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In St. Paul, Minnesota, Artists Find Home in a Former Brewery

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When the old Schmidt brewery of St. Paul, Minnesota, halted its beer-making in 1990, it became a symbol of the gutted working-class in the city's West Seventh Street neighborhood. In an effort to reinvigorate the area's economy, developers targeted artists, ultimately transforming the city's proud brewing facilities into the Schmidt Artist Lofts.

In 1855, Christopher Stahlmann's Cave Brewery opened on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul's West End. The site was ideal for beer production. Water was collected from a natural spring, and the sandstone bedrock was carved into aging caves. German immigrant Jacob Schmidt bought the facilities in 1900 and commissioned architect Bernard Barthel to incorporate the old Cave Brewery buildings into a new brew house. Barthel's Romanesque-style design resembled a medieval castle from Schmidt's native Bavaria—turrets, rounded windows, and striped crenellated parapets included. A similarly designed bottle house followed in 1916. Additions were tacked on to both structures through the 1960s as the company grew.

The Schmidt Brewing Company was one of about a dozen breweries in turn-of-the-century St. Paul, a city that apparently knew how to have a good time. The company survived during Prohibition by churning out eight different kinds of soft drinks and Malta, a near-beer that tasted like a cold one but lacked the alcohol. Rumor had it that Schmidt still cooked up the real thing during the ban, but there is no proof. In 1936, three years after the Noble Experiment ended, the company was the seventh largest beer maker in the United States. Other firms surpassed Schmidt's market share in the decades that followed, yet the home of the "Official Beer of the American Sportsman" remained a St. Paul icon, distinguished by a blinking, red "Schmidt" sign on the bridge between the silos and brew house.

Jacob Schmidt's relatives sold the company in 1955, and the label passed through a few owners before brewing ceased at the St. Paul brewery in 1990. The closure devastated the West Seventh Street area, a blue-collar neighborhood whose fortunes were closely aligned with the beer industry. The Minnesota Brewing Company occupied the space during the 1990s, and an ethanol plant called it home until 2004, but it was nothing like the buzz of activity during the Schmidt years.

St. Paul government officials made it clear they wanted the former brew complex retained in some capacity. But a bevy of development plans failed. In the meantime, the aging fortress was at the mercy of Minnesota's rollercoaster weather. "A lot of the windows were missing, boarded up, or smashed," says Michael Krych, a partner at architectural firm BKV Group, Inc. "Even in June there was snow and ice inside that was still melting. It was virtually like a rainforest inside." The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota placed the plant on its most endangered properties lists in both 2005 and 2009.

Artists, in their quest for cheap rents and ample space to ply their trades, have a long history of moving into stagnant locales and turning them into trendy neighborhoods. Municipalities have recognized artists' Midas touch and offer incentives to developers who build them affordable spaces to live and work. St. Paul and neighboring Minneapolis are especially big on zones focused on arts and cultural activities.

So when the Dominium Group bought the pair of structures for $6.2M in 2012, its plans were to convert the former Schmidt brew house and bottle house into artist live and work spaces. "It was a good avenue to get a collective group of people together that had common goals and interests to create a community," Krych says. The project benefited from $69.3M in tax-exempt bonds from St. Paul's Housing and Redevelopment Authority, $4.2M in environmental cleanup funds, and about $70M in low-income and historic tax credits.

With more than 20 additions, the brew house's labyrinth interior had to be sorted out by the design team at the BKV Group. "Each building had different floor heights from the next," Krych says. "So it was a huge challenge to make this accessible and figure out how to connect all of this to the one singular building from another."

They tied everything together by adding ramps, stairs, and elevators. The residences are situated along the perimeter walls to take advantage of the abundant natural light. The heart of the building includes studios for dance, pottery, performances, sound, paint, clay, and yoga and Pilates. There is also a kiln, a frame shop, rooftop deck, and multiple galleries.

Each unit recalls the site's industrial past with exposed structural components, concrete floors, and brick or stone walls. Some vats, generators, and catwalks were salvaged and displayed as decorative pieces. Contemporary materials have been thoughtfully meshed with the old. "We tried to be respectful that these were residences where people live, so we didn't get carried away with trying to save everything," Krych says.

In all, 147 housing units were built in the brew house, and 100 more in the bottle house. Thirteen new townhomes also were built as part of the project, and their Italianate style design was inspired by Jacob Schmidt's former house across the street. To qualify for residency, artists can make up to 60 percent of the area median income, currently $34,740 per year for a single person household. Rents range from $850 for studios to $1,233 for three-bedroom units. Tenants include painters, musicians, potters, photographers, dancers and actors. Art crawls provide residents with opportunities to show off their works, and the paved central plaza is used for events.

"The people who moved in are really ecstatic about living there, so that creates a strong community in of itself," Krych says. Elsewhere at the former brewery, a city agency is leading the initiative to redevelop the Schmidt rathskeller and keg house into a restaurant and office space.

On the night of June 21, 2014, a Schmidt sign emblazoned the property for the first time in decades. The residents had moved in beginning late in 2013, and the replica sign's lighting at GermanFest signified the icon's return. While it is too early to judge the effects the Schmidt Artist Lofts has on West Seventh Street, the project's completion offers hope. "It's going to be a catalyst for this neighborhood to really take off," Krych says.