to see it after 15 years of being deserted, to come back and it looks like it’s new to them -- to see their reaction -- that says everything to us.”

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

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