Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Beer and Circuses in Ann Arbor Michigan

A longish post today, and one probably of interest only to serious brewery cave buffs.  But it was an interesting visit, and one that gave me a lot to puzzle over.

First things first.  I love it when old brewery caves get put to modern uses, and it is especially fun when they are used for something a bit similar to their original mission.

Nick Easton acquired the site that would become The Cavern Club when he ran an antique store.  His sales area was up above, the caves underneath were just used for storage.  As Ann Arbor is a college town the idea of using the venue as a night spot was soon suggested to him, and it has been a success. In fact, after opening the Cavern Club in the former beer ageing caves he went on to open several other venues in the structure above and in the building next door.  I would prefer to sip my beer down in the arched stone vaults, but if your tastes run towards dancing and quaffing in other themes you can do so in spots with a circus theme, a New York City theme or a "Millenium" vibe.  To each their own.

Nick was kind enough to give me a personal tour one afternoon.  For a night club impresario this is the equivalent of getting up at the crack of dawn, so thanks again, Nick!

I must say the building was not what I expected, and my puzzlement began on first sight.

I will admit that Michigan is not my usual area of exploration, but there is a lot wrong with the concept of this being a brewery building from the 1850s.  It was not near a visible water source.  It was not built into a cliff or hillside.  It was made of  light red brick, of the sort usually seen with structures from 1890 to 1910.  The windows looked wrong.  Notice how they are set at varying positions within the squared off brick faces?  Behind the brewery were railroad tracks.  They were actually built up higher than the level of the brewery.  No doubt the railroad got to Ann Arbor fairly early, but not as early as this brewery was established.  All very odd, and I will explain after we have a look around the inside.

You have to like a bar that has a stuffed lion jumping through neon flames!  But that is upstairs in the Circus section.  Our interest lies underground, down in the Cavern Club.

There are a series of intersecting tunnels.  Their alignment to the building above was peculiar.  Brick and stone foundations appeared to alternate.  I think the upper photo is the "main line" and the bricked arch - which has a twin just to the right of this image - a subsidiary passage.  Lets look at some construction details:

Here we have the classic short stone wall with brick arch above.  As we have seen in earlier explorations this is what you had to do when you did not have a nice cliff face of workable stone. The technique involved extensive excavation, constructing the side walls first, then fitting the brickwork over an earthen, or in theory, wooden, form.  In general this is something you would do adjacent to your brewery building, not right underneath.  These vaults are strong, but why take that kind of chance?

I hunted up and down the tunnels and found evidence of only one vent shaft.  Again, peculiar.  And the shape is not the classic "port hole".  As this appears to be near the sidewalk in front of the club Nick was of the opinion that it was a coal chute.  Maybe, but the construction looks original so my vote is for an atypical vent system. to piece this together?  I retired to the Ann Arbor public library where I was able to quickly consult some historic photos and the excellent book Ann Arbor Beer by Dave Bardallis.  Lets revisit the location of The Cavern Club.  First in 2015:

This is as nearly as I could - safely - duplicate the angle of an 1882 photo:

You should notice several things in the black and white image.  The building is wooden.  There is a decided downward slope as you go from front to back, now reversed as you go uphill to a railroad grade.  And it has a sign that reads Central Roller Mills.  The story appears to be roughly this:

A brewery has been on this site since at least 1853.  This makes sense as the street in front of the brewery was the early city limits of Ann Arbor.  You avoided a lot of trouble with ordinances by setting up shop just over the line. What you can't see here, but the trees suggest, is that behind this structure ran Allen Creek.

The earliest Ann Arbor city directory lists Gottlieb and Christian Hauser as the proprietors of "The City Brewery" at this address, although as mentioned there are clues to the presence of brewing on the site some years earlier.  Early accounts give us a few useful details, it is mentioned that the lagering caves had a ground level entrance, this certainly being from the much lower rear of the complex.  And it is noted that cooling was in part by water "from the creek" running through the caves.  I did not get a very good image of it, but under much later cement there was some sort of deeper channel with running water under the cave floor.  As it was running towards Allen Creek this would have been from a spring somewhere uphill.  This answers the issue of water supply nicely, and would explain why they could get by with less than usual venting mechanisms.

My sense of direction is fairly good, so with respect to the 1882 photo I would say that the caves were mostly near the right of the main brewery building with a passage running across the front.  There are wagons loaded with kegs near the dock in the foreground.  Beer must have been taken out of those fairly narrow looking doors for distribution. There was a structure inside the Cavern Club that was felt to be an early elevator, presumably the beer was hauled up this way rather than being taken out of some lower, back entrance to the caves.

The City Brewery went bankrupt in the Panic of 1873.  The property was taken over by the Ann Arbor Central Mills around 1882.  Presumably they had the grain storage space already and adding the machinery to grind feed and flour would not have been difficult.  Some portion of the property, the caves one presumes, continued on as a beer distributorship for Milwaukee and Detroit products at least into the later 1880s.

As time went by Progress, or at least Change had its way with things.  Allen Creek was diverted and covered over.  The railroad built a line directly behind the structure no doubt adding many feet of fill and covering the original entrances to the caves.  The wooden structure went away, either from dilapidation or as a result of the more kinetic demise so common to the combination of  boilers and grain dust.*  A red brick building was erected circa 1900 apparently using some of the original 1850s foundations. Later still it was a farm implement dealership in the 1930s at which time the floors were reinforced with cement to hold up under the extra weight.

All in all an enjoyable visit and a nice little detective story.  If you are in Ann Arbor and in need of a beer in congenial surroundings you might want to stop by.  I know I will next time through, having put most of the pieces together - I think - I now want to scrutinize the stonework more closely.  I bet I could find traces of the earlier "outside" entryways.  And that drain under the floor?  It would be interesting to check and see if cool water is still flowing down there.  It would please me to see that unchanged when so much all around has been altered.

The Cave Club and its allied venues can be found at 210 S. First Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
*addendum. There is an alternate theory, one that has the wooden building still in situ but with a veneer of newer brick over it.  There are points both ways.  For instance the window placement is quite similar.  But this would at a minimum require the upper peaked part of the wooden building and the portions to the right side to have been removed.  I will say that on the second floor there appeared to be no wood remaining but it is a very complex structure and I might at the point I made a close inspection, have stepped through into what certainly appears to be a modern building next door.

Personally I would be delighted to find all or part of the original building still intact.


Philip Valtadoros said...

Very cool! This covered a lot information that is skipped over in most other articles about the establishment. I'm doing a project on this building in my history class. How should I cite you as a source? Thanks!

Tacitus2 said...


You are welcome to any information here. I should say that having thought on the matter I am leaning toward's Mr. Easton's theory that the "bones" of the brewery building are still original and have had a brick layer added over. This is rather unusual.

Quote Nick and the book I reference as sources.


John Hilton said...

The elevation change behind the building has its own interesting history: after one too many fatal accidents at grade crossings--and a threatened incursion by multiple interurban lines--the Ann Arbor Railroad was elevated above three downtown streets. The Cavern Club sits next to the rising southern end of embankment (which was known, humorously, as "the Great Wall of Ann Arbor").