Razing Chicago’s brewing history

By Amanda Murphy

Once upon a time, before Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lantern and the 18th Amendment ceased the flow of beer taps, Chicago was brimming with small, neighborhood breweries. Now merely a distant memory, the city’s brewing days are remembered mostly through weathered photographs and converted loft apartments.

Brand Brewery, 2530 N. Elston Ave., in Logan Square, is one of the few remaining breweries in a city that once competed in numbers with nearby beer king Milwaukee.

But an imminent threat to the building’s existence has local historical and preservation organizations fighting to keep the small piece of city history standing. With the former brewery’s fate unclear and the big-box electronics retailer HHGregg wanting the land for a new store, the demolition trucks lie in wait.

“[Preservation] is important because it’s a rare remaining brewery example and one of the few intact brewing facilities,” said Jacob Kaplan, co-founder and editor of Forgotten Chicago. “It’s on a stretch of Elston Avenue where 50 years ago, there would have been many factories, and you would be able to see Chicago’s industrial heritage. Now those old factories have been torn down for big-box retail, and this is one of the few remaining examples from Chicago’s industrial history [and] as brewing history.”

The fight to keep the brewery standing began five years ago when Ward Miller, president of the Chicago Preservation Society and vice president of Logan Square Preservation, first noticed its presence hidden among a plethora of big-box businesses. Since then, Miller has been working to try and get the brewery historical landmark status but has not yet been successful.

The brewery, however, is still one of approximately 9,600 buildings in Chicago that have been coded “orange” by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey for being potentially historically significant.

Logan Square Preservation, The Chicago Preservation Society, Forgotten Chicago and the Northwest Chicago Historical Society continue to raise awareness regarding the importance of the brewery. At a Nov. 21 meeting at Revolution Brewery, 2323 N. Milwaukee Ave., supporters gathered to learn more about the heritage of the brewery and its current situation. Other guests who shared information were members of the Brand family, Alderman Joe Moreno (1st Ward) and prominent figures in the brewing community.

Moreno also showed his support for the landmark by saying he would not approve a zoning change that the retailer would require to build upon the land. Despite Moreno’s raising awareness to possible investors and proposing the denial of zoning laws to build the structure it wants, the building sits and waits for renovation or demolition. The city had postponed the demolition, but as of Dec. 5, the site was removed from the hold list and technically could be razed at any moment.

Half of the brewery’s buildings were razed to accommodate the neighboring Home Depot’s parking lot. The extensive physical changes to the archetypal design are one of the main reasons the brewery cannot, however, be granted historical landmark status. If a company or organization were to purchase and restore the brewery close to its original state it could have a better chance of being stamped with historical landmark approval, Miller said.

Virgil Brand founded the Brand Brewery in 1899, a time when there were more than 50 breweries in the city. Brand, the son of prominent Chicago brewer Michael Brand, set up shop on Elston Avenue across the street from his father’s brewery. Sadly, like most other breweries in the city, it didn’t survive the aftereffects of the Prohibition Era and closed its doors in 1935.

The building has been used for multiple industrial purposes since and has undergone a number of structural changes. However, Kaplan said in addition to the historical significance, the traditional brewery architecture is still very apparent, despite the structural changes, and is important to preserve.

“Nineteenth century brewing architecture is getting pretty rare these days, particularly the administration building right on the corner. [It] is so intact,” Kaplan said. “It would just be a shame for it to be demolished.”