Prohibition nearly killed it, but time could destroy it. That’s the situation for the last remaining brewing complex in Manhattan. The former D.G. Yuengling Brewery Co. complex in Harlem is under consideration for landmark designation and a public hearing was held last Thursday. This complex is part of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s 95-item backlog.
The complex consists of six buildings: 1361 Amsterdam Avenue, 461-467 West 126th Street, 423-427 West 127th Street, 439-449 West 127th Street, 454-458 West 128th Street, and 460-470 West 128th Street. Public hearings were last held on July 15, 1991 and October 29, 1991.
The area originally operated as the Excelsior Brewery and then the Manhattan Brewery, but the property was purchased by David G. Yuengling, Jr. in 1875. By 1897, however, it had become the John F. Betz Manhattan Brewery.
In 1903, the property was sold to brewers Max Bernheimer, Anton Schwartz, and Arthur Friedland, who undertook a major expansion. They even replaced some of the older buildings. During prohibition, the complex was adapted for use by several businesses, including dairy, cold storage, and laundry.
Most of the complex returned to brewery use for the Horton’s Pilsner Brewing Company in the 1930s, according the LPC’s 1991 staff hearing statement, with 423-427 West 127th Street having been constructed in 1934-1926. Horton itself went out of business in 1941.
The building at 1361 Amsterdam Avenue is actually known as the Mink Building because it eventually became home to the Interborough Fur Storage Company.
The site is currently owned by Janus Property Company and, not surprisingly, several representatives testified in opposition to designating the sizable piece of real estate. Among them was land use attorney Judith Gallant of Bryan Cave, who said the standard for designation was not met because the character defining qualities no longer exist.
Ruediger Lentz, former head of the German-American Heritage Museum in Washington, D.C., said “only remnants” remain.
Community Board 9’s Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas said that the complex was “so altered” prior to acquisition by Janus that the “architectural merit has been lost.” City Council Member Mark Levine opposed designation, citing the enormous job-creating potential on the site.
The Historic Districts Council, which represents over 500 organizations across the city, called for designation of the complex, noting that it predates residential development in that part of Manhattan.
“It would be a crime if this complex was lost – nowhere else does a group of buildings of the brewing industry survive intact as a small district. Other former industrial areas of New York have proven to be destination worthy – often even too popular a destination,” HDC’s Kelly Carroll said. “Real estate pressure is eating Harlem alive, especially along 125th Street and along the avenues, rendering century-old streetscapes unrecognizable. This enclave has a sense of place unlike any other, uptown or downtown. This is the last reminder of a great industry, and it shouldn’t be thrown away to the wrecking ball.”
Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City praised it as a relic of Manhattan’s industrial past. “This is the real deal! Let’s preserve it,” said the Victorian Society’s Hilda Regier. The New York Landmarks Conservancy also backed designation.
Activist Michael Henry Adams of Save Harlem Now said there was a disparity between the preservation efforts undertaken for Greenwich Village and those undertaken for Harlem. He called those supporting Janus’s position against designation “sellouts.”
Architect Brad Taylor, who says in his Twitter bio that he has a permanent address in Morningside Heights since the day he was born in the foothills of the Himalayas, disputed the assertion that the complex has deteriorated or lost its architectural merit. “Don’t tell me it’s not intact!” he said.
Several others on both sides testified as well.
From this point, the commission will hold public meetings, at which time it will consider either prioritizing designation for some items by December 2016, removing items from the calendar by voting not to designate, or removing items from the calendar by issuing a no action letter.