The Story Behind Kansas City's Oldest Standing Brewhouse
Perhaps you’ve seen the six-story abandoned building off of Interstate 35 at Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City — it towers over its neighbors.
There’s a website displayed on the side in huge font: imperialbrewery.com. Beer isn’t brewed there any longer, and you won't find any for sale on their website.
But what is the Imperial Brewery and where did it go?
The website leads to an historical information site created by Dean Realty, the company has owned the building since 2007. Sherry Miller, director of marketing for Dean, says the building was abandoned for more than 30 years before the firm took it over.
Squatters occupied the building from time to time.
“I sat out here in this parking lot one day and watched a man walk across here, and he went over to the mule barn, the horse stable next door and knocked on the door and someone opened it like it was his home,” Miller said.
Miller says Dean has secured the building and made it safe for occasional tours, though the inside of the main building is covered in grime.
“The vandals and the taggers really came in and did a number on the building,” she explains.
You can see charred areas where it caught fire in 2012.
Making beer in the early 20th century
Imperial Brewery was started in 1901 by investors from St Louis and local saloon owners.
At the time, Kansas City had a handful of breweries and brewery depots. H. James Maxwell, author of Hometown Beer: A History of Kansas City’s Breweries, says there were many advantages to producing beer in Kansas City at the time, including good railroad access.
“Kansas City, you kinda describe it as the crossroads,” Maxwell says. “What really made the difference was the bridge that was built across the Missouri River in 1869. Because that opened up, the Santa Fe railroad that ran from Chicago all the way out to Los Angeles and served the southwest part of the United States."
Maxwell says they were able to build a brewery with all new technology. Many others had to upgrade their facilities.
The tallest building on the grounds was the brewhouse.
“Brewhouses were built that way, and it became the way of doing it, where they would hoist the grain up to the top level and then use gravity in the brewing process, and by the time it got down to the bottom level, it was beer," says Maxwell.
Much of what the business needed was located on the grounds.
Imperial Brewery made two lager style beers: the Mayflower and the Imperial Seal.
By 1905, Imperial Brewery was in financial trouble and was forced into involuntary bankruptcy. That same year, the Ferd Heim Brewing Company and the Rochester Brewing Company merged to form Kansas City’s Breweries Company. The conglomerate purchased Imperial Brewery in an auction for $99,500, plus the mortgage on the building.
As the brewery grew, so did the movement of prohibition across the country. Producing alcohol became illegal in 1919.
“It was, of course, a death blow to the brewing industry,” Maxwell says. “The buildings were designed for a specific purpose. A lot of them were sold for cold storage facilities. A lot of them would transition over into other products.”
One of these products was called "near beer" which contains less-than-half of 1 percent alcohol by volume, but it wasn’t enough to keep the brewery open during prohibition.
In 1919, the Seaboard Milling Company purchased the Imperial Brewery building and turned it into a flour mill which operated until 1985. Dean Realty took it over in 2007.
Imperial Brewery today
While the building is mostly empty now, there is some evidence of what used to be there, says Dave Melzer, project manager for Dean Realty.
“We’ve covered up openings that may have held machines and pulleys and belts would’ve gone up or down through the building," he said.
The building entered the historical registry in 2011. Melzer sees a lot of opportunity for redevelopment in the building.
"Be it residential, or maybe an engineering, or architectural studio type atmosphere,” he says.
Southwest Boulevard, I-35 and downtown Kansas City are all visible from the sixth floor of the building.
In Maxwell's book, Hometown Beer, there’s an Imperial Brewery advertisement from 1906 that could be an ad for any Kansas City microbrewery today.
It reads, “Patronize and encourage home industry. There is no better beer brewed anywhere — Don’t contribute to the two millions of dollars annually sent out of Kansas City for bottled beer.”
The Imperial legacy
Over the years, there have been attempts to revive Imperial Brewery. Another Imperial Brewery popped up on Southwest Boulevard in 1933. It was gone by 1938.
And there’s a new brewery in the Crossroads called Brewery Emperial. Owner Keith Thompson used to work at McCoys Public House, another brewery in town, and says he was inspired by pre-prohibition Imperial.
“Kansas City is known as a good beer town. So it’s a great time to open more breweries, and represent Kansas City as a brewing community,” Thompson says.
Kyle J Smith is an intern for KCUR’s Central Standard. You can find him on Twitter @kjs_37.
What Is That? is a regular series on Central Standard in which we investigate odd storefronts, architectural oddities and other mysterious landmarks around the Kansas City area. Do you have a suggestion of a spot you’d like us to investigate? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.