The tower rises from the heart of West Seventh, defining and defying the passage of time and the lay of the community. The Schmidt Brewery is the West End to many people because it rises like an old oak from secure roots to dominate the skyline longer than anyone can remember. Its endurance is remarkable because it cannot be ignored yet somehow has been neglected, too big to care for and yet too important to imagine life without.
That’s how the Fort Road Federation, through the help of the City of Saint Paul, came to acquire the property for redevelopment. Decades of tireless work by many people, led by City Councilmember Dave Thune, has reached another turning point for this symbol of a community and its endurance. After years of planning and haggling it has a new owner and, soon, a new use.
I toured the site as member of the Federation’s Board of Directors. I’d like to show you one small but vital part of this great site, the Rathskeller. It is one of the hidden jewels of Saint Paul, soon to be uncovered once again.
The main entrance to the whole plant was the small office building hard against the sidewalk of West 7th, the least impressive part of the whole site. The gentle Bauhaus-lite lay of the building is intact through much of the first floor. Our group came through with Jim Glendening, one of the best urban re-use architects there is because of his attention to detail and deep understanding of scale. Because historic tax credits are a big part of this project the old offices with transom windows and gentle round woodwork will have to be saved – a restriction Jim can only savor.
The vast space of the Bottling House will be artists’ studios, the big “Castle” some kind of residence. This space is trickier, which is why it needs Glendening so much.
Down the staircase is the Rathskeller, where the tours used to start and end. The brewery had been part of the House of Heileman from 1972 until 1991 when it went solo again for a short while. It was always a struggle. The plant became an ethanol fuel plant in the late 1990s until the fumes drove the first ever wedge between the community and this site. Soon the entire facility was idled. No one has taken the brewery tour for at least a decade. A decade of damp now grabs a visitor’s nose before the glory of this space opens past the thick oak doors
Here is the Rathskeller itself, the Bavarian style beer hall where crowds could sample the pride of West Seventh. It has kept in this cool cellar remarkably well, waiting for visitors to liven it up once again. Along the dark rafters are sayings of good cheer in many languages, mostly German and English. “Before man learned to eat he learned to drink” reads one, almost mocking its own staid Fraktur German script.
A few cans of beer are left open in the kitchen for the ghost that is said to stay here. Like all good ghost stories, this one is believable because it simply must be true. This space simply cannot be empty and unloved by someone, even if it is only a spectre.
The entire Schmidt site is more than just a collection of buildings, it defines life for a community. In the Rathskeller this is distilled into the product of its fermented essence, a timeless space to let the time pass slowly in the good cheer of a room frothy with good cheer.
Exactly when and how this will be open to the public again is up in the air. The hard work of people throughout the community and the leadership of Dave Thune and Ed Johnson, Executive Director of the Federation, has gotten us to this point. The work passes to Glendening who will help shape the vision for investors and partners as yet unnamed who can work to put in a restaurant, offices, and whatever else the space commands. Then it will be left up to the people who fill it up again and bring it back to life.
For now it sits dark and patiently waiting as it has for far too long. The Rathskeller of the Schmidt Brewery is more than just one of the great jewels of this old city, it is the essence of the massive brick confection of towers that so many zoom by every day. Someday soon there will be time enough for them to pass deep in the cellar, once again, with friends and the whole community to bring back the gentle life it was built for.
Patience and love will win out. West 7th will have its heart back soon.