Categorized | Featured, Milwaukee, News

Pabst Brewery plans development after decades of stasis

Posted on 14 April 2011 by Anna Ceragioli


When walking around Marquette’s campus, you may have noticed the maroon rotating sign on the northeast side of I-43. “The Brewery” is written on one side of this sign and “A Joseph Zilber Historic Development” on the other. Joseph Zilber’s name is certainly known across the Marquette campus. In 2007, one year before the philanthropist died at age 92, Zilber donated $30 million to the Marquette University Law School. But just a few blocks from campus, at the site of the former Pabst Brewery, Zilber’s vision of improving Milwaukee continues to flourish.

Months before his death, Joseph Zilber said that the new construction project of the Brewery would be his “legacy to Milwaukee.” He also stated, “The Pabst will be something that you’ll be proud of, I’ll be proud of, the city will be proud of.”

Of the Pabst Brewery’s 28 original buildings, 10 were torn down and 18 survived years of abandonment. Many of the remaining buildings have already been redeveloped into functioning spaces, including apartments, office space, a parking garage and the tavern and history center Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery. Six buildings are for sale and are all the subjects of great purchasing interest by several parties.

Dan McCarthy, vice president at Brewery Project LLC., says, “When everything is said and done the, goal is, as was Joe Zilber’s wish…that [the Brewery] area of town be restored to its potential as a neighborhood that is viable and sustainable.”


From 1844 to 1996, the Pabst Brewery was a source of employment, economy and pride in Milwaukee. Its history began when the Best family emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee. Originally wine makers, the Best family eventually started a brewing company in downtown Milwaukee known as “the little tavern on the hill.” As business began looking grim in the 1860s, Jacob Best’s son-in-law, Captain Frederick Pabst, became part of the Pabst team, and two years later, its president.  By 1874, the “little tavern on the hill” had grown into America’s largest brewery.

Business again began to look grim in the later half of the 20th century. The brewery’s close in December of 1996 was so abrupt that many employees left behind pictures, uniforms and even lunches in their lockers. All 21 acres of land sat stagnantly behind chain link.

Jim Haertel, proprietor of Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, a tavern and history center, said: “It was a ghost town. Seven city blocks, 28 buildings, almost 2 million square feet of space…not using one kilowatt.”

After a decade of failed attempts to rejuvenate the area, Joseph Zilber purchased the abandoned site in 2006 with plans to “create a new neighborhood that will rank with other great neighborhoods in Milwaukee.”


Work, Play and Educate

Those involved in Zilber’s Brewery development describe the project in three words: “work, play, educate.” McCarthy describes these objectives as “classic elements of any great urban community.” Haertel suggests that two other objectives of the developments are “live and park.”

The connection between the “work, play, educate” model and the dream of creating a truly great community are clear in the current developments and proposed developments of the Brewery site.


The former Boiler House now holds 50,000 square feet of office space, which is about 75 percent occupied and 25 percent vacant.

The former Shipping Center is a much looked at building for possible renovation. Two potential uses of these warehouses are offices for the federal government or offices for the Astronautics Corporation.


The former Brewhouse Millhouse, a 34,400 square foot, four story building on the “T” side of the iconic “PABST” sign, has several interested buyers. There are tentative suggestions for a 90-room, all suites hotel on the top three floors. The Hofbrauhaus, which already has a popular Milwaukee location at 1009 N. Old World Third Street, has announced plans to purchase the first floor of the building. Construction is expected to begin in about 60 days and to be completed for the summer of 2012.


The former Research Lab on North Tenth Street and West Winnebago Street was purchased by Cardinal Stritch University, who moved portions of their School of Education and Leadership into this 30,000 square feet area of office space.

The Manufacturing and Cold Storage Building on North Ninth Street and West Juneau Avenue, erected in 1918, is soon to be the UWM School of Public Health. The five story, 32,440 square foot building will be Wisconsin’s first school of public health and will house citizens of Milwaukee’s Department of Health. Construction will begin in June and the facility will officially open for the fall 2012 school year.


The former Keg House, one of the first projects, was extensively renovated to restore the Cream City brick exterior and convert the high-ceilinged interior into a series of apartments. In January of 2010, the Keg House opened as the Blue Ribbon Lofts, a 95 apartment complex that was fully rented out within the first month of being open.

Gorman Company, Inc., the company that renovated the Blue Ribbon Lofts, is also interested in converting the site of a demolished building on North Ninth Street and West Winnebago Street  into a Common Bond Community, a Minneapolis-based senior living company. The goal is to begin work on the 55 unit senior apartment building within the year.


In 2009, an eight story, 880 parking structure was erected on North Ninth Street and West Juneau Avenue. The first floor of this building holds 9,000 square feet of retail space that is currently for sale.

Also erected near the Cardinal Strich offices is Zilber Park, a small, minimalistic park that is the first step of plans to beautify the area. Especially in the early stages of development when many buildings are dirty stacks rising from weedy gravel, such small steps as a tree-studded park hold great aesthetic power.

Another building for sale is the former First German Methodist Church built in 1873 and later converted into the Forst Keller restaurant, which was especially popular amongst the Marquette community. The 3,020 square foot space is a source of interest to many parties and could be converted into anything from offices to an entertainment venue.

Marquette and Milwaukee;  Past and Progress

Marquette & Milwaukee

The progress occurring at the Pabst is not done without recognition of the Brewery’s proximity to Marquette. Specifically, developers recognize the notable distance of retailers from Marquette’s campus and plan on adding retail space to offer a more accessible option for the students.

When asked about connections between Marquette and the Zilber Historic Development project, Brewery Project LLC. vice presidents Dan McCarthy and Mike Mervis gave a “big scoop.”

“We are growing gradually optimistic that over the next couple of years, there will be a series of discussions between Marquette University, Aurora Sinai Health Partners and the Brewery over how to best use and connect these areas…to serve constituents of all three entities,” McCarthy said.

The very foundation of the brewery project is optimism of rejuvenating a once-prosperous area, serving the community and turning the shadows of the past into progress.

“The Pabst…we think it’s like the Third Ward or Old World Third Street,” Haertel said. “When Old World Third Street first started developing, people said, ‘Nobody’s gonna go across the river to Third Street.’  Today, people might say, ‘Eighth and 11th?  No one will go.’ But lots of people are already coming. This place will become big like them.”

The Pabst Brewery bridges the Marquette community and the central city to downtown Milwaukee, but that bridge was chained off for ten years. The developers in the Pabst area believe that by redeveloping the Brewery, this important bridge between Milwaukee communities will not only be restored, but become a catalyst for optimism and improvement in Milwaukee. As Haertel puts it, “A city is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Karen Haertel, wife of Jim Haertel and partner of Best Place at the Pabst, explained: “What’s happening at the Brewery is important to the Milwaukee community because what’s being created is a place of community. This is for people who need communal environments…so, everyone.”

Past & Present

In his book on the history of Milwaukee, Jerry Apps stated, “Wisconsin is virtually a brewery graveyard.” After its settlement in 1785, Milwaukee progressed into America’s beer capital. But the Civil War, Prohibition and economic turmoil of the later 20th century ended the business of most breweries.

The Pabst Brewery did not just spit out profits and smoke; it housed a business that helped shape the history and core identity of Milwaukee. Its buildings were not just factory stacks, but constructed with pride. In October of 1857, the Milwaukee Sentinel (now the Journal Sentinel) wrote of the then-newly constructed Mill House:

“The building is a fine looking one, and were it not for a life-sized figure of a sturdy Teuton which is perched on the top, in the act of sipping a glass of lager, one would never suspect its being a brewery.”

The developers of the Pabst Brewery respect the beauty and history of the brewery. They are cleaning the grime from the buildings so that the Cream City brick can shine. The Pabst logos and artwork remain in the buildings, the stained-glass windows are unbroken, the newly constructed buildings bear historic pictures of the brewery, and in the developing Brewhouse Millhouse, six massive copper kegs remain intact on the second floor despite the great profit that could have been made from merely melting down and selling the copper.

In particular, the history of the Pabst is represented by Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, whose first floor was once the guest center to visitors and upper stories once housed the company’s corporate offices. While the upper floors are still under development, the two bars, two courtyards, great hall and gift shop are open and functioning. In addition to hosting patrons in the evenings and Pabst History Tours at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Fridays through Sundays, Best Place has become a popular location for private parties and weddings.

Although progress can often mean destruction, the developments of the Pabst Brewery are unique in their balance of progress and preservation. The developers understand that Pabst’s 1844-1996 run is 125 years of history in a city settled 226 years ago. They understand that the total loss of this brewery is a price that Milwaukee cannot and should not have to pay. With Joseph Zilber’s goal to give Milwaukee a neighborhood to be proud of, developers’ goals to represent the needs of a variety of citizens, and the Milwaukee community’s pride in their brewery history, an abandoned brewery is slowly morphing into a living, breathing community. We are in the exciting position to see this metamorphosis and, hopefully, be able to play a part in its growth.

by Anna Ceragioli
[email protected]

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Martha Wilson Says:

    Hi Anna,
    I enjoyed the article and learned a lot about Pabst and about Milwaukee.
    Martha Wilson/St. Paul

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