Rediscovering our Blue Ribbon past

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Karen Haertel believes that if a large corporation had taken ownership of the former Pabst Brewing Co.’s abandoned corporate offices in Milwaukee, it may have simply gutted the buildings. After all, the offices were just as the company left them when the firm abruptly and illegally closed its Milwaukee brewery in 1996. The headquarters were littered with cigarette-filled ashtrays, empty beer cans, old appliances, boxes and trash. A large development company likely would have ordered trash containers to the site in the 900 block of West Juneau Avenue and efficiently hauled the mess away, Haertel said. From a local historical preservation standpoint, that would have been a travesty.

When Brew City Redevelopment Group LLC, the small company founded by Haertel’s husband, Jim Haertel, acquired the former Pabst offices in 2002, they also took ownership of the contents — trash and all.

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The Haertels began sifting through the rubble, and what they found is an historic collection of memorabilia that documents the city’s heritage as the former brewing capitol of the world.

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The Haertels found a remarkable collection of old photographs taken in the 1940s. The subjects in many of the photographs are celebrities, who for one reason or another visited the Pabst brewery (see accompanying story).

Notable are photographs of actor and comedian Groucho Marx, who was hamming it up in poses, lifting steins of beer, milling through barrels of hops and propping his feet up while flirting with an unidentified female.

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In one of the photographs (right), Groucho is seen without his trademark fake eyebrows and mustache.

"I didn’t even know his mustache wasn’t real," said Karen Haertel, who is chief financial officer of Brew City Redevelopment Group.

Actually, Groucho began his career on Vaudeville as a stand-in for an actor who had a dark mustache and eyebrows, according to Wayne Boenig, a resident of Walpole, Mass., and contributor to, an Internet site devoted to the careers of the Marx Brothers.

"So, he put on the makeup, and it was like shoe polish. Legend has it that Groucho took a liking to that makeup," Boenig said. "It had a slight intoxicating effect that enhanced, shall we say, his already comic behavior."

With the Groucho photos in hand, Haertel kept sifting through the rubble. She found other photographs that feature performers Danny Kaye, Jimmy Durante and Donald O’Connor during their visits to the Pabst brewery.

Haertel also found photographs of former Pabst executives celebrating the company’s centennial in 1944.

The artifacts included a guest registry book that features people from all over the world, including most of the members of the 1953 Boston Red Sox team.

"It just shows what a significant business Pabst was for the city," Haertel said.

In addition to the photographs, Haertel found old beer steins, beer signs, two wall safes, grandfather clocks, ornate tables, desks and chairs, original stock certificates, warranty deeds and an architectural sketch on parchment paper.

She also found some original 16-inch acetate recorded transcription discs, simply labeled "WISN (AM 1130) — Danny Kaye," and a canister containing an old movie reel.

Haertel doesn’t know what’s on the recorded discs or the movie reel, but she hopes to find out someday.

"I think Danny Kaye may have come to Milwaukee to tape his radio show, but I don’t know. It’s going to be a project for me. It’s like detective work," Haertel said.

The buildings, including the former Pabst Gift Shop and the Blue Ribbon Hall, feature chandeliers, lead stained glass windows, an antique bar, a fireplace, hand-milled woodwork and custom mural paintings on the walls and ceilings.

The musky smells of wood and a bygone era linger in the brewery offices, as if time had suddenly stopped.

The desk of former chairman of the board, Frederick Pabst Jr., who was the great-grandson of brewery founder Jacob Best and the son of Capt. Frederick Pabst, still sits in a corner office. The desk is next to a coat rack holding a dark blue blazer with an embroidered Pabst logo, as if the man had just wandered away from his office and is soon to return.

Haertel’s findings comprise a "treasure trove" of reminders of the city’s business history, according to John Gurda, Milwaukee historian and author of "The Making of Milwaukee."

"Pabst was the first Milwaukee brewery to become the nation’s largest," Gurda said. "Like all the breweries, they were pretty much shuttered during the Prohibition, and then the war came along.

"There was a time when this was a Pabst town. That period in the late 1940s was a throwing off of the anxieties of the war, with all of the optimism toward the future," Gurda said. "It was the foundation of our image. You can bring old buildings to new life, and I hope for the same thing and more for Pabst."

"You really get a sense of what a central point Pabst was to this city. You can see through the photographs that this was an important part of the city’s culture," said John Eastberg, historian at The Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, after reviewing the photographs. "Thankfully, Pabst always kept a professional photographer on hand. Some of this stuff barely made it through, so how fortunate we are. That building has such incredible character. I think they (the Haertels) are doing a great job. Thankfully, it’s fallen into good hands, because somebody else might have just gutted it.

"The photos show the national pull and prestige Pabst had. They were huge, national advertisers, where everybody recognized the name of the product," Eastberg said.

Once Haertel figures out exactly what she’s found, she plans to preserve and display the memorabilia in The Museum of Beer and Brewing, which will be built on the second floor of the Pabst complex.

"This is what keeps me interested in the project. The business side of it gives me headaches," Haertel said.

She leaves those business dealings to her husband, who has a letter of intent from the Cincinnati Restaurant Group Inc. to build a Milwaukee version of the Hofbrauhaus, the famous beer homage in Munich, Germany, on the first floor of the Pabst City complex.

Jim Haertel also has a letter of intent from the Milwaukee Museum of Beer and Brewing to open the beer museum on the second floor of the building.

In addition, he is taking applications from prospective operators of a "beer, bed and breakfast" to be developed on the building’s third floor, which is now vacant office and meeting space.

The Haertels plan to name their portion of the Pabst City project "The Best Place at Pabst City," after the Best Brewing Co., which was the precursor to Pabst Brewing Co.

In the meantime, the Haertels are waiting for their larger development partners, Wispark LLC and The Ferchill Group, to secure the permits and tax credits needed for the project to proceed. They hope to begin construction later this year and open in 2006.

"We’re ready to go," Jim Haertel said.

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