The return of the former Gunther Brewery gave me a jolt of Baltimore confidence. One of our long-lost landmarks, really a fine industrial campus, has rebounded after a lengthy hiatus. More than a year of intensive reconstruction and refurbishment has made this Brewers Hill gem shine. In a few weeks, the first group of its 162 new apartments will be ready.
A tall smokestack rising above Boston Street marks the new Gunther Apartments and what promises to be a large restaurant (this space is unrented as of yet) in the former boiler house. Even the old granite blocks that once paved the space where the delivery wagons assembled have been repurposed in a tenants' landscaped courtyard.
About a year ago, I toured the brewery's shell and walked away confused. Could order ever be imposed on this disheveled industrial campus at 1211 S. Conkling St.? Would the home of the beer that played second fiddle to mighty National Bohemian ever gain some respect? And more to the point, will tenants go for the $1,600 to $2,000 rents? Would the newly built Domain and Hanover Brewers Hill apartments, constructed on either side of the old brew house, outshine this one-time labyrinth of malt and hops fermenting tanks?
After spending a few minutes at what has evolved as Canton-Brewers Hill, I found myself endorsing the energy of the neighborhood. I'm not sure I'm in the same Baltimore of old parish churches and white marble steps, but the change is welcome. Workers were completing a new Boston Street shopping center and Target store. The dog walkers outnumbered the stroller pushers, but I got the idea this was an under-35, out-and-walking neighborhood.
I blinked my eyes and thought, hey, wasn't all this a backwater of petroleum tank farms and freight cars not so long ago? Who imagined the trend that gained traction with the Tindeco Wharf apartments would push this far eastward?
But this is the new Southeast Baltimore. Breakfasters were having their coffee and muffins at a Panera Bread in the former Gunther bottling house. They parked their vehicles in the old rail yard.
"Historic redevelopment is a very slow process," said David Knipp, a member of the Obrecht Commercial Real Estate development team that has invested in and nursed this dramatic comeback. When I asked him about the price tag on the Gunther investment, he replied, "Substantial."
Workers spent months removing the steel storage tanks. They were housed in a building that is now a parking garage. Once removed, the huge vats' spaces became the right size to park a car.
Residents moving into the Gunther complex will live in buildings called Ale, Pilsener and Barley. Each is marked by a sign shaped like a beer bottle cap suspended over the sidewalk by an oversized structural bottle opener. I was delighted by a banner proclaiming the Gunther trademark logo of my childhood. People forget that brewery owner, attorney and philanthropist Zanvyl Krieger was an important early investor in the 1954 Orioles and that his brews were all over the old Memorial Stadium scoreboard in those early years of the franchise.
As a brand, Gunther disappeared more than 50 years ago. The brewery ceased operating in the 1970s and found no other use than storing horseradish for the Tulkoff family. It might have become apartments earlier, but the 2008 recession put the brakes on development.
It also required a developer with imagination. The Gunther complex grew as Baltimore's population and taste for beer grew. Each decade or so, except during Prohibition, the plant expanded and the brick buildings that housed multiple stages of production were connected by pipes. Oversized industrial pipes have been preserved and restored, adding a note of authenticity.
The Gunther complex nicely climbs a little hill. The component buildings are of different ages, some Victorian, some 1950s. The knitting together is amazing.
"It's awesome. Look at the geometry," said Knipp as he looked over one of his brew buildings and pointed toward the salt mound on the Canton industrial waterfront.