By Brian D’Ambrosio
Esteemed for its cheap cost and blue-collar image, Pabst is the perennial favorite of college kids, country folk, and your average patriotic red-white-blue beer guzzler. Behind the legendary product, however, is the unique life of the forgotten Captain Frederick Pabst (1836-1904), an enterprising immigrant, a successful industrialist, and a fine philanthropist.
Frederick Pabst emigrated from Germany in 1848 at the age of twelve with his parents. After they arrived in their new country, they traveled west to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, still a frontier town in 1848, was not to their liking and so they settled in Chicago. During the next two years, Frederick and his father made a living by working in various hotels and restaurants. He worked as a hotel waiter, then as a cabin boy on a Lake Michigan steamer, eventually becoming head of one of the vessels. By age 21, he had worked his way so far up the shipping trade hierarchy that Frederick Pabst became Captain, a title he affectionately retained until the day he died. In his riverboat travels, he met a German entrepreneur named Phillip Best, owner of a small Milwaukee brewery. After marrying the man’s daughter, Frederick came into partnership of the brewery’s operations. A few years later, Frederick bought out his father-in-law, and, in 1889, Best Brewing became Pabst Brewing Company. Soon the prosperous man needed a home fit for his needs and those of his family. He chose Grand Avenue in Milwaukee as that place, for it was an attractive, well-heeled, tree-lined thoroughfare with many great mansions. Construction began in the summer of 1890, and over the course of the following two years, the Pabst Mansion took ornate, extravagant shape, each room ingrained with Flemish style custom furniture, paneling, and panache.
At the time of its completion, in July 1892, the Pabst Mansion represented novel standards of modernity and sophistication in design. Since then, it has stood sentinel to Milwaukee’s history, tendering one of the few constants in its changing urban environment, surviving as the epitome of America’s Gilded Age splendor in that city.
John Eastberg is the Director of Development at the Pabst Mansion, and a senior Pabst Historian. He started as a volunteer at the mansion more than 15 years ago. Since then he has learnt the details of every nook, cranny, cubbyhole, slot, ornament, and piece of artwork inside. “Up until the 1890s,” said Eastberg, “there really weren’t any major Flemish Renaissance Revival Style buildings like this in Milwaukee. This was an aberration and a trendsetter. It has the classic American gilded age interior that exemplifies the very best that European design had to offer. Here, we see everything from the artwork, furniture, paneling, and the compartmentalizing of rooms harmonizing with that style.”
At several points, from the beginning of the 20th century onward, the Pabst Mansion has faced the unfortunate prospect of annihilation via the crashing thud of the wrecking ball. The Pabst heirs sold their family home in 1908 to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. For sixty-seven years, five archbishops called the Pabst Mansion their home, preserving the house during urban renewal demolitions. “There were so many structures of the same character and caliber lining the streets here,” said Eastberg. “And this one is the only one left still intact with its original furnishings. Original furniture and family heirlooms are always filtering back to us. We just received armchairs from Mrs. Pabst’s sitting room.” At the time of his death, Captain Frederick Pabst had amassed a veritable brewing and real estate empire. He died on January 1, 1904, leaving the brewery to his sons. Eastberg says that Pabst was far more complex and multi-dimensional than simply being a wise business magnate; he was humbly devoted to his family, friends, and charitable works.
“Frederick Pabst was known in his lifetime to be a very good person,” said Eastberg. “Many famous people in American history we come to learn are not-so-great people. He did great things for the community, his employees, and his family. As far as any gossipy stuff, he was a beer baron who drank a lot of wine. He may have even preferred it.”
Pabst Brewing Company closed its Milwaukee brewery in 1996, and now conducts operations out of corporate headquarters in suburban Chicago. The mansion exists today as one of Milwaukee’s great architectural landmarks, and towers as a prominent link to the Captain’s life and times, bridging three centuries in the process. While dignified, proud, and in remarkably good overall condition, certain rooms show inevitable signs of decay. The success or failure of tending to the Pabst Mansion, says Eastberg, has broader implications than whether or not Pabst enthusiasts have a fun destination for an eccentric road trip or not. The way we treat our historical sites, he says, is a good indication as to how we treat our community, and a building of this stature deserves vigorous attention.
“The restorations here never end,” said Eastberg. “It’s just like owning your own home, the work never ends. I know that the restoration projects here are complicated and expensive, but there’s no place that’s anything like this in the state – or anywhere else for that matter. It is definitely its own entity and destination.”