Friday, March 23, 2012

The 1903 Bernheimer & Schwartz Brewery -- Amsterdam Avenue and 128th Street

On August 7, 1903 the New York Tribune reported on the sale of the J. F. Betz Brewery, “which is considered one of the best brewery plants in equipment and one of the largest in size in this country.”

The old brewery was established in 1876 as the Yuengling Brewery.  The New York Times noted that “The establishment, whose structures make up a small town…now has equipment which comprises all the latest ideas in brewing science.”   It drew its pure water from artesian wells on the property which the newspaper said were “of unlimited capacity.”  

While the Betz Brewery was operating, so was the Lion Brewery, owned by Max E. Bernheimer and his brother Simon, along with partners August Schmid and Anton Schwartz.  Like the Betz Brewery, the Lion was extremely successful.

With the death of August Schmid in 1889, his share of the business went to his ambitious widow.  Josephine Schmid had exceptional business sense and was cunning, shrewd and greedy.  By 1901 the business relationship with her partners had become so argumentative and unworkable that she bought them out for $1.4 million, leaving the Bernheimer brothers and Schwartz without a brewery.

The men purchased the old Betz operation for $850,000.  But if anyone expected a beer war between Josephine and her former partners, the men crushed the idea.  Max Bernheimer told the press “We have no such intention.  According to the agreement with Mrs. Schmid there is no clause prohibiting us from going into the brewery business again.  We do not intend to fight the Lion Brewery or any other brewery.”

Apparently working for Josephine Schmid had was a problem for the workers as well, and The Times remarked that “some of the most valued employees of the concern will be associated with Bernheimer & Schwartz.”

Although the Betz buildings were apparently operational; the new Bernheimer & Schwartz Brewery would have all new ones.  The management commissioned architect Louis Oberlein to design the complex, centering around a main five-story red brick building.  The plant was demolished, and two years later in 1903 the new brewery was completed.

It was Oberlein’s first commission on his own.  He had previously worked with the firm of Lederly, Wessely & Co.  For Bernheimer & Schwartz, he turned to what has been termed the “German-American” style; no doubt in hopes of reflecting the German tradition of both the owners and the industry.

Oberlein managed to economically  ornament the main building with patterned brickwork, creating cornices and lentils, for instance, for his utilitarian, industrial buildings.  The ponderous mass of the main building is alleviated by stone courses, brick corbelling and peaked cornices below a brick, paneled parapet.

The site of the plant, chosen originally because it was far from residential areas where land was plentiful, was at 10th Avenue (now Amsterdam Avenue) between 126th and 128th Streets. 

Josephine Schmid may not have forbade her former partners from going into the brewery business; but anyone who had a superstitious bent might have suspected they she cursed the new enterprise.  The Bernheimer & Schwartz Brewery was beset with problems and tragedy nearly from the start.

On February 17, 1906 a crew was working to level the rocky, jagged hill at Convent Avenue just north of 127th Street where the Church of the Annunciation was to be built.  Dynamite had been used for days to reduce the rock.  Around 2:25 in the afternoon things went wrong.

According to The New York Times “Joseph Michel, an Italian, was appointed to set off an extra big blast to tear away many tons of rock.  Nobody knows how much dynamite he put in the charge.  It was vastly too much.”

“Convent Avenue was blown up by a tremendous charge of dynamite,” said the article.  “Water ran four feet deep in Manhattan Street and 125th Street.  Cellars were flooded, a horse, several dogs, and many chickens were drowned, street cars were put out of business for two hours and hundreds of men, women and children had to flee before the floor.”

“In five minutes thousands of dollars’ worth of beer in the brewery of Bernheimer & Schwartz” was destroyed, the article reported.

Troubles turned to tragedy when on June 1, 1909 Gessina Meyer, wife of vice-president Charles Meyer, committed suicide by inhaling gas in a second floor room of their four-story brownstone house on West 137th Street.   Mrs. Meyer had been despondent over her grandchild’s ongoing illness.

A year later, in October, Anton Schwartz’s 24 year old son, Adolf who was in the business department of the brewery, died unexpectedly of an illness.  Schwartz was in Europe at the time and was unable to return in time to see his son before he died.  Six weeks later, on November 6, Anton Schwartz shot himself in the head at his third floor apartment in the Central Park View Apartment House. 

The management maintained good relations with local policemen and firemen by establishing a keg room to be used for the two groups – while on duty.  When rumors of the illicit keg parties reached Battalion Chief Howe of the Fire Department, he paid a visit to the brewery on a warm night in July 1910.

Howe and Assistant Fire Marshal Kelly arrived around 8:45 pm in plain clothes.  The New York Tribune reported that “Entrance to the drinking room was refused to them on the ground that it was reserved exclusively for firemen and policemen.  Howe convinced the doorkeeper that he was a fireman and gained admittance on the ground that he wanted a drink.  Inside he found the firemen and policemen gathered around a keg, while two of the ‘cops’ were passing the beverage to their comrades.”

It was the end of the keg room parties.

Misfortune struck the brewery again in 1911.  Simon E. Bernheimer was not only a master brewer, he was a well-known drummer.  At the time the Masonic Band was one of the most esteemed bands in the country and Bernheimer set his sights on playing with it.  He joined the lodge and for years would attend band practice, sitting quietly to the side and waiting for his chance one day.

On July 25, the base drummer, John F. Crosby, did not appear at practice.  James F. Boyer, the director, asked Bernheimer to fill in.   The bachelor brewer was thrilled and rushed to the base drum.  “That’s just what I’ve long been waiting for,” Bernheimer said, “It’s my one ambition in life.”

While the band was playing “Evening Star” the big drum crashed to the floor, along with Simon Bernheimer.  The excitement of finally playing with the well-regarded band was too much for his heart and he died on the spot.

The interiors of the immense wooden vats at the brewery were coated with a wood-alcohol varnish.    Men would crawl through narrow “manholes” in the vats and brush the varnish on.   Unknown to them, the fumes and the confined space were a deadly combination.

The New York Committee for the Prevention of Blindness had recently been organized and waged a war against wood alcohol poisoning.   After two of Bernheimer & Schwartz’s employees were blinded and one died, the secretary of the committee, Miss Van Blarcom, denounced “None of the poor fellows knew, when they crawled into the vats through the small manholes, that the fumes of the varnish which had been given them to use, might caught their blindness or death.”

With the backing of the Committee, Gustav Kenz, who had been blinded, sued the brewery for $10,000 in damages in the Supreme Court of Brooklyn.  The trial had to be postponed when, on September 24, 1913, Max E. Bernheimer “dropped dead in the courtroom,” as reported in Medical Progress magazine.

Max’s widow, Stella, inherited $3.5 million of the estate.  A year and a half later she “quietly remarried.”

Despite the tragic, untimely and sudden deaths of the three principals of the company, the Bernheimer & Schwartz Brewery continued.   By 1920 the forward-thinking company had replaced all of its horse-drawn delivery vehicles with motor trucks.   That same year they regretted it.

On February 4 the East Coast was pounded with a blizzard of “the old-fashioned kind,” according to The National Humane Review.  “Under trying conditions such as these the horse won out and the motor laid right down on the job.”

In 1920 there were no snow tires or chains and the weak motors of the automobile were no match for drifted snow.  “Within a radius of four miles of the heart of New York City,” said the article, “there were so many machines stuck fast in the snow that it was impossible for even horses to get through some of the streets.”

Bernheimer & Schwartz rushed to Fiss Doer, Carrol Company and purchased 35 horses at an average price of $422.50.

But the brewery already had something more worrying than snow and horses to consider:  Prohibition.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution had been ratified on January 16, 1919 and went into effect a month before the snowstorm of 1920.  The brewery now had to contend with a law that prohibited it from operating its business; and to figure out what to do with the ocean of lager and ale already in its immense vats.

The Federal officials had the answer to the latter problem.  On July 12, 1923 they entered the brewery and began dumping the beer.  “A flood of prewar beer was let loose into the Harlem sewers yesterday when Federal prohibition officers began the destruction of 836,000 gallons of non-de-alcoholized lager and 4,000 barrels of twelve-year-old ale at the plant of the Bernheimer & Schwartz Pilsener Brewing Company,” reported The Times.

While the newspaper reported on the spilling of the beer, “a task which will take several days,” it noted that it “is the final step in the passing of one of the city’s largest breweries.  It was preceded, it was learned yesterday, by the sale of the company’s plant to a refrigerating company at a figure reported to be between $4,000,000 and $5,000,000.”

It was the end of the line for the Bernheimer & Schwartz Brewery.

The great brick brewing building was renovated as a refrigeration plant; then in the 1940s it was converted to cold storage for fur coats during the warm summer months.  Generally overlooked as anything other than an industrial building, it was finally purchased and converted, again; this time to office space.
In 1935 the brewery building (rear) was used for storage of fur coats -- photo NYPL Collection
As a nod to its former use as fur storage, the new owners, Janus Property Company, renamed the brewery building “The Mink Building.”  A battle between the owners and the preservationists broke out when the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered the building for landmark status.

Owner Scott Metzner complained of the potential restrictions to remodeling and customization of space for prospective tenants.  On the other hand, Harlem preservationists like Michael Henry Adams, argued that “We are allowing our history and cultural heritage to be destroyed.”

However, based on the alterations already done to the structure, the Landmarks Commission withdrew the building from its list of considerations.  But landmarked or not, the Bernheimer & Schwartz Brewery building is a remarkable surviving example of handsome industrial design; this one by a nearly-unknown architect.

Many thanks to Keith Taillon for requesting this post


  1. After the deaths of the two owners, my great grandfather Otto Heinrich was president of the brewery.

    1. Was that the Heinrich Brewery that was located in West Hoboken? I have some pictures of that... would love some more info on it. Rudolf Heinrich is the name we had on file.