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Cataract Brewery Architect Died 77 Years Ago Today

January 10th, 2012

A new web site paying homage to the endangered Cataract Brewery building popped up this week. The site is a treasure trove of historical documents, articles, and images and invites those interested to help 'Save Cataract'.
A new web site, SaveCataract.com external link, and a mountain of information on Rochester’s endangered Cataract Brewery building has surfaced this week… The accomplished life (and death) of its architect… Original architectural drawings… And new documents submitted by North American Breweries to the Zoning Board (see the section called Offers to Buy Cataract). Ready? Let’s dive right in…

The Father of Cataract

An ad for New England Brewing Co. (1907, Geers Directory). That's an image of A.C. Wagner, architect of our 13 Cataract building. [IMAGE THANKS TO: Joel Helfrich, Adjunct Assist. Prof. of History, MCC]
Adam C. Wagner, often referred to as A. C. Wagner, was the architect and designer of more than 50 breweries during his lifetime. Most significantly for the Rochester community, we now know he designed for the Standard Brewing Company the impressive, still-standing brewery building on Cataract Street external link. Eventually, the building would be named after one of only five Rochester breweries to survive Prohibition: the now defunct Cataract Brewing Company.

Wagner died, aged 74, on January 10, 1935, in Hartford, Connecticut, “after a short illness.” He remains dead 77 years later—but not his legacy.

13 Cataract Street was built for Standard Brewing Co. in 1889. It was designed by A.C. Wagner who supervised the construction of over 50 brewery complexes across the country in the late 1800's and early 1900's. This is one of Wagner's original drawings of 13 Cataract Street. [IMAGE THANKS TO: Rich Wagner, pabreweryhistorians.tripod.com]
His death should give all Rochesterians pause to consider not only their own mortality but also Wagner’s significant impact on the history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century brewery architecture and brewing history. Moreover, we should ponder the potential loss of one of the few remaining examples of Wagner’s architectural skill. Indeed, breweries were Wagner’s “specialty,” according to The Athenaeum of Philadelphia [PDF], “and he worked for some of the largest brewing companies in and out of Philadelphia”, including:

Of all of the breweries and structures that Wagner designed, only a few buildings remain:

Cataract’s Big “Sister”

Wagner's New England Brewery building in Hartford, CT. looks remarkably similar to our Cataract Brewery here in Rochester. [ARTICLE: Hartford Courant, 10-30-1911]The breweries he designed in Hartford, New Haven, and elsewhere have been torn down. That’s Wagner’s New England Brewery building in Hartford, CT. (left). It looks remarkably similar to our Cataract Brewery here in Rochester.

From this article [PDF], it sounds like our building may have been designed with the same purpose in mind—storage of malt and hops. Five stories and several cellars, cooled to the appropriate temperatures using a 70-ton refrigeration machine with condensers so large “three railroad cars” were needed to haul it to the building all the way from Frick Co.’s Works in Waynesboro, PA. These massive condensers were housed on the fifth story.

An Accomplished Life

Wagner was born in Saxony, Germany external link, in February 1860. He came to the U.S. circa 1876, and married his first wife, Lena, with whom he had four children; all born in Philadelphia. Two of his daughters, Gladys and Katchen, survived into adulthood. Lena died on January 11, 1916. Wagner remarried by the 1920 census to a woman named Anna, who died in 1951.

Wagner and his family moved from Philadelphia by the turn of the twentieth century. According to the 1898-1899 edition of American Brewers’ Review: A Monthly Devoted to the Science and Practice of Brewing (vol. 12), Wagner, “The Philadelphia brewery architect,” was hired to construct a “new office building” for the brewery for Theresa F. H. Weibel of New Haven, Connecticut. In 1897, he and his family made their way to Hartford, Connecticut, where Wagner became involved with the New England Brewery. He was hired by the Hartford Brewing Company to design a six-story fireproof lager and ale brewery with a boiler and bottling house. The 1900 Census in Hartord and the 1901 City directory for Philadelphia cite Hartford as his residence.

A.C. Wagner also designed this American Brewing Company building on Hudson Avenue between Merrimac and Wadsworth Streets. [IMAGE THANKS TO: Rich Wagner, pabreweryhistorians.tripod.com]By the time he left Philadelphia he had designed more than 50 buildings, from Washington, D.C., to Rochester, New York, to cities throughout New England. Interestingly, Wagner designed the Kalmbach and Geisel Brewery (later known as the Highland Brewery and then Liberty Brewing Company, but referred to by locals as “Come Back and Guzzle”), the largest in New England before the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution: Prohibition, in place from 1920 to 1933. The father of the literary Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel) was the co-owner of that brewery in Springfield, Massachusetts.

However, Wagner was more than just one of the most famous brewery designers. He had extensive training and knowledge as a cooper, brewer, engineer, chemist, contractor, and architect. He was also a successful businessman who was always willing to lend his offices for various social and patriotic causes, such as Jews relief in Israel and Palestine in 1922 or the sale of Liberty Bonds to support U.S. government involvement in World War I. He was the founder and president of a number of businesses, including the Merchants Ice Company and, in the years before his death, the Yale Brewing Company. He was involved in real estate and was “associated” with the New England Fruit Company.

In 1914, he astutely testified in a court case [PDF] defending the Breidt Brewing Company, another brewery that Wagner had designed and built, regarding its “beer vats that were the subject of the suit.” His training and knowledge in many and various skilled professions was essential in the case. The “crack Metropolitan lawyer,” who was “handy in confusing witnesses,” made little headway when Wagner took the stand to testify.

The following obituary was printed in The Hartford Courant on January 11, 1935. Thanks goes to our friend Joel Helfrich for digging this up…

Adam C. Wagner, Builder of Many Breweries, Dead

Head of Yale Brewing Company Passes at Prospect Avenue Home
Adam C. Wagner, president of the Yale Brewing Company since its organization in 1933 and builder of more than 50 well-known breweries in the United States, died Thursday morning at his home, 558 Prospect Avenue external link, after a short illness.
Born in Saxony, Germany, a son of the late Charles and Catherine Wagner, he came to the United States when he was about 16 years old and settled in Philadelphia. While living in Philadelphia, Mr. Wagner was in the building business and such breweries as the National Capitol Brewing Company external link of Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Brewing Company of Philadelphia external link, the American Brewing Company at Rochester, N.Y., and others were constructed under his supervision.
In 1897 Mr. Wagner became interested in the New England Brewery, of which he was former president and treasurer. When prohibition came, Mr. Wagner closed the plant and the business was dissolved. He then became associated with the New England Fruit Company. Mr. Wagner, who was also in the real estate business, developed the Manitok Lake section of Granby external link.
He leaves his wife, Mrs. Anna (Wall) Wagner; a daughter, Mrs. Katchen Wagner Meyer of Hartford; and a sister, Mrs. George Schmidt, in Germany. The funeral will be held Saturday at his home and will be private. Burial will be in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Priceless Treasure, Not Disposable Junk

Wagner’s architecture, the few examples that remain, should be stabilized, restored, preserved, and used by the public, especially since his buildings were meant to be used. The Cataract Brewery buildings in Rochester, should certainly be preserved. From their perch on the banks of the Genesee River, Rochesterians might one day be able to enjoy the best views of High Falls and see the history that Adam Wagner and other architects, noteworthy or otherwise, helped to create.

Offers to Buy Cataract

Now, if only North American Breweries had a buyer for Rochester’s historic Cataract building, then they wouldn’t have to tear it down. Such a shame.

The 'Genesee Brew House Business and Development Plans' surfaced this week showing two offers to buy Cataract. But North American would rather have an expanded parking lot for this visitor center.Whoops, look what we just found… Not just one, but TWO offers to buy Cataract [PDF]. I guess these didn’t count when North American Breweries said they received “no viable offers?!”

I don’t know about you, but When demolition is estimated to cost $600-$800k, purchase offers of $275k and $100k sound pretty darn “viable” to me.

Maybe I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they honestly forgot to bring these documents to the first Zoning Board Meeting. But, if we’re being honest, I would like to know a few things: What happened to these offers? Were they ignored, like the offer made by the GardenAerial group to take the building as a charitable contribution? Or, did Costanza Enterprises and John Thomas Property Management both have a change of heart after submitting their offers?

More importantly, did North American ever have any intention of finding a good owner for Cataract? I mean seriously, we’ve now learned of THREE offers to take ownership of 13 Cataract. Are there any others we don’t know about yet?

North American Breweries, back a-way from the wrecking ball… please.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 10th, 2012 at 12:21 am and is filed under Rochester History, Rochester Images, Rochester Subway. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

21 Responses to “Cataract Brewery Architect Died 77 Years Ago Today”

  1. Thanks to Joel Helfrich (MCC) and Rich Wagner (Beer Historian, PA) for all the great historical info.

    You can attend the final Zoning Board hearing on this demolition case, Thursday, 1/19 at City Hall. See details on Facebook.

  2. Anon says:

    You seriously think that an offer of $275,000 is a reasonable offer for a piece of property (meaning more the land than the building) like that? It is more fiscally attractive to keep the investment, pay the $600,000 to $800,000 cost of demo and any additional cost to do whatever you want on the property, than to accept such a low offer.

  3. Bob Williams says:

    Ah yes, the Stegmaier Building in Wilkes-Barre. Closed in 1974 and seized for back taxes in 1978 this building sat vacant until 1997 without even the same type of ownership situation we have here where the brewery maintains some semblance of security on 13 Cataract. As a young Scrantonian, I can recall riding by the mammoth rotting windowless building that was in far worse condition than our Rochester analogue. According to another account, this building was once voted for demolition by Wilkes-Barre city council, but manages to still live on as a unique federal building. I just cannot be convinced that 13 Cataract is not an asset to the brewer. It’s visage would make quite the iconic beer label and its edifice would serve as a much more meaningful and interesting visitor’s center.

  4. @Anon, thank you for the comment. I understand you may have missed some information in earlier posts, so I’ll recap for you and other readers who may have the same question.

    Firstly, the assessed value of this property is $187,900. The brewery listed the property for sale at roughly twice the assessed value. The property was on the market for less than a year. If you’ve tried to sell a home in the past several years you know that there’s a good chance your house would have sat on the market for well over a year depending the neighborhood, asking price, etc.

    With that info in mind we must remember the law is very clear when it comes to this property which is a Designated Building of Historic Value. I didn’t make that up. It’s in the zoning book and the rules are clear:

    Section 120-195B(4)(b)of the Rochester Zoning Ordinance says:

    (b) An area variance shall be granted only if the applicant establishes the existence of each of the following conditions:

    [1] Benefits. The benefit to the applicant if the variance is granted outweighs the detriment to the health, safety and welfare of the neighborhood or community by such grant.

    [2] Essential character of the area. No undesirable change will be produced in the character of the neighborhood or a detriment to nearby properties will be created by the granting of the area variance.

    [3] No other remedy. The benefit sought by the applicant cannot be achieved by some method feasible for the applicant to pursue, other than the area variance.

    [4] Significance. The requested area variance is not substantial.

    [5] Physical and environmental conditions. The proposed variance will not have an adverse effect or impact on the physical or environmental conditions in the neighborhood or district.

    [6] Not self-created. The alleged difficulty was not self-created, the consideration of which shall be relevant to the decision of the Board of Appeals but shall not necessarily preclude the granting of the area variance.

    …I’d argue that the brewery’s case fails all of these requirements, but did you read #3 above? It states there must be “NO OTHER REMEDY”, in this case “remedy” means “alternatives to demolition”.

    One obvious alternative to demolition would be to accept a low offer to sell the property to someone who agrees to fix it up. Take the offer from Constanza Enterprises for example. Constanza has an impressive résumé when it comes to properties like this. You might have heard of the Temple Building downtown. It’s beautiful today but it wasn’t always. That was them. Do you know Studio 55 near the Public Market? That was them as well.

    So my answer is YES. $275 was very generous offer, and one that should have been accepted on the spot with NO counter offer. Especially when you consider the enormous value that a renovated 13 Cataract would have on the High Falls neighborhood and the brewery’s new visitor center.

    Questions?

  5. Jim Fraser says:

    @Anon

    Seriously, would you rather a) receive $275,000 and do nothing, or b) spend $600,000 to remove something that’s not in your way? Just out of curiosity, what grade did you get in Arithmetic in the 3rd grade?

  6. One other point I’d like to re-state… If the only use the Brewery has for 13 Cataract is for 27 parking spaces, that is hardly a reason to demolish it.

    The City has already offered (in writing) to donate a section of adjacent City-owned land to the Brewery to use for parking.

    On any other planet $275,000 + City-owned land for parking should = SWEET DEAL

  7. @Anon,
    that is a fair question. And, in some cases, you are exactly right. However, in this case, for reasons already expressed, it is a complete innacurate thought. In addition to the above, keep in mind the following:
    1. The law. The law, for very good reason, requires the brewery to prove several different points. They fail on all of them. They can’t simply demo the buildings and have the land remain. They just can’t. It’s not even a debate. That’s the law. If they want to change the law, then they have the right to go through that process and try to change the law. But as of now, the law is the law.
    2. The building does NOT impede their desire to build the visitor center. As a matter of fact, a development would enhance their property value and visitation to the visitor center. The City has offered potential options to provide needed parking. So, parking is not even an issue.
    3. View of the falls. There are non-historic portions of 13 Cataract that can, and should, be demolished, and can be done under the law. This would provide a clear view of the falls for the brewery’s visitor center.
    4. To demolish this building, that does not stand in their way, they would need to do the required environmental abatement prior to demo, pay all demolition costs, pay for all required state laws for environmental studies, pay for all permitting, clear the site and then create the parking lot. This would be well over $1 million. $1million is a very conservative estimate. And keep in mind, it’s pretty obvious demolition is not even a proven need under the law.
    4. Amost ALL preservation projects that fall in this specific category/scenario of a company that has allowed buildings to decline and become a liability, that particulary company actually seeks out someone to take that liability off their hands. Why? Simple. It saves them $1million+, and they no longer have to demolish the building. In short, the liability that they created, is no longer THEIR financial burden. For almost every company, this is a devine gift.
    5. Potential tax credits and tax deductions. This gets a bit complicated, but deals can be organized that would not only save the brewery all the money needed for demo and remediation, but they could also claim tax credits and tax deductions.
    6. A final point is that the buildings targeted for demo would be put back into service, provide more tax revenues, provide additional jobs and drastically improve the neighborhood. It would create much-needed and substantial investment in an area that needs it.

    So, let’s say they were actually offered $100,000 for this property. In basic terms, this would represent a GAIN of about $1.5 million. And, that number would be more if they saved expensive legal fees fighting an existing law that actually prevents them from demolishing the building in the first place. To be honest, the brewery could give away the property, provide donations toward rehab . . . and they would STILL come out WAY ahead financially . . . I can’t stress that enough. WAY ahead.

    With all this said, if there were no options to develop the property at all, I would agree with you. I realize we can’t save everything. Sometimes economics simply don’t work. I honestly don’t think this to be the case.

    Nonetheless, I think you ask a good question and I hope that the above answers your question.

  8. Tshanz says:

    The fact that someone offers $275,000 for the property “as-is” is by no means a done deal….by the time a reasonable “due diligence” exercise is completed…I would be willing to bet that the $100,000 offer is better..the Develop Co. that offered the $100,000 doesn’t go into any of their projects blind….they have initiated their offer with eyes wide open…there is a reason why the biggest and best developer of adaptive re-use Real Estate in our city toured the site and walked away….there is no way a layperson can say that an offer is good or bad based on the unknown factor…..I only hope that the decion makers in this case are prudent and look at the feasibility of this project with facts, good judgement and not pure emotion… a R.E. deal done on pure emotion, is most often a losing proposition!

  9. @Tshanz, thanks for joining the conversation. I believe you’re right in that none of these are done deals. I don’t think anyone has said that. The building should go to the party that is most serious about taking on this project (and most capable).

    I admit, I may not be fully understanding your position. What is clear is that these offers are not being taken seriously by the seller. I’m basing that on these documents and others I’ve seen, as well as conversations had with those concerned parties. The mere fact that there are offers means that this case for demolition has been unduly rushed.

    With regard to the ‘decision makers,’ If you’re referring to the Zoning Board, I will attest, this is a very dedicated and experienced group of individuals. I’m confident a decision will not be based on emotion; or politics.

  10. Tshanz:
    I agree with you. One point to add – just because a reputable real estate developer has walked away, does not mean a project can’t take place. There are so many variables in these projects. One developer may be focused and dedicated to mixed use, while another developer may be only interested in residential, while a third is only interested in commercial. Each of these uses present considerably different costs, and the actual building configurations may not be compatible with the developer’s goals. But, you are absolutley correct. A decision should be made on facts. And, I also completely agree that the highest offer may not be the best offer, and may not be in the best interest of the brewery in the end. Again, so many variables. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  11. […] And for what it's worth for anyone else reading this thread, there are some sites out there dedicated to this effort…. Help Save 13 Cataract Street. Rochester, NY RochesterSubway.com : Cataract Brewery Architect Died 77 Years Ago Today […]

  12. Rye says:

    It was great seeing a few of the above folks tonight on discussion panel at the “Urbanized” film screening!

    Would you mind briefly writing (or pointing) to the newest info about the Cataract building’s status? I can’t tell if the pessimistic tone is because of how the odds seem ludicrously, unethically, almost illegally stacked against the preservatiion of this historic building as an asset to the brewer’s own plans or if they’ve already made distinct plans to shoot themselves in the foot by tearing it down.

    Thanks for writing about all this, by the way!

  13. @Rye, glad you were able to make it to the Urbanized screening. It was a great movie and lots of fun. You can read all about the Zoning Board’s decision on Cataract here… http://on.rocne.ws/AqlVVA

    Landmark Society is working furiously right now to strike a deal with a developer and the Brewery. That’s why it’s been so silent. Stay tuned for updates.

  14. Renee says:

    Hi, RochesterSubway.

    Are there any more details about what the Landmark Society is proposing to convince the brewery to not tear down this building? As the 30 day deadline draws nearer, I expected to see more media coverage on the status of the building and have not. And I haven’t seen any communication from the brewery or any other parties regarding efforts to find a compromise.

  15. @Renee, media coverage has been scarce because a deal to save 13 Cataract is remote and not likely to happen before the deadline. When the Zoning Board voted in favor of demolition, they took away all incentive for the Brewery to work with potential buyers/developers. The Brewery wants this building gone and all they need to do now is wait out the 30 day period and go collect their demolition permit. There was nothing in the Zoning Board’s decision that forces the Brewery to make any effort to work with a buyer/developer or the Landmark Society. I hope I am wrong and some miracle happens before next week. Unfortunately, the Zoning Board pretty much sealed the deal with their vote last month. After next week the Brewery will move very quickly to remove the building.

    If you’re on the side of saving 13 Cataract, I’m afraid the only thing left to do would be to write and phone City Hall to voice disapproval over the decision and maybe chain yourself to the building if you’re so inclined.

    You can read more here by Howard Decker, FAIA.

  16. Renee says:

    Thanks for the response! I read Howard Decker’s great update last week, which is what made me search around to see if anyone else had some updated news. Let’s hope the brewery has a change of heart and exhausts all design options before they tear it down. I’m fully aware of the financial burden to rehabilitate these buildings that are left to deteriorate. But it really could be such a unique icon for the brewery and the city that you just won’t find in the urban sprawl sameness that had enveloped much of the country.

  17. Renee says:

    I read in the D&C this morning that a majority of the city’s Preservation Board must agree to sponsor a citizen application to designate the building as a city landmark. It would then go through a hearing with the city’s Planning Commission. If it is designated as a city landmark, the Preservation Board would be responsible for the building.

  18. @Renee, that’s mostly correct, although I’m not sure that the building would become the ‘responsibility’ of the Preservation Board. The Board would simply ensure that the property is taken care of by the owner (ie: not demolished). If the Preservation Board decides to sponsor the nomination and it goes to the Planning Commission for review and a public hearing, it will be VERY IMPORTANT for anyone who doesn’t wish to see the building lost to attend the hearing and sign up to speak in favor of Landmark Designation. This will be the only chance for the public to be heard.

    One other thing; the D&C article states this is a “last ditch effort” as if there are no other options being worked on. That is not the case. As of this week there still are developers studying the site and working on the numbers for redevelopment. New developers (not just from Rochester) also continue to express interest in the site. It’s just not something that can be force fitted within a 30-day window. But regardless of the prospect for redevelopment, the Landmark Designation is something that should definitely be explored. These buildings are clearly worthy of the distinction.

  19. Renee says:

    Great. Thanks so much for providing more detail! The D&C story was pretty short.

  20. Pierre says:

    I would love to make a model building of this historic piece.
    Do you perhaps have building plans available ?

    Thanks

  21. Pierre, try contacting Genesee Brewery. I’m sure they have plans and might work with you. They have a small model of it in the new visitor center. Something larger scale, with a cutaway so people could see the interior, would be nice.


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    About the Rochester Subway Poster...

    ¤ Parkleigh [ ...map it ]
    ¤ Poster Art [ ...map it ]
    ¤ Rochester Public Library Store [ ...map it ]

    ¤ Rochester Subway Poster Press Release
    ¤ Article by Otto M. Vondrak
    ¤ Design by Mike Governale

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    ¤ The End of the Line - Rochester's Subway, DVD
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