The brick smokestack of the shuttered Gretz Brewery still towers over North Philadelphia, 51 years after it officially shut down. If a local advocate has her way, the smokestack–as well as all the buildings that formerly made up one of Philadelphia’s most successful and innovative breweries–won’t be going anywhere soon.
“Our goal is to make sure it doesn’t get torn down,” said Natania Schaumburg, program coordinator for the South Kensington Community Partners. Her colleague and SKCP board member Nicole LaGreca is currently leading an attempt to nominate the building, at West Oxford Street and Germantown Avenue in South Kensington, for the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which would give it legal protection against demolition. (It would also join a growing movement to nominate work-related buildings to the Register.)
The Gretz family revolutionized the marketing and selling of beer during Gretz’ 80-year tenure. In the half-century since the brewery closed in 1961, the structure–one of the last of the old breweries still standing in the area–has fallen into disrepair, attracting vagrants, graffiti, and trash.
“Some people see it as an eyesore, as something dangerous,” said Tony Tsirantonakis, principle at T+Associates Architects, who incorporated the dilapidated buildings into architecture classes when he taught at Temple University. “But it’s a great piece of brick architecture and a great old building.”
“It’s important that we retain what’s left of some of our industrial and cottage industry history,” said LaGreca. “It’s a relic and testament to a craft industry in the fabric of Philadelphia.”
A Little Gretz History
When William Gretz teamed up with Leonard and Frank Rieger to open a brewery in 1881, Gretz had already been brewing beer under his name for several years just up the block at Cecil B. Moore Avenue and 4th Street. Rieger & Gretz, which came to make lagers, ales, bocks, and more, became one of 94 breweries operating out of Philadelphia at the time, many of which were located in North Philadelphia and nearby Brewerytown.
Options for a location for a brewery were limited–trains weren’t legally allowed to enter Center City until the late 19th century, according to Tsirantonakis. That restricted manufacturing facilities to north of Spring Garden Street, on the periphery of what was then the city.
“Beer was meant for the areas within a horse cart ride of the brewery,” said Tsirantonakis. “Northern Liberties and Kensington were developing a big German and Irish population that needed beer.”
After prohibition, seventeen breweries in Philadelphia reopened, including the newly renamed William Gretz Brewing Company. But by 1952, only four remained. Pennsylvania brewery historian Rich Wagner attributes Gretz’ ability to outlast its competition to marketing, advertising and luck. “The beer can was a new thing in 1935, and Gretz was one of the beers that went into cans,” said Wagner. “If you weren’t in that packaged beer market, you stood to go out of business. Gretz had the can.”
That advantage led to some of Gretz’s best years. In 1946, the brewery was outselling national competitor Anheuser-Busch nearly 2-to-1 in packaged beer in the Philadelphia area. In 1949, the brewery’s most productive year, Gretz brewed over 240,000 barrels of beer–or 3,120,000 cases.
A lot of Gretz’s success came from its marketing and advertising, which were ahead of their time. The brewery sponsored men’s and women’s bowling teams, a barbershop quartet and one year a televised beauty pageant called the “The Gretz Cavalcade of Girls” (Joan Kinckiner of Camden, NJ, won). Gretz’s outdoor posters were ranked alongside Ford, Sunoco, and Morton Salt as the best in the city in 1950, according to Poster Ratings, a nationally known research organization at the time.
But the brewery’s efforts just weren’t enough.
“[The late 1950s] wasn’t a very lucrative time for the beer industry in Philadelphia,” said Michael Gretz Jr., 28, the grandson of former director of sales, Bob Gretz Sr.
Sales slowly declined as the Philadelphia beer market became more competitive. With the departure of Bob Gretz Sr. in 1954 and the sudden illness of the Gretz’s young head brewer, the family accepted an offer from Philadelphia competitor Esslinger to merge the two breweries. The North Philadelphia brewery officially shut down on January 20, 1961. Many Gretz family members moved to Esslinger, which produced Gretz beer for another five years until Esslinger was bought out by New York’s Jacob Ruppert Brewery.
The Name and The Brewery Remain
A half-century after its doors were closed, the brewery, its history, and the family associated with it are still on people’s minds in the region.
The Gretz family and name play a prominent role in the local beer market–Gretz Beer Company now operates out of Norristown, PA, as a wholesaler for Anheuser Busch and craft beer companies including Victory and Long Trail.
The brewery itself still stands vacant, surrounded by a chain link fence that’s easily breached. (Developer Tony Rufo, who purchased the property in August, 2003, said he resecures the property every two weeks.) Inside, there isn’t much left of the brewery but some rusted kettles; the walls are covered with graffiti and the floor with trash.
Despite the appearance of abandonment, the building is still structurally sound, according to Wagner. That makes it prime for development.
What should the former brewery become? Rufo says he wants to turn it into a condominium or a residence, but, he said, “banks aren’t lending money for that kind of stuff right now.” He and his men have repaired the roof to stop water infiltration, but until he can secure funding, “it’s a gem sitting there waiting to be worked on.”
Michael Gretz, Jr. envisions something a little more true to the building’s past. “With the craft beer scene booming these days, I don’t see why it couldn’t become another brewery,” he said. The Philadelphia Brewing Company, in the old Weisbrod & Hess brewery on Amber Street, is the city’s only original brewery still in use. Gretz, Jr. envisions a spot like Yards’ brewery on Delaware Avenue, with concerts and events that “can unite the community.”
If LaGreca succeeds in getting the building listed on the Philadelphia or the national register of historic places, the building’s exterior would have to be restored to its 19th century appearance. One benefit of being on the federal register: financial incentives in the form of tax credits.
No matter what ends up happening with the space, Gretz, Jr. couldn’t be happier that the brewery with which he shares his name is still standing and might one day again become a thriving part of Philadelphia. “It warms my heart to know that people still care about the brewery,” he said. “You have people who live locally who see [the brewery] for its potential and understand that it could be turned into something that’s greater than it is right now.”