|The Ehret Mansion in 1928, just prior to demolition -- photo NYPL Collection|
The twenty-two year old George Ehret sailed to America in 1857, five years after his father, Anselm Ehret, had already immigrated. The young German had thoroughly learned the art of beer brewing at home and was hired in the New York brewery of Anton Hupfel. Within three years he had achieved the rank of master brewer. Nine years later, with the assistance of his former employer, Ehret opened his own business in 1866, the Hell Gate Brewery; named after the Hell Gate strait of the East River that it overlooked.
At the time the area was rural, with unbroken views as far as Long Island. The only other structure in the vicinity was the Fanshaw mansion, one of the country estates of the wealthy.
Ehret introduced lager brewing to Manhattan and by the 1870s the brewery was steadily expanding. As the Hell Gate Brewery prospered, so did George Ehret. Within only a decade of opening his business he had amassed a fortune.
Ehret had an imposing brownstone mansion erected in 1878 in the then sparsely-developed area of Park Avenue and 94th Street on land he had purchased four years earlier. The dignified Italianate structure was as strait-laced as its owner’s Teutonic background. Three tall stories high over a very deep English basement, it was graced with classical pediments over the windows, a bowed parlor window to the front, and a sweeping stone entrance staircase that spilled to the sidewalk.
The stone banister of the stairs melded into matching fencing above a stone wall, wrapping the 94th Street side of the property. Here, the most striking feature of the residence was a three-sided bay that rose to a roof-top room with 360-degree views; acting as a sort of widow’s watch.
The expansive house was none too large for Ehret’s family that included his wife, the former Anna Hasslocher, six daughters and three sons.
As improved techniques and brewing equipment were introduced, Ehret was quick to utilize them. In order to supply his huge brewery with fresh, pure water he had an artesian well drilled through 700 feet of solid bedrock and built a pumping station at the East River that supplied one million gallons of salt water daily for condensing purposes. In the two decades between 1871 and 1890 production of the beer industry in general increased by 400 percent in the United States. The output of Ehret’s brewery, on the other hand, increased by over 1,200 per cent.
It seemed that things just could not get better for George Ehret.
As the children grew, the fashionable house on upper Park Avenue became the scene of weddings and social events. On March 21, 1892 the drawing room was “beautifully decorated with a profusion of palms and ferns and thousands of roses in banks and bouquets,” said The Times, as daughter Frances Julia married Ernest Stangen of Berlin. The following year in January Josephine Frances Ehret was married to Edward Martin Burghard here “under a canopy of evergreen, studded with roses.”
George Ehret gave his daughter and new son-in-law a fully-furnished home at 14 East 93rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue.
On January 30, 1897, The New York Tribune praised George Ehret, reflective of the public sentiment towards the brewer. “George Ehret is a typical representative of that large German-American element in the population of New-York who, while preserving and reverencing the traditions of their native land, are yet thoroughly in sympathy with the republican institutions of the land of their adoption. They are loyal to their citizenship, and in all their municipal relationships are entirely devoted to the good of the Commonwealth.”
Within only a few years those words would have a sadly ironic ring to them.
Ehret was a member of several leading German societies. On his 70th birthday in 1905, he was serenaded at the house by the Ehret Band, the Aschenbrodel Band (which had also played at the brewery that day), the Badische Boltsfest Verein, the Braumeister Verein, the Bereinigten Deutschen Gesellschaften, the Yorkville M. C. A. and the Arion singing society. On reporting of the celebration, the New York Tribune remarked that “One of his most celebrated virtues is a modesty almost bordering on shyness.”
|The brewer in 1905, on his 70th birthday -- photo New York Tribune (copyright expired)|
With the arriving news of the devastating San Francisco earthquake, the family plunged into despair and worry. Finally, four days later, word was received that George had made it out of the destroyed city on a refugee train to Salt Lake City.
A year later on March 28, 1907, 47-year old Frank Ehret, the eldest of the three sons, died in the house of a long-lasting illness.
In January 1909 the last of the Ehret daughter weddings took place in the Park Avenue mansion when Madeline Louise married William Ottman. By now the aging George Ehret was in failing health. He began an annual pilgrimage to Germany to “take the cure” at the baths there. Normally accompanied by one of his daughters, he would sail in May and return in November.
What had been an innocent pilgrimage turned horribly wrong in 1914.
Ehret sailed to Germany in May, leaving his family and his business doing well and having no reason to suspect this trip would be any different from the others. But in August the /Great War broke out. Ehret attempted to evacuate Germany with the American Ambassador, James W. Gerard; however, because of Ehret’s frail health, the ambassador refused to accept the responsibility of the long voyage.
The Berlin government eventually refused to allow Ehret or his daughter, Anna von Zedlitz, to leave, fearing they would disclose military movements they may have been witness to. The brewer later explained that the German officials considered him and his daughter “enemy aliens” and were forced to report to the police once a month.
George Ehret’s six-month trip to improve his health became a four-year nightmare.
In the meantime, things at home did not look very good for George Ehret. To the American government, a German expatriate who suddenly left the United States for Germany just prior to the outbreak of war and did not return seemed more than suspicious. Ehret’s entire estate, valued at around $40 million, was seized by the Alien Property Custodian. Rumors circulated that he was purchasing “heavily of German bonds” and subsidized German propaganda newspapers in the U.S.
Finally, despite his ill health and the warnings of doctors that a voyage would kill him, Ehret had had enough. In April 1918, due to his age and medical condition, he was allowed to travel to Switzerland. From here he booked passage to New York and was carried on board on a stretcher. “The excitement of not being able to start for this country for over four years became so intense that I decided to take the risk of dying on the steamship and being buried at sea rather than remain to die in Germany,” Ehret said when the ship docked in New York.
He told the New York Tribune, “First of all, I wish it to be distinctly understood that I have not returned to America to get my estate of $40,000,000 back from the Government or start a legal fight over it in any way. I am perfectly satisfied that Uncle Sam only took over the properties to take care of them, and that they will be returned to me in due course. This is wartime, and the Government must not be hurried over affairs of that kind, and I am not going to hurry it.”
George Ehret, Jr., told the press that while his father had been absent, $2 million of his estate had been invested in Liberty bonds, $120,000 had been given to the American Red Cross and $21,000 to the Knights of Columbus fund.
By the end of the year the war was over. Eventually George Ehret regained his property and fortune, but another hurdle was in store. On June 30, 1919 the Wartime Prohibition Act took effect, followed on October 28 by the Volstead Act which ushered in the Prohibition Era.
Production at the Hellgate Brewery came to an abrupt stop.
Luckily, George Ehret had invested heavily in New York real estate as his fortune accumulated; many of the plots purchased for the liquor business. He held 181 parcels of Manhattan realty including many valuable corner lots.
On April 6, 1925 one of the last great celebrations were held in the Ehret house on Park Avenue. The mansion was filled with “sons, daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, some of whom came from Germany” for George Ehret’s 90th birthday party, reported The New York Times.
The rumors and suspicions of only a few years earlier had been forgotten and George Ehret and his family were again accepted by New York. Two years later, on January 20, 1927, George Ehret died in his home at No. 1197 Park Avenue. A requiem mass was said in St. Patrick’s Cathedral two days later. He left an estate that was still valued at approximately $40 million.
|The neighborhood was changing. In 1926 the brownstones across the avenue are replaced by No. 1192 Park Avenue --photo NYPL Collection.|
On April 28, 1928 The New York Times reported that the “George Ehret mansion, the first fine residence on upper Park Avenue,” was sold for $3 million to be replaced with “what is expected to be the largest housekeeping apartment building in New York.”
In what had become a tradition in New York City, the neighborhood of elegant homes—the oldest of which had stood only 50 years—was leveled and redeveloped. The brownstone mansion that had seen so much joy and so much trouble, like the German brewer who built it, has long been forgotten.