Philadelphia was once a city of breweries, many of them run by German immigrants who knew their pilsners from their porters. Their stout old buildings have been disappearing as the city's housing boom spreads north into former German neighborhoods. Ortliebs' main brew house, the last in Northern Liberties, went down in 2013. But farther north, several others survive. One of the most evocative is the Weisbrod & Hess brewery on Martha Street in Kensington.
Founded in 1882 by two German saloon-keepers, George Weisbrod and Christian Hess, the brewery grew to a full-block complex between Frankford Avenue and the aptly named Amber Street. Most of the production took place on Martha Street, then a private road. It's where you can still take a time-machine trip back to Philadelphia's 19th-century beer-making heyday.
The street is a study in contrasts. The brick buildings on the west side have been magnificently renovated and returned to their original purpose by Philadelphia Brewing Co. Although an even more intriguing pair still stand on the east side of Martha, they are in rough condition, apparently used to store the city's Christmas Village kiosks.
That redbrick ensemble once housed the brewery's loading facility and the boiler house. Weisbrod & Hess hired the noted brewery architect Adam C. Wagner in 1891 to design the two structures. A German immigrant like his clients, Wagner imported the then-fashionable Rundbogenstil, or round-arch style, a German variation of Romanesque, for the project.
Although the two buildings have different roof profiles - flat for the loading facility, gabled for the boiler house - Wagner unified the two by making their lower facades identical. Each of the ground floors has three huge, arched doorways, whose muscular form is underscored by thick chunks of granite at the keystone. As a contrast, Wagner delicately outlined the arches with a rim of small brick balls. If those arches look familiar, it's because you've seen variations on Philadelphia's other Euopean-inspired buildings, like the Academy of Music.
Here, Wagner marks the transition to the second level with a ribbon of terra-cotta tiles in alternating flower patterns. The boiler house's peaked, third-floor pediment features a divided Palladian window whose stone lintels stop and start, sort of like Morse code.
Like other Philadelphia breweries, Weisbrod & Hess suffered during Prohibition and had to resort to making soda. Sadly, the brewery lasted only a few years after alcohol sales resumed in 1933, closing in 1939.
Now, the surviving structures are threatened again, this time by the neighborhood's revival. A new restaurant called Martha just opened in the Weisbrod & Hess metal shop. With building lots for housing in demand, the owners of the boiler house and loading facility put the buildings and an adjacent parking lot on the market. Hoping to see the old structures incorporated into the new development, residents have posted a petition on Change.org calling for their preservation. This could be the last chance to save a piece of Philadelphia's great beer history.
Take the Market-Frankford El to the Berks stop and walk north of Frankford Avenue to York Street. Martha Street is one block west of Frankford.
Note: This column was amended to correct the date when Prohibition ended.