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Funkstown – Foggy Bottom’s Landmark Heurich Brewery

By Frank Leone

 

The Christian Heurich Brewing Company operated D.C.’s largest brewery near the site of what is now the Kennedy Center from 1895-1956. The massive facility could brew up to 500,000 barrels of beer per year and employed up to 500 workers, some of whom lived in Foggy Bottom.


Christian Heurich (1842-1945) was one of D.C.’s most prominent business leaders.  Born in central Germany, he learned the brewing trade, and emigrated to Baltimore in 1866 and Washington in 1872. He married three times, with four children in his last marriage. In 1894, he built what is now the Heurich House Museum (1307 New Hampshire Ave.), which I strongly recommend you visit and support. Although suspected of supporting Germany during World War I (he was in Germany taking the baths when the war broke out), he was a loyal American. Heurich continued working at the brewery until his death at the age of 102.


Christian Heurich Brewing Co., 1910 (Library of Congress)

When he started his business, D.C. had a small but active German American community, including in Foggy Bottom. (In 1910, Germans were the second largest foreign-born community in D.C., after the Irish.) In September 1872, he and a partner bought a small brewery in West End/Dupont Circle, on 20th Street, between M and N Streets. In 1877, he built a larger (30,000 barrels per year) brewery on the site. As the neighborhood became more upscale there were complaints about the brewery odors, although Heurich saw no problem with the “healthy smell of hops and barley.” More importantly, the plant had three major fires and Heurich wanted a new fire-proof structure. 


Construction of the new brewery, located by the Potomac at what was then a square bounded by 25th, 26th, D and Water Streets, started in 1894. The Romanesque Revival style plant was designed by C.F. Terney of New York. The site gave the facility room to expand and was in a working class (Heurich wrote, “not considered a ‘nice’”) neighborhood, which already housed a Washington Gas complex, and was less likely to elicit complaints. Heurich built a nearby bottling plant in 1897 and a massive ice house in 1914.


Baist Map 1919, with Heurich Brewery in lower left (Library of Congress)

In the early days, many workers were German, including relatives and others that Heurich brought to the U.S. The plant employed African American workers – mostly in lower paying jobs, because higher paying jobs were held by white-only union members. But in 1940, New Negro Alliance protests resulted in opening 140 positions for Black truck drivers.  


PHOTO:  Heurich Brewery with horses’ heads and Littlefield Express Truck with an African American driver, 1920s (GWU Gelman Library Special Collections)

Heurich, like other industry leaders, tried to avoid Prohibition by differentiating beer and its low alcohol content and wholesome qualities, from hard liquor. He failed, as D.C. went dry on October 31, 1917, even before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution implemented national Prohibition. Many breweries closed during this period, but Heurich continued in operation making ice (up to 150 tons/day).  He also tried to make non-alcoholic apple cider, but it fermented, and he eventually had to dispose of it. When Prohibition ended in 1933, the facility resumed beer production. By the early 1940s, Heurich was second only to the Federal government in the amount of land owned and number of workers employed. 


But the post-war industry saw a decline in beer demand and was dominated by national companies (e.g. Budweiser), and local brewers could not compete. The brewery closed in 1956. In 1961, the U.S. government condemned and bought the property for Theodore Roosevelt Bridge access and eventually the Kennedy Center.  The brewery gymnasium housed Arena Stage from 1956 to 1961 – a period recalled in Arena’s “Old Vat Room.” The plant was demolished, with dynamite required to bring down the ice house, between 1961 and 1966. Grandson Gary Heurich tried to revive the brand and sold “Olde Heurich” (brewed in N.Y.) from 1986 to 2005. The good news is you can now buy locally produced Heurich Senate Beer from Right Proper Brewing Co.


Sources: Heurich House Museum; Mark Elliot Benbow, The Nation’s Capital Brewmaster:  Christian Heurich and His Brewery, McFarland & Co., 2017;Garrett Peck, Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, History Press, 2014;Garrett Peck, Prohibition in Washington, History Press, 2011; FBA History Project.

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