fun with history

by marjorieingall on January 9, 2012

Lovely little history of the Pyramid Club building (at 101 Avenue A) on Bowery Boogie today. The writer, an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum named Allison B. Siegel, traces the address back to 1859, when the Lower East Side was a German immigrant community. One of the space’s earliest uses was as the home of the Peter Doelger Brewery. Mmm, brewery. 

According to the Greenwich Village Preservation Society’s research, 101 Avenue A then turned into a series of gathering and entertainment halls, hosting labor meetings, celebrations for the opening of Tompkins Square Park, and collective mourning for the victims of the General Slocum disaster. The current structure was built in 1876, designed by tenement architect William Jose. “This distinctive Neo-Grec design has an ornate cornice, fire escapes, and other facade details that stand out in the neighborhood,” the Preservation Society notes. After the German community moved uptown in the wake of the Slocum tragedy, the area became home to other ethnic groups, and the Pyramid Club opened in 1979 — for a while Nico lived in one of the apartments upstairs. There’s a delightful 2007 article about the performance art/drag/polysexual history of the club (including the ongoing attempt to get it landmarked) in the venerable Villager newspaper.

Why did I immediately latch onto Bowery Boogie’s mention of the brewery? Well, maybe because I married a man from Milwaukee. Beer is my (marital) heritage. On my first visit to his homeland, Jonathan took me on the Miller Brewery Factory Tour, which used to be an actual field trip for his high school, and which blew my mind by giving us three free beers and no food before turning us back onto Highway 41. Veyizmir. Milwaukeeans do not mess around. (Thirteen years later, I have also visited the Sprecher Brewery, the Lakefront Brewery and the Milwaukee Brewing Company. I still prefer gin.) And beer is democratic, whereas even in my 20s I was too dorky for the Pyramid Club. (Oh, I went. A few times. I was a bobbing dork in an ocean of cool.)

So. Since I am procrastinating like a madwoman today, I started doing my own research into the Doelger family brewery.

The New York Food Museum reports that Peter Doelger came to America from Bavaria in 1850. His brother Joseph had opened a brew house on East 3rd Street in 1846, and Peter decided to get into the business too. I’m not clear on the exact relationship between the brothers, but in 1911, a New York Times article about Peter Doelger buying a new location on Third Ave at 50th street indicates that he sold a building at 21 East 3rd Street between Second Ave and the Bowery (where East Village Music is today) in partial trade — perhaps that was originally Joseph’s building? In any case, according to beer expert Gregg Smith, Joseph also opened a location at 407-33 East 55th Street. Peter opened additional breweries too. Joseph died in 1882; his sons continued his business, renaming it (fittingly) Jos. Doelger’s Sons. Meanwhile, Peter built an entire empire — by 1885 he had the 11th largest brewing company in the country. Alas, he was no friend to the labor movement, resisting unionization of his workers despite an incident in which four men died in an accident at the plant. After a boycott and strike, the brewery ultimately did become a union shop. By the time Peter Doelger died in 1912, at 80, he was a millionaire with a huge home on Riverside Drive at 100th street. Fancy.

Perhaps fortunately for him, he didn’t live to deal with Prohibition. The family, led by his son (also named Peter), clearly saw the writing on the wall, as evidenced by this 1916 ad:

Brewers (and many prohibitionists) made a distinction between beer and DEMON ALCOHOL. How to define DEMON ALCOHOL made for an interesting struggle, but the Doelgers kept the family business going despite all the obstacles. According to an entertainingly obsessive beer-can-collecting web site called Rusty Cans, the Doelgers hung in there until 1946, through a move to New Jersey and  through the worst times of Prohibition. The absolutely delicious book Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition, by the award-winning history writer Karen Blumenthal, details the battles of brewers and distillers and religious zealots and gangsters in a most readable way. And it is not in Google Books and I read a library copy and I only took notes on the Jewy stories in it for work, so I can’t share any of the fun tales of busts and the excesses of the temperance loons. Oh well. You should read it.

Lots of fun Peter Doelger memorabilia is available on eBay. Check out this awesome tray (from beer tray auction specialist Trayman!), showing the reach of Doelger from uptown on First Avenue to downtown and Avenue A.

Good times. Or not. Depending on who you talk to. Much like today.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph Bissell May 6, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Peter Doelger’s residence at 266 West end Ave. has an interesting history. Allison B. Siegel should find it amusing. Peter Doelger (son) was my GGF and his daughter, Phoebe my GM. Karl Bissell who married Phoebe would mention Mae West’s name occasionally. Karl Bissell was the son of Dr. Joseph Bissell and Josephine Bissell who were considered prominent citizens but after reading the NYT marriage announcement not prominent enough. (google Karl H. Bissell weds Phoebe Doelger.) Prohibition destroyed businesses, careers, reputations , lives etc. but for those who could see opportunity………. The names would be changed to protect the guilty.

marjorieingall May 7, 2012 at 5:54 am

Fascinating! Thanks for commenting, Joseph.

Lee Ornati July 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm

I am one of the owners of a bar in Williamsburg, that was one of the original Doelgers “tied Houses” the stain glass sign is still there. http://www.flickr.com/photos/mugpictures/3307139193/
We are doing a 125 year event Oct 18 2012. We will be showing memorabillia, and if you have any to bring and show, let me know
Thanks

Patricia O'Donnell February 21, 2013 at 9:00 am

I’ve been searching for info on Peter for years (with the wrong spelling) . My great -grandmother Mariah Costello was a wetnurse for his wife, and probably a domestic in their employ as well. In family stories, he is “Peter Doelger, the Beer Baron.” It’s wonderful to find this little piece of family history.

marjorieingall February 21, 2013 at 9:50 am

Wow, Patricia! Wet nurse! Bygone times…

Alice Doelger August 14, 2013 at 8:34 pm

WOW…Where can I find some DOELGER Memorabilia to purchase this is my family history, If anybody know’s please contact me through email

Thank You

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