The former cold storage facility of F.A. Poth Brewing Company at 31st and Jefferson Streets is one of those industrial buildings so saturated in character that it is impossible to not be overtaken by its charm. The 148-year-old brick Rundbogenstil complex stands out from the crowd in Brewerytown like a brawny Barvarian dancing the Schuhplattler. The Oompah music faded in 1936 when Poth was put out of business following the fallout of Prohibition and inability to recover after the ban was reversed. Red Bell Brewing Company returned the facility to its original function in 1996 after decades of different uses. But the building went into foreclosure in 2002 after the much-hyped beer company tanked on the stock market and lost their brewing license due to $80,000 in unpaid payroll taxes. The crimson hulk has since sat vacant for the last 16 years save for a steady stream of graffiti artists, urban explorers, and, oddly, an escape room video game designer. Today, the lights are back on inside the building as its new owners, real estate firm MMPartners, initiates their first phase of reactivating the Brewerytown icon with 135 lofts and 25,000 square feet of commercial space.
David Waxman and Aaron Smith have had their eyes on Poth/Red Bell since the duo started developing the area 17 years ago. The reuse of the brewery, designed by German-American architect Otto Wolf, is as much of a real estate investment as it is an obsession with the building’s roots. Followers of the firm’s Instagram page are treated almost daily to photos of old bottle stops, beer coasters, and other rare breweriana bearing the Poth and Red Bell name that they’ve scored on Ebay. “This is an amazing historic building that needed to be saved and we wanted to be the ones to do it. We are really honored to have this opportunity,” says Waxman.
MMPartners bought Poth/Red Bell through an off market transaction for $4.12 million and closed the deal in January 2018. They have since generated roughly $5.5 million in historic tax credits and continue to attract investors. The overall cost of the project is estimated at $37.6 million. The firm plans to proceed with construction in three phases: clear it of debris, gut it, and then fit it out with new insides. Waxman says that taking this tiered approach allows for the discovery of hidden conditions and exposing unique architectural details like vaulted ceilings and the Belgian blue block floors on the ground level that they plan on preserving.
Waxman and Smith appear to enjoy a heavy lift. Their roster of adaptive reuse projects is weighty and growing. Last summer they opened the doors of Pyramid Lofts, an old warehouse built in 1922 for furniture retailer Harry C. Kahn & Sons. After the last occupant, Pyramid Electric Supply Company, vacated the building in 2002 it became a blighted shell and a hot spot for graffiti—not the kind of a building that would attract most developers looking to make a profit.
“We love these old buildings because you simply can’t build a new building like this anymore,” says Waxman. You get high ceilings, thick walls and floors, and amazing original details. The stories behind many of these buildings also make a great marketing angle because they are authentic not something contrived like you see in a lot of new buildings.”
This week MMPartners will receive a 2018 Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia for their work reviving the long-shuttered AF Bornot Dye Works on Fairmount Avenue with residential units. In 2009, the firm converted a 19th century yarn mill warehouse in Manayunk that had fallen into dereliction into contemporary office space. They are currently working on converting the old St. Joseph’s Hospital in Francisville into an apartment complex. In West Philly, the firm is retrofitting a 19th century school in Powelton Village into apartments.
“Historic buildings aren’t for all developers,” says Waxman. “You really need a great team of professionals who understand these buildings and can cost-effectively design and build them. New construction is certainly easier and less risky in many instances, but the end product simply can’t compete with a historic building.”
Inside F.A. Poth/Red Bell Brewery before construction begins. Photographs by Michael Bixler