The first big challenge for Highland’s new Historical Commission will be an iconic building for many residents.
The Schott Brewery began life as the Jefferson Brewery, which consolidated with another brewery and began manufacturing beer in the mid-1800s in a brick building at the north end of Mulberry Street, according to Highland historian Roland Harris in a history he wrote in 2015.
The Schott family had arrived in Highland in 1855, and Gerhard Schott became brewmaster of the Jefferson Brewery. He purchased the brewery from its two owners in 1857 and 1866, respectively, and then passed it to his sons before returning to Germany. By 1880, the Schott Brewery was brewing 6,000 barrels per year.
According to Harris, the Schotts built homes along 13th Street with cellars underneath the houses, with side tunnels and ventilator shafts that allowed them to leave home, go to work and return each day without ever having to go outdoors. They expanded the brewery to a three-story brewhouse, five-story malt house, two-story bottling plant and ice plant by 1893. Capacity was 75,000 barrels by 1899, and at its peak it employed 70 men, according to Harris.
But Prohibition hit the brewery hard. It reopened in 1933 and went through a couple of names, but closed for good in 1947.
Others have tried to use the building since then, and it remains at the corner of Mulberry and 13th streets. It’s been locked up and in some places boarded over, but there are still broken windows, peeling paint and signs of dilapidation.
Neighbor Jennifer Ostrander said she has been watching the brewery deteriorate, watching windows get broken out and wood rotting.
“How late are we going to wait, until it’s too far gone?” Ostrander asked the city council Oct. 21.
City attorney Mike McGinley said the problem is that it is private property and has not been condemned, so there is a limit to what the city can do.
“This is maybe the most historic building in Highland, and I think everyone has the same concerns,” McGinley said. “We will watch, but as long as it’s structurally sound and not a danger, at the end of the day, it’s private property.”
The building’s property tax records show the owner as the Erwin H. Weder Foundation, listed as a research and educational trust based in Highland. It is tax-exempt, and it was not immediately apparent who might be in control of the foundation.
There is a sign on the building’s front calling it the Erwin H. Weder Museum and listing four dates throughout the year when tours can be offered, but the phone number has been disconnected.
McGinley said there are building code enforcement options, but the city’s primary area of responsibility falls into health and safety, he said.
Councilwoman Peggy Bellm warned that sometimes pushing for work on a historic building can backfire.
“If we pressure people too much, sometimes they realize it’s going to cost them money, and they either walk away or tear it down,” Bellm said. “I’m not saying that would happen, but it’s happened before.”
‘That building has a little place in everyone’s hearts’
For Jacob Rose, it’s a very important place. Rose has been working with Highland Mayor Joe Michaelis on the development of the Highland Historic Commission, which the city council approved earlier this month. The commission members have not yet been named, but Rose said he has been in touch with the owners of the brewery after several people have raised concerns about its condition.
As a young Boy Scout, he sorted donations for the food pantry in sight of the shuttered brewery. He’s had his homecoming, prom and engagement pictures taken in front of it, as have many other people in Highland, he said.
“That building has a little place in everyone’s hearts,” Rose said. “No one wants to see that building go.”
Rose said the discussions have included not only the present owners, but other interests outside of Highland. Possible uses have included a mixed-use redevelopment, a microbrewery or high-rise loft apartments.
“I would hope it would be developed as a historic district,” Rose said, to include the remaining houses connected by the tunnels to the brewery.
Spindler beyond repair, Schott is salvageable
Recently, Highland lost another one of its historic buildings: The Spindler building that once housed Highland’s biggest general store was condemned and demolished after its roof collapsed in and interiors were largely destroyed. It was in such poor condition the fire department could not even conduct controlled burns for training, as has often been done in condemned buildings.
But most agreed the Spindler building was unsalvageable. That’s not the case for the Schott Brewery, according to city leaders..
“Structurally, I don’t know how thick the walls are, but they don’t build them like that any more,” McGinley said. “Ugly, yes, but falling down into the street, maybe not.”
“The Spindler buildings just couldn’t be saved,” he said. “But the brewery ... they just don’t build them like they used to.”