By Diane Euston
You’ve likely noticed this six-story building. Its dark-red bricks, broken windows and impressive arches are just some of the details of its former glory. Hugging the railroad tracks and well-viewed on the north side of I-35, the old Imperial Brewery stands now despite all the odds.
In fact, Imperial Brewery was the last pre-Prohibition brewery built in Kansas City, and it’s the last one standing – for now.
Just a few weeks ago, several friends sent me links to articles which stated that the old Imperial Brewery would soon face the wrecking ball. It’s a story all-too-repeated in Kansas City’s “road to progress.”
Built in 1902, Imperial Brewery is more than a vacant building encased in weeds and debris. It is a diamond in the rough – a vital piece of Kansas City’s Pre-Prohibition history that involves out-of-town investors looking to cash in on the city’s population boom and love for brews.
Entering the Competition
In the early 1800s, an influx of German immigrants brought with them the knowledge and the love of the light lager beer. Johann Adam Lemp arrived in St. Louis and began brewing lager beer in the 1840s. The light, easy-drinking lager beer introduced by Adam Lemp quickly became the top-selling brew in the nation.
Lemp’s son, William took over the business in 1862 and completely revolutionized the beer-making process. This included pasteurization, mechanical bottling and artificial refrigeration. Other German immigrants took notice, including Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch. By 1870, St. Louis had at least 50 breweries.
Born in 1871 in Massachusetts, George E. Schraubstadter was the son of a German immigrant who moved to St. Louis with his family in the mid-1870s. A wealthy engraver, George’s father passed his talents onto his sons who continued in that business. George, on the other hand, had other plans in mind.
It is said that Schraubstadter worked for a time for Anheuser-Busch and may have even learned the beermaking process in Germany. He did work for American Brewing Company (ABC) in St. Louis for several years before he moved to Galveston, Texas where he worked at Galveston Brewing Co.
Brewers, especially those with money in their pockets, were always looking for the next opportunity, and Kansas City’s impressive population boom showcased many possibilities. In 1850, Kansas City had less than 6,000 people and had two breweries. By 1890, the population reached over 125,000, and by 1910, the population reached 200,000.
F.H. Kump arrived in Kansas City in 1859 and entered into the soda manufacturing business. By 1867, he founded Kump Brewery at 14th and Main which became one of the most successful breweries in Kansas City. This plant was purchased by Ferd Heim in 1884 and became known as Ferd Heim Brewing Co.
Another large brewer was George Muehlebach Brewing Company, founded in 1868. J.D. Iller joined these breweries in Kansas City and opened J.D. Iler in 1888 at 20th and Washington. By 1895, it was operating under both the Iler and Rochester Brewing Co. names.
It may seem that there were already plenty of breweries manufacturing foamy suds served at area saloons. However, Schraubstadter and some other St. Louis investors saw the success of so many breweries in their city, and they thought Kansas City could more than handle a state-of-the-art facility featuring lager beers.
It was estimated at the time that $2.5 million dollars was sent to other cities for purchasing out-of-town brews from Milwaukee and St. Louis. That alone meant that Kansas City could support more local breweries.
In 1899, Schraubstadter began looking for the perfect location. Two years later, the Imperial Brewing Corporation was formed and they picked up four acres of prime real estate on Southwest Blvd. and set out to build their dream.
The location was perfect; it was on the railroad line and was on the banks of Turkey Creek where water would be readily available.
Breaking ground in 1901 at 2825 Southwest Blvd., German immigrant Ludwig D. Breitag was hired to construct the impressive facility. Built in late Victorian-Romanesque revival style, the six-story building featured arched doorways and a corbelled roofline.
Part of the original design was a two-story stable 200 feet from the brewhouse, also known as the mule barn. This structure which is still standing was used for the operation when “mules and draft horses were an intricate part of delivery.” This building still has “the original footprint intact and corbelling around the roofline provides evidence of this.” The mule barn would have been instrumental in getting products to local distributors and saloons.
Schraubstadter was “said to have a thorough technical and business knowledge of the brewing business,” and he was so confident in his skills that he invested at least $25,000 of his own money to get the business going.
Vice President of Imperial Brewery, Alex F. Stoeger, suggested that Kansas Citians seemed to prefer Milwaukee and St. Louis beers. “I hope to see the prejudice against home beer in Kansas City removed,” Stoeger told the Kansas City Star in May 1902. “We expect to do our share to make Kansas City a big distribution point.”
The plant was the most up-to-date, modern brewery built in Kansas City. Imperial Brewery was built with “extensive use of automatic devices making the beer.” Temperature of the malt and water was regulated automatically. The Kansas City Star reported that “electric motors running pumps that force the beer from one series of tanks to the other” was new technology that set this brewery apart from others in the city.
The building of Imperial Brewery was said to have cost $150,000, and the plant began brewing lager beer on-site in April 1902. Imperial Brewing Co. purchased malt from Wisconsin and Minnesota “where the best barley is grown” and spent one dollar per pound for hops from Saaz, Austria. While they waited for the first product to be released to the public, the company launched a competition to name their beer. They were looking for a “catching and appropriate name” that was “short and original” that would “suggest the high quality and purity of this beer.” The winner would receive $100. The name chosen was “Mayflower.”
Part of every brewery’s recipe for success was financing local saloonkeepers and, in turn, having exclusive control over what beer was served. Paying for leases of dozens of saloons around the city ensured that when Imperial Brewery hit the marketplace, there would be plenty of bars pouring their suds.
Imperial Brewery’s Mayflower Lager was released on May 17, 1902 and was delivered from the mule barn to saloons by yellow wagons driven by men in red suspenders.
Within a short amount of time, Imperial Brewery’s Mayflower and Imperial Seal lagers became wildly popular in Kansas City and beyond. In June 1902, Imperial Brewing landed a large contract with Fort Leavenworth’s Soldier’s Home that called for 7,000 barrels of beer annually.
Schraubstadter and Stoeger may have overextended themselves. In November 1902, they increased their capital from $250,000 to $500,000 and continued to extend credit to various saloons to get them selling their product.
An Imperial Problem
Just one year later, the behind-the-scenes struggles within management made the headlines in Kansas City. Schraubstadter called Stoeger “disloyal” and set out to replace him with his brother-in-law, August Goerts.
Goerts had no experience in the beer business, lived in St. Louis and was associated with the insurance business. Regardless, Schraubstadter pushed experienced Stoeger – one of Imperial Brewery’s largest stockholders – to the side and placed his brother-in-law as president.
Stoeger refused to leave and continued to show up to work daily even though he had no control of management or decisions. This continued for months before Stoeger reluctantly left the scene.
The company continued to prosper and built onto their facility on Southwest Blvd. In 1903, they added an office and bottle works plant to strengthen their 50,000 barrel-per-year operation and in 1904, they added an ice-making plant.
Imperial Brewery had built an arched stone bridge and stone walls opposite of the plant on Turkey Creek that narrowed the channel by one-third. This narrowing had caused flooding of the area in April 1904 that extended all the way to the state line. This flooding didn’t just impact the neighbors; the flooding of the cellars of the brewery had crippled their operations in 1904 and a large amount of stock was ruined.
In the fall of 1905, Schraubstadter stepped down after he sold his stock to Edwin J. Becker, one-time manager of the Pabst’s Kansas City depot, and Goerts continued as president from his post in St. Louis. Perhaps Schraubstadter sensed there was a major problem on the horizon, because Imperial Brewery was broke.
On Oct. 21, 1905, the company was forced into bankruptcy. Imperial Brewing Co. was paying $1,000 to $1,500 more in rent per month than what they were bringing in. The Kansas City Star wrote, “Breweries were fighting for locations and saloons were started by the breweries furnishing everything to men who would pay no more than an average man’s months’ wages to start.” As saloons were abandoned, Imperial Brewery was stuck with the leases.
Kansas City Breweries Company (KCBCo)
Because Imperial Brewery was so state of the art, several large entities, including Dick Bros. Brewing out of Quincy, Ill. and Columbia Brewing Co. out of St. Louis looked to purchase it.
Kansas City’s breweries had been under immense change during this period of time. In 1905, just before the folding of Imperial, Ferd Heim Brewing Co., the largest brewery in the area, consolidated their interests with J.D. Iler and Rochester Brewing Co. to form Kansas City Breweries Company (KCBCo). Now under one umbrella, KCBCo was the highest bidder for Imperial Brewing. In addition to paying $99,500 for the brewery, the company took on the mortgages for a total of $424,500.
By 1910, the Imperial Brewing plant had new equipment added and a new brewmaster. They dropped the Imperial name and the location on Southwest Blvd. became known as “Rochester Brewery ‘B’ Plant.” A year later, KCBCo had their best year ever, producing 338,332 barrels of cold beer. The labels included Heim Special, Rochester Bohemian and Old Fashion Lager (brewed from the Imperial plant). Old Fashion Lager was the company’s most successful label before Prohibition. In this same year, former Imperial Brewery president Goerts committed suicide after his financial losses left him destitute.
Boulevard Flour Mill
In 1919, the 18th Amendment put an “organized” stop to the booze flowing from breweries in Kansas City and beyond. History tells us Kansas City didn’t stop the sales of liquor and beer, but no large brewery could continue in operation with federal agents so close by.
Kansas City Brewing Company, including Rochester Brewery B Plant (Imperial Brewery) stopped fulfilling orders to thirsty patrons.
Imperial Brewery on Southwest Blvd. was transformed into a flour mill known as Seaboard Flour Co. The location, once the most innovative and advanced breweries in the nation, was converted into what locals called the Boulevard Flour Mill.
The building was altered for its new operation, with additions on each side added in 1928. Even though it was converted into a flour mill, “some original doors and interior space recall the original brewery usage.” The original footprint can be seen by tracing the old cornice work on the building.
History Repeats Itself
After its use as a flour mill ceased in 1985, the building sat vacant and forgotten until Dean Realty Co. purchased it in 2007. A family-run commercial real estate company with Lester Dean, Jr. as president, Dean Realty seemed to be the perfect company to rescue this relic from destruction.
Just down the road from this important historic property is another company who took the bull by the horns and developed one of Kansas City’s most recognizable brands. Boulevard Brewing Co., led by John McDonald at the time, saw the possibilities of acquiring the property and resurrecting its brewery past, but the project was just too large.
Regardless of the physical decay of this property, Lester Dean saw possibility. Dean told the Kansas City Star in 2008 that it was “a challenging piece of property.”
Dean Realty wanted to see what grants could be available if they listed the property on the National Register. In 2010, the company successfully listed Imperial Brewery on the National Register. The company began renovations.
In December 2011, a three alarm fire destroyed portions of the property when the plan at the time was to convert the building into office space.
People, including the owners for a time, saw possibility.
Michael Wells wrote in 2017, “What is important, according to [Dean Realty], is that the site is transformed from an eyesore into an economic incentive company for the Kansas City area.” Pete Dulin, author of Kansas City Beer: A History of Brewing in the Heartland wrote in 2016, “The future of the structure and property are ripe with possibility.”
Things drastically turned away from rehabilitation and toward modern development when, in 2019, Dean Realty merged with Copaken Brooks. Since then, all ideas of restoring Kansas City’s only Pre-Prohibition brewery came to a halt.
Just last month, Kansas City Magazine reported that Imperial Brewery would soon be demolished. Journalist Dawnya Bartsch wrote, “Dean says the company has been prodded by Jackson County and Kansas City officials looking to demolish the dilapidated structure and create a new development opportunity.”
I reached out to Fourth District Councilman Eric Bunch to see if this was indeed true. With the future World Cup and NFL draft choosing Kansas City as a location, could it possibly be true that the city wants to see “an eyesore” full of our Pre-Prohibition history destroyed in the honor of “progress?”
“It would be a shame to lose such an iconic building and we will do what we can to preserve it. When I-35 was completed access to the Imperial Brewery building was all but lost making redevelopment very difficult. Sadly, this may be yet another casualty in a long line of historic building demolitions to make way for highways in Kansas City,” said Bunch.
The story gets old, no matter how many times I have to tell it. We look at old black and white patinaed photographs of Kansas City and hardly recognize it. So much character and history has been demolished with an eye toward the future with very little recognition of our past.
This is more than a vacant building that stands as a shell of its former glory. It’s a shell that requires imagination and innovation. It is possible to save the structure and repurpose it into something incredible. Look at the old Heim Bottling Plant, the only structure of their brewery’s history that has been repurposed by J. Rieger & Co. into a destination.
I refuse to believe that the same isn’t possible for the only Pre-Prohibition brewery still standing in a prime location in our city. Imperial Brewery should be saved, and we should all rally behind its rehabilitation before the bulldozers make the decision for us all. History has no price tag. Old buildings should be sacred testaments to our city’s deep roots.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.