Bless Our Beer Gardens, Past and Present

October 20, 2014 | by Nicolas Esposito


Spruce Street Harbor Park brought in 20,000 visitors on their first weekend alone | Photo: Bradley Maule

If you decided to buck the trend of the traditional city exodus to the Jersey shore this summer by spending your weekends at home, you may have found a pleasant respite in the city’s beer gardens, an old Philadelphia tradition that has lately taken new form. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society transformed a vacant lot on 15th and South into the organization’s fourth pop-up park. For the second year in a row, the PHS pop-up was also a beer garden, with lounge areas channeling the more posh and tropical locales of South Beach or Majorca. The City’s Department of Parks and Recreation (which incidentally employs me), in partnership with the Fairmount Park Conservancy, transformed the grove of trees at Eakins Oval into a beer garden equipped with other summertime diversions like mini-golf and an outdoor dance floor. Several private bar operators have gotten into the act as well. The most notable of these are Independence Beer Garden and the recently opened beer garden at the Fringe.


Independence Beer Garden took up residence at the Rohm & Haas building with stunning results | Photo: Peter Woodall

The standout among summer’s outdoor drinking areas was the Spruce Harbor Park. Emma Fried-Cassorla, communications manger of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DWRC), which built the park, told an audience at DesignPhiladelphia that officials were surprised by the instant success of the park. “We were expecting 5,000 people the first weekend, and got 20,000. We didn’t anticipate having to restock our entire beer supply after the first day,” she said.

They restocked and went on to host one of the most successful beer gardens in the city. However, Fried-Cassorla eschewed the beer garden label. “The intent was not to make a beer garden. Plenty of people came to just hang out in a hammock under the lights or play with the chess board.” Yet she still concedes that the beer was a fairly effective draw to accomplish the actual intent—getting people to come down to the waterfront. (Read Hidden City’s review of Spruce Street Harbor Park HERE)

Much more than that: the park’s designers named their restaurant/bar, operated by Jose Garces, “The Blue Anchor,” a nod to what many consider to be the name of the first bar in Philadelphia. According to UShistory.org, “[It] was there that Penn established one of the two earliest public landings, the other day a Blue Anchor sign with ‘1682’ on it was affixed, as it had long been, to the premises at the northwest corner of Front and Dock, where many of the son of bibulous cheer have delighted to refresh themselves.” Some place the origins of the Blue Anchor to as early as 1671.

Of course, not everyone was lost in the gaze of this summer’s pop-up romance. Four state legislatures went on the defense against the sale of alcohol, accusing the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board of being too lenient. In a letter to the PLCB, the legislators on behalf of licensed bar owners who complained, contended that the PLCB allowed beer garden operators to exploit a private catering permit and bar partnership loophole in an “attempt to permanently establish a retail liquor establishment at an unlicensed location.” Certainly, if the four lawmakers get their way and the law is amended, it could have a detrimental effect on pop up beer sales next summer. A tremendously short sighted interference to say the least, pop ups have proven their worth three-fold. They activate previously unused space into a thrilling, civic destination. As Drew Becher, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society touches on in his opinion piece in the Inquirer yesterday, pop up gardens activate the potential of forgotten or ignored cityscape. They put a spotlight on the potential of neglected lots and barren, underutilized hardscape. They also generate excitement. As evinced in Mayor Nutter’s last minute call asking the DWRC to keep Spruce Street Harbor Park open an additional month (mere days before it was to close), these pop up beer gardens invigorate the city and draw crowds with forward-thinking urban design and great public programming. This is a huge asset to the city that quibbling lawmakers in Harrisburg fail to understand. Lastly, these pop ups are a storied, Philadelphia tradition. Beer gardens date back two centuries and this summer’s resurgence is yet another fine example of the modern city embracing its hoppy heritage.

Rich Wagner, author of Philadelphia Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Cradle of Liberty, is an authority on the city’s beer history. In Ale Street News, Wagner wrote that the 1876 edition of the Philadelphia business directory contained over 2,000 listings for lager beer saloons in the city; by the late 1890s, there were nearly 100 breweries. The saloons were supplied by numerous brewers all across the city, from Kensington to Brewerytown, Northern Liberties to the banks of the Schuylkill. In just the area of North Philadelphia that is now Temple University, there were a half dozen breweries such as Class & Nachod, Excelisor Brewing Co. and Charles Wolter’s Prospect Brewery.


The operators of several of these breweries built small brewpubs where patrons could enjoy a beer on site before bringing a few bottles back home. Many of these areas were outdoors. These were called “bier gartens,” and were often included on detailed insurance surveys of the time. Some large brewers went further. The Betz family owned breweries on at 415 Callowhill, on Columbia Avenue, and on North Broad Street. On Columbia Avenue, the Betz brewery was connected to an opera house.

John Betz would take his patrons on boozy steamboat cruises up and down the Schuylkill River. The landing for these cruises was his brewpub and hotel the “River House Hotel,” which was located where the Philadelphia Canoe Club now exists at the foot of the Wissahickon Creek. As this steamboat would cruise down the river, it would have most certainly passed the Engel and Wolf Brewery on Fountain Green Drive directly on the banks of the Schuylkill.

Engel & Wolf

The brewery, along with other polluting factories, was eventually forcefully acquired by the City in order to create Fairmount Park, which would protect the city’s main source of drinking water. Engel and Wolf also owned the Wolf Family farm that offered its patrons a picnic groove, a saloon, hotel and of course a “bier garten.”

Though beer is the universal connector of the classes, not every imbiber could afford these oftentimes posh and expensive resorts. As Wagner explained, “If you want to generalize the Germans, many worked in factories six days a week, and would take their day off to go to Fairmount Park with their families to get fresh air, have a picnic and drink. Beer gardens were a fundamental part of the culture.”

Wagner also admitted that these beer gardens were often times unsanctioned and would be nothing more than setting up chairs and blankets and cracking open a few “Lagers” or Duppel Bocks” or “Weissbier” depending on the season. As Fairmount Park was becoming established and some of the historic mansions became vacant in the park, German families would utilize them for their Sunday rituals.

Eventually, one of the mansions, Lemon Hill, became the city’s first public beer garden. This parcel originally belonged to American Revolution financier and Declaration of Independence signer Robert Morris as part of his 300 acre estate, “The Hills.” In 1799, Philadelphia merchant and real estate developer Henry Pratt purchased 43 acres of the estate from sheriff’s sale for $14,654 and named it Lemon Hill, apparently inspired by the lemon trees he found in Morris’ former greenhouse. Although Pratt was a success, he had a hard go of it, losing two of his three wives and outliving 12 of his 14 children. Devastated after the loss of his favorite daughter Sarah Pratt McKean, he sold Lemon Hill to speculators Isaac C. Lloyd and Knowles Taylor in 1836 for the sum of $225,00, which netted a hefty profit. Although heartbroken, Pratt was still of sound financial mind because in the next year of 1837, a financial crisis ruined Lloyd and Knowles plans to build a Coal Wharf on the river banks of Lemon Hill and they lost the property due to devaluation of the land. The property and house sat in disrepair until the the estate was purchased for $75,000 by the City in the creation of Fairmount Park.

In 1847, the city finally leased the land to William H. Kern, a tailor and ice dealer from 3rd and Walnut. There is no historical record for why, but Kerns immediately turned around and subleased the land to Mr. P. Zaiss—a German who turned Lemon Hill into a cultural center for Philadelphia’s German population, equipped with many things, but most notably, a beer garden. As an 1840s description stated:

“Lemon Hill is now a Lager-Bier-Garden, a favorite resort of the German population of Philadelphia, where, on Sundays and Holidays, they assemble in large numbers to consume quantities of lager-bier, cheese and other refreshments, and to amuse themselves with dancing, gymnastics, and the same exercises and sports that characterize similar gatherings in the fatherland.”


Lemon Hill Mansion | Library Company of Philadelphia

“Gymnastics” referred to activities organized by the Turner Societies, which was a nationalistic movement in mid-19th century Germany that closely aligned with worker’s organizations and democratic clubs, and had been banned in Germany since 1811. Lemon Hill also attracted participants of Sangerfest, or festival of singing societies, which proliferated throughout Philadelphia in the 1840s and 1850s. Although Sangerfesters would certainly have a raucous good time, “[The Germans] make good use of the dancing platform and refreshment stands, and return at night in the order in which they marched from the city, rarely, if ever, overstepping the bounds of decorum.”

But not everyone was happy about this. A growing movement called the “Know-Nothings,” a reorganization of the 1840s anti-immigration group the Nativists, used misbehavior at beer gardens to fuel anti-German sentiment. “The tenants settle like incubi upon the spot, and completed the destruction which had been commenced by Mr. Lloyd; at the end of his time, by neglect, by fire, and by wanton destruction, this place, the abode of once princely luxury, had fallen into ruin,” said a newspaper editorial.

The Nativist’s anti-immigration politics zeroed in on Kensington’s Irish in 1844 igniting a violent riot |John B. Perry, 1844

However, according to a report, “The Historic Structure Report for Lemon Hill Mansion,” prepared by Watson and Henry Associates, it was the City that was actually at fault for much of the disrepair. In 1853, while trying to repave the road that led to Kern’s onsite ice house, the contractors “executed the work so unskillfully” that they destroyed the roof and fixtures.

Philadelphia officials were then implored to step in, but were reluctant to allocate funds to Lemon Hill since it was technically located a mile outside of the city. They also were reluctant to benefit “the citizens of the districts lying north of Vine Street”–German immigrants. There was talk of giving the land to a “company of gentlemen” for the creation of a public promenade, and even the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 1849 was asked to help.

Nothing happened until 1855, one year after the City of Philadelphia and its outlying districts were consolidated. Zaiss and Kerns were able to hold onto the property and continue their beer garden. But now with the land secured in the new borders of Philadelphia, two resolutions were passed, one making Lemon Hill a public park and the other terminating the lease of the tenants. The next week, Zaiss advertised what was to be a farewell event that included, “[A Sour Krout] lunch will be served from 1PM to 3PM. Lager beer and other refreshments are all of the best kind.”

But the eviction didn’t happen, and they were able to keep their lease, engendering more criticism from the press:

“On the last Sabbath afternoon, a large crowd of persons congregated on the Lemon Hill property—a number so large that more than forty barrels of lager beer we called into requisition, besides any amount of wine, to supply their guzzling propensities. Now, surely, here is an outrageous nuisance to be abated.”

Two years later, another editorial said, “It is lamentable to see the extent to which ruffianism and malicious law have wrecked everything about Lemon Hill.”

Zaiss appeared to have been in control of the property until the last Sangerfest in June 1857. In 1858, the city put out a public request for proposals to improve Fairmount Park and particularly Lemon Hill. Ten years later the ground was officially laid out as a public park.

There is much more history to recount, but the most telling part of the story was this shift from what seemed to be intolerance to German customs in the editorials, to what ultimately became intolerance of the act of drinking itself. After 1890, there were there were virtually no new breweries created as the temperance movement gained traction; beer became a bad investment. By 1920, with the Volstead act, outdoor displays of drinking beer such as a beer garden became completely improbable.

Once prohibition ended, some beer gardens returned, as I reported in my story last year about German Onley. Yet the tradition was lost and the brewing companies, which once numbered over 2,000, could not reorganize effectively after Prohibition ended. By the 1950s, only four large breweries remained.

Drinking alcohol outside seems to be an innate human pleasure. In Philadelphia, people have continued to drink in the confines of their backyards and illegally in Fairmount Park, as I have witnessed the aftermath during my many cleanups. The yearly Octoberfests and the Italian Festival in South Philly have continued well into the 21th century. The steady stream of new outdoor bars and restaurants, not to mention Eagles tailgating, further spread the gospel of drinking al fresco. The craft beer movement of the past few decades has also injected a considerable amount of energy in this revival of commercially sanctioned outdoor drinking.


Install hammocks and they will come | Photo: Bradley Maule

For Emma Fried-Cassorla and DWRC, this love of drinking outside was on full display this summer at Spruce Harbor. A final study on the use and economic impact of the park use of Spruce Harbor Park will be conducted by EcoConsult over the next few months and then released to the public, but it was obvious that the park was a success. In informal talks with operators of Keatings, the bar/restaurant attached to the Hyatt Hotel next door, I learned they had their best year ever. Their terrace, overlooking Spruce Street Harbor Park was a particular success.

The innovative and unique reuse of outdoor space appears to be the driving force behind the rekindled beer garden culture in Philadelphia. Today’s beer gardens seem largely meant to catalyze the reuse of land. The PHS pop-up plugged a bit of beauty into what was an ugly gap on South Street. Parks and Recreation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy continued their advocacy for more “park” and less “way” by drawing people to a Eakins Oval, where the threat of being run over by a car on the Parkway once deterred many people from exploring that space. The DWRC also succeeded in reminding people that it’s worth the sometimes perilous trek over Delaware Avenue to explore our city’s waterfront.


About the Author

Nicolas Esposito Nic Esposito is an urban farmer, novelist and founder of The Head and the Hand Press. He lives on his urban homestead in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Nic's new book Kensington Homestead was released by The Head & The Hand Press in November 2014.

One Comment:

  1. Sam Levitt says:

    Congratulations on your work. I was born& raised In Logan….Lindley ave. in fact. I wrote a book that I think you would like on at least one level. It is set mainly in Logan but I talk about Olney a lot including the rockland Bar and many other spots. the book is called….” Ben’s” It was published in 2017. I have been working on another one. for three years. It is also set in Logan. It deals with an ex boxer turned junkie who finds Jesus then fights again. He did all right but lost to a much better and younger boxer (Bobby Chacon) in 1978. My book really starts in 1980 and (this is fiction) Augie is 35 and get punched in the head and blacks out…..really out . they operate on him and he has a stroke. I talk about his recovery and his new passion which is writing about sports for magazines. While this is going on a serial killer is loose in Philadelphia. anyway Augie figures out who he is a nd pursues him for three years. I hope it is out in two years. It is called ” the Will of the creator”. Good luck with your work. I love Logan and Olney….sam Levitt

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