Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group
This is the first in a series of pieces about structures and other features of the Bloomingdale neighborhood that are no longer here. This post was written by Pam Tice, a member of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group’s Planning Committee.
For nearly 100 years, the sprawling Lion Brewery --- and its nearby Park -- took up the blocks 107 to 109 Streets between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, named Columbus Avenue and Amsterdam Avenue in 1890.
Built just after the Civil War, by 1879 the space included the Lion Park — a Beer Garden — on part of the 107-108 block east of Ninth Avenue. The brewery operations sprawled between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, including the brewery, the malt house where the barley was converted to malt, ice houses, stables, workshops and private residences.
Even considering its size and longevity, it’s been difficult to find images of the Lion Brewery. Searches online take you to a brewery of the same name in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The West Side Rag published a post by Marjorie Cohen recently noting this same problem: http://www.westsiderag.com/2012/05/25/the-lion-brewery-where-beer-was-made-on-the-upper-west-side. Her essay includes a photograph of the brewery in the background of a photo taken from the (then) rising structure of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
The New-York Historical Society has an aqua-green glass bottle from the brewery in its collection.
Perhaps the reason for the lack of documentation of the Lion Brewery is because breweries in the late 19th century in New York were simply ordinary. There were 121 of them in the nineteenth century, and, even just before Prohibition began in 1920, there were 70. Much of the material I’ve used here, including that fact, is from The New York Times archive.
The original brewery in our neighborhood was built in 1858 as “the Lion Lager Bier Brewery” by Albert and James Speyers and a Captain Howard. The proliferation of breweries in the middle of the nineteenth century, some say, is because of the arrival of clean water in New York City, made possible by the building of the Croton Aqueduct. Of course there was also a growing population along with the continuing popularity of drinking beer.
In its early days, the Lion was producing 300 barrels a day. The operation included the main building, a malt house, a barrel storage shed, a stable, and a small dwelling house. This photograph of a dwelling on West 108 Street may be that structure. The first story about the Lion in the Times in October 1858, is about the fire that destroyed it. This was the first of a number of reports about fires in the brewery.
By 1863 Emmanuel (Max) Bernheimer and August Schmid, German immigrants, owned the Lion, along with other breweries in Manhattan and Staten Island. The Lion operation also included 50 New York saloons, often opening them and selling them to the lessee. When the anti-saloon movement agitated for cleaning up saloons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Lion Brewery worked to handle its saloons.
Many of the workers at the Lion were Bavarian Catholics. After spending some years celebrating Mass in the brewery, they helped build the Ascension Church, west of the Brewery on 107 Street. The church held its first Mass on October 17, 1895. This website includes a detailed history of the church and the school that grew with it: http://ascensionschoolnyc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Ascension-History-Draft.pdf.
By the 1870s, there were news reports of events, some involving military marches that would end with concerts and family picnicking at the Lion Park. At some point also, a “hall” was established at the southwest corner of Broadway and 110th Street, which soon became known as the Lion Palace. The West Side Association — which became the main advocate for building the West Side, including its transportation lines — had a meeting there in 1877. Mr. Bernheimer was elected as one of the group’s Vice Presidents.
In 1895 and 1898 there were fires at the Lion, both in the stables. The 1895 fire reported that there were 143 horses kept there; 40 of them perished in the flames. In the 1898 fire, it was reported that there were 200 horses, but all of them saved. These numbers indicate the size of the Brewery’s operation, and the great numbers of horses and wagons needed to deliver the beer around town.
But by 1895, there began to be reports that the Brewery was “casting a blight” on the neighborhood. The issue of immediate concern was that of “opening” West 108 Street. Lion Park had blocked the street with a fence, and an argument broke out between the Park’s lessee and real estate developers who complained that only “cheap tenements” could be developed on that block between Columbus and Central Park West, rather than the “handsome apartment buildings” they desired. The lessee of the Lion Park begged for two more years to operate until his lease ran out; at some point, the developers prevailed. Real estate reports for 1895 indicate that a portion of the Park land was sold; in 1898 another real estate article reports that the entire block on the east side of Columbus was sold and soon would be “eight 5-story flat houses and stores.”
August Schmid died in 1889, and his partner Emmanuel Bernheimer in 1890. Both were wealthy men, leaving significant estates. Bernheimer had three sons who had already begun to play important roles in running the Lion Brewery. Schmid had two daughters, but one died as a young woman. For the Schmid family, his wife Josephine took over the management role. Soon, she and the Bernheimer sons were arguing over operations, and, in 1901, they went to court. After lengthy arguments about the additional real estate the company owned. Mrs. Schmid became the sole owner of the Brewery in 1903.
The Bernheimers established another brewery in Harlem at Amsterdam and 128 Street. The blog “Daytonian in Manhattan” covered it here: http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2012/03/1903-bernheimer-schwartz-brewery.html.
Already rich from her own family inheritance, Mrs. Schmid became an even wealthier woman. This next part of the story is not about the Brewery, but it’s an interesting New York tale. Mrs. Schmid was an unusual woman in that she managed her own resources. The daughter of a brewer, she had developed the necessary management skills to run a brewery. While some reports call her “difficult” and “cunning,” others characterized her as “the daintiest brewer” and commented on her modish bonnets and fine dresses, her mansion, the extensive library she owned, and that she spoke French and German in addition to her native English.
She also began to deal in real estate, buying valuable parcels on upper Fifth Avenue. In September 1897 she bought a plot of land at Fifth Avenue and 62 Street, and then built herself a chateaux at 807 Fifth Avenue. This was the epitome of Gilded Age social-climbing. Her architect was Richard H. Hunt, son of Richard M. who designed the Association Residence that has become the Upper West Side’s youth hostel.
Josephine Schmid’s financial actions provided lots of grist for the newspapers. In 1908, her only living child, Pauline, sued her mother over her take-over of the family fortunes, and a bitter trial ensued that resulted in a settlement. At this time, Josephine was the President and Treasurer of her corporation, and paid herself an annual half-million dollar salary.
Soon after that, in 1909, Josephine, who was now 50 years old, married a penniless Italian prince, Don Giovanni Del Drago of Rome. It was originally reported that he was 27, but then corrected to 47 years old. The Times ran a second front-page story that Del Drago wasn’t really a prince, although Josephine insisted upon being called Princess Del Drago until she died in 1937. The New York Times announcement of the couple’s arrival in Rome — uncertain of their acceptance into the royal family — referred to her as “the Brewer’s widow” and “the latest Dollar Princess.”
The Del Dragos began spending more time in Europe. They also had a summer estate in Tarrytown. By 1914, their turreted mansion on Fifth Avenue was purchased by the Knickerbocker Club and subsequently razed.
There were changes also at the Lion Palace. In 1906, Mrs. Schmid leased it to two theatrical men who planned to convert it from a music hall into a theater. This venture must have lasted only a short time, because the company they formed was in foreclosure by 1909. This also may have been a result of the new entertainment—the movies — that began to replace the theaters on upper Broadway. The Palace plot was sold in 1911 to William Fox Amusement Company which planned a “moving picture and vaudeville house.” Eventually the site became just a movie theater -- the Nemo – as it appears on the 1916 real estate map.
Columbia University students made the Lion Palace — with its German cooking and Pilsner beer —a popular student hangout, and they must have been disappointed to see it changed.
In 1915, Mrs. Del Drago offered $2 million to the Queen of Italy to distribute to the families of soldiers who were fighting in World War I — perhaps her way of showing pleasure in becoming accepted by Italian royalty.
During the Progressive Era after the turn of the century, the anti-saloon movement slowed down the growth of New York breweries, and then, beginning in 1920, Prohibition shut down many of them. From 1920 to 1933, the Lion Brewery made near-beer (alcohol level one-half of one percent) as did a few others. The breweries in New York sought other ways to stay in business, seeking to make something else, such as the Rupert Brewery over on Third Avenue started making a malt syrup that formed the basis for candies. (One in Massachusetts even converted to making chocolate!) In 1920, the Lion brought suit against the Volstead Act, alleging its unconstitutionality, but did not prevail.
The Lion also developed a dye and chemicals company called the Noil Chemical and Color Works Inc. on West 107 Street (note Lion spelled backward).
By 1919, an H. A. Murray is noted as President of the Lion Brewery. He was Pauline Schmid’s husband —so perhaps we can conclude that Mrs. Schmid had settled with her daughter and passed along management duties to the next generation while she spent more time in Europe. When a large fire ravaged the brewery again on the Fourth of July in 1927, Mr. Murray, the President, had to return to the city from a polo match. A Times article quoted him speaking of the Schmid family’s early farm and mansion on the site of the brewery – erroneous family history.
It is also worth noting that the fire of 1927 was alleged to have been set by kids with firecrackers, a “tradition” having deep roots in this neighborhood that continues today. The fire was spectacular, shutting down the Columbus Avenue El for two hours, and drawing holiday crowds. Fortunately, it was reported, the wind direction kept the heavy smoke from the Woman’s Hospital over on 109th Street.
Pauline Schmid Murray and her husband were killed in an automobile accident in 1931, and their daughter inherited their interest in the Lion. It’s not clear how the corporate ownership evolved, but, in 1933 when breweries were re-licensed in New York State, the Lion began to produce beer again. Mrs. Del Drago died in 1937, leaving a million-dollar estate – down from the $10 million she was said to be worth before Prohibition.
By the time the Lion closed in 1942, it had become The Greater New York Brewery. A Times article in 1942 noted Robert Moses helping the United States government collect scrap metal for the war effort. Moses made the point that while household scrap was nice, a more significant amount could be collected in New York from such structures that the city was removing: the Old (1939) World’s Fair, old streetcar tracks, and scrap metal from old buildings, including the Lion and Dolger’s breweries. And that is what happened when the Lion was taken down.
Today, the Lion site is occupied by the Booker T. Washington School, or Junior High School 54, serving 800 sixth to eighth graders. The garages on West 108 are the left-overs of the old Brewery site.