The Stone Saloon: One man’s quest to resurrect a Civil War-era lager house in St. Paul

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The Stone Saloon building circa 1937 (left) and current-day owner Tom Schroeder (right) // Historic photo courtesy of Stone Saloon, portrait by Lucy Hawthorne

When Tom Schroeder bought the small, vacant limestone house at 445 Smith Avenue, a block from his family’s home in St. Paul, he really didn’t know what he was going to do with it, except save it from demolition. As he began taking apart the interior with architect John Yust, he uncovered a piece of St. Paul history. Now, sometime this summer, a building that was serving lager beer prior to the Civil War will be pouring traditional German beers once again.

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Tom’s intensive research into the building revealed that from 1857 to 1863, Anthony Waldmann operated a lager beer saloon on the first floor of the building. Establishments like Waldmann’s took advantage of the growing German population and increased interest in lager beer as an alternative to hard liquor. The temperance movement at the time encouraged the switch to beer—as did Minnesota’s Lager Beer Act of 1860, which exempted lager beer breweries and saloons from taxes or liquor license fees.

It appears that Waldmann purchased at least some of his beer from Christopher Stahlmann, who ran what was the largest brewery in St. Paul at the time just a few blocks down West 7th Street (and which later became Jacob Schmidt Brewing Co.). The Lager Beer Act was repealed a few years later, which—along with a new federal excise tax and rising grain prices—may have contributed to Waldmann closing the saloon. The Waldmanns remained in the home until 1886, and a subsequent owner filled in the original commercial facade so that any trace of the saloon was gone.

Pre-Restoration

The Stone Saloon building prior to restoration // Photo courtesy of Stone Saloon

After discovering the saloon hiding within the house, Tom began to consider returning the building to its original use. He incorporated “Stone Saloon SBC” under Minnesota’s Public Benefit Corporation Act, allowing the business to make a profit, but requiring it to serve the public good in some way. (Other such PBCs likely familiar to Growler readers include Peace Coffee and FINNEGANS.) He’s already hosted, without charge, a number of tours, lectures, and fundraising events focusing on history and historic building techniques in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society, Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, and other nonprofit groups.

Waldmann Photo

Anthony Waldmann // Photo courtesy of Stone Saloon

Tom’s plan was to make beer as authentic as the building, but that could not be done on the existing small lot that had been subdivided three times since 1886, when Waldmann returned to Germany. Fortunately, over a period of years, Tom was able to reacquire much of the saloon’s original lot, and began designing a state of the art brewery addition in the style of a 19th century urban barn that would not draw attention from the historic limestone building or nature of the site.

Restrictions on the height and roof pitch of the structure meant that the usual vertical fermenters would not work well. On the advice of brewing consultant Bob DuVernois, Tom and brewery facility designer (and future head brewer) Drew Ruggles decided to use horizontal fermenters. Drew and the brewing team worked with Criveller of Niagara Falls, Ontario, to design a brewhouse that would fit the space and be able to brew authentic German beers using the decoction process. The 15-barrel system will also include four 15-barrel brite tanks, which will double as serving tanks.

While the beers will be made in traditional German styles, Drew and the brewing team are approaching recipes and the brewing process as if a German brewer from 1860 had time-traveled to the present and was able to take advantage of modern refinements of the brewer’s art. They plan to pay homage to styles such as Pilsner, märzen, alt, and Kölsch that have endured for centuries, while putting interesting modern and local twists on them. For example, they partnered with Mighty Axe Hops to develop a special hop that has its roots (literally) in hops that grew locally and that have some German heritage.

To do all this in a residential neighborhood was not easy. To obtain the required commercial zoning, Tom worked with City Council member Dave Thune to draft St. Paul’s first “historic use variance” ordinance, and then became the first project to apply under the new ordinance in 2015. But to qualify for the variance, the building needed to obtain historic listing by the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission—which Tom accomplished later that year with the help of historical consultant, Bob Frame.

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Inside the Stone Saloon during restoration // Photo by Lucy Hawthorne

The project had to clear 11 public hearings in all, on issues ranging from the designs, ADA accessibility, and parking. But throughout the journey Tom was encouraged by support from politicians, historians and preservationists, and many neighbors. Dozens, if not hundreds, of supporters packed hearing rooms as various commissions and councils considered permits, variances and historic designation. Seeking to be good neighbors, Tom, architect John Yust, and the rest of the Stone Saloon team have worked hard to design a building and a business that respects the nature of the community. Tom wanted to avoid adding any more blacktop to the neighborhood, so the city-mandated parking makes use of an existing off-street parking lot, as well as numerous bike racks. And in order to eliminate aromas from the brew boil, the brewhouse features a condensate tower over the mash tun, so the steam rise from the kettle goes down a floor drain rather than out a roof stack.

The project has also provided a treasure-trove of information about what the neighborhood was like in the 19th century. In the course of excavation, contractors discovered five privies and a deep, hand-dug and stone-lined well, all of which yielded archaeological finds. In some cases the discoveries were large—including a system of tunnels branching out from the well. Other finds were small, including numerous bottles, dishes, and what is almost certainly a rare beer token from the Civil War period. In one of the privies, they discovered a stencil bearing the name “A. Waldmann,” which seems to settle once and for all the question of whether his name was spelled with one “n” or two. Tom described the property as “a rabbit hole of stories.”

Excavation of the Stone Saloon site and artifacts that were recovered // Photos courtesy of Stone Saloon

While the project has been called the Stone Saloon to this point, and the corporation bears that name, the brewery will not have that name when it opens. Tom discovered that too many people associated the term saloon with the establishments of the Wild West—swinging doors and cowboy brawls—even though “saloon” was also the term used for many German beer halls at the time. The new name (which was not public at this writing) will pay tribute to the history of the building, and emphasize Tom’s vision of the site as a “lager house.” Indeed, the whole enterprise has become much more than just a recreation of an old bar. Tom mused the “neat thing is that that modest little building has managed to inspire so many people passionate about history, historic building crafts, German beer and food. Even more than a brewery, it has an intensity of experience that hopefully will connect with people.”

This journey to brew traditional lager and serve it in an historical setting has been long and arduous, but this is no longer just a far-off dream. Licensing is underway, the brewhouse has been ordered, and the kitchen should be fitted out by April. If all goes well, the team plans to have the oldest surviving saloon building in the state serving beer and food again by August.

Photos courtesy of Stone Saloon and by Lucy Hawthorne

 
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