America's First Lager Beer Brewers
When John Adam Lemp arrived in St. Louis from Eschwege, Germany in 1838, he seemed no different from the thousands of other immigrants who poured into the Gateway to the West during the first half of the 19th century. Lemp originally sought his fortune as a grocer. But his store was unique for its ability to supply an item sold by none of his competitors - lager beer. Lemp had learned the art of brewing the effervescent beverage under the tutelage of his father in Eschwege, and the natural cave system under St. Louis provided the perfect temperature for aging beer. Lemp soon realized that the future of lager beer in America was as golden as the brew itself, and in 1840 he abandoned the grocery business to build a modest brewery at 112 S. Second Street. A St. Louis industry was born. The brewery enjoyed marvelous success and John Adam Lemp died a millionaire.
William J. Lemp succeeded his father as the head of the brewery and he soon built it into an industrial giant. In 1864 a new plant was erected at Cherokee Street and Carondolet Avenue. The size of the brewery grew with the demand for its product and it soon covered five city blocks.
In 1870 Lemp was by far the largest brewery in St. Louis and the Lemp family symbolized the city's wealth and power. Lemp beer controlled the lion's share of the St. Louis market, a position it held until Prohibition. In 1892 the brewery was incorporated as the William J. Lemp Brewing Co. In 1897 two of the brewing industry's titans toasted each other when William Lemp's daughter, Hilda, married Gustav Pabst of the noted Milwaukee brewing family.
The Lemp Family
The demise of the Lemp empire is one of the great mercantile mysteries of St. Louis. The first major fissure in the Lemp dynasty occurred when Frederick Lemp, William's favorite son and the heir apparent to the brewery presidency, died under mysterious circumstances in 1901. Three years later, William J. Lemp shot himself in the head in a bedroom at the family mansion, apparently still grieving the loss of his beloved Frederick. William J. Lemp, Jr. succeeded his father as president.
Tragedy continued to stalk the Lemps with startling ardor. The brewery's fortunes continued to decline until Prohibition (1919) closed the plant permanently. William Jr.'s sister Elsa, who was considered the wealthiest heiress in St. Louis, committed suicide in 1920. On June 28, 1922, the magnificent Lemp brewery, which had once been valued at $7 million and covered ten city blocks, was sold at auction to International Shoe Co. for $588,500. Although most of the company's assets were liquidated, the Lemps continued to have an almost morbid attachment for the family mansion. After presiding over the sale of the brewery, William J. Lemp, Jr. shot himself in the same building where his father died eighteen years earlier. His son, William Lemp III, was forty-two when he died of a heart attack in 1943. William Jr.'s brother, Charles, continued to reside at the house after his brother's suicide. An extremely bitter man, Charles led a reclusive existence until he too died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The body was discovered by his brother, Edwin.
In 1970, Edwin Lemp died of natural causes at the age of ninety.
The Lemp Mansion was built in the early 1860's and was subsequently purchased by William J. Lemp as a residence and auxiliary brewery office. Although it was already an impressive structure, Lemp used his massive brewery fortune to turn the thirty-three room house into a Victorian showplace.
The radiator system was installed in 1884, five years after radiant heat was patented. The grand staircase was removed to accommodate an open-air lift that ran the gamut of the house. The decorative iron gates in the basement restaurant are all that remain of the elevator. In 1904 the house was completely renovated. To the left of the main entrance is the former brewery office, where William Jr. committed suicide. The decorative mantle is Italian marble.
To the right is the parlor, with its hand-painted ceiling and intricately carved mantles of African mahogany. Behind the parlor is an atrium where the Lemps kept exotic plants and birds. The main bathroom is dominated by a unique glass-enclosed, free-standing shower that Lemp discovered in an Italian hotel and brought back to St. Louis for his personal use. Other unusual fixtures in the room are a barber chair and a sink with glass legs. At the rear of the house are three massive vaults that the Lemps built to store great quantities of art objects. The Lemps were such avid art collectors that they could not display all of their acquisitions. Each vault is fifteen feet wide, twenty-five feet deep, and thirteen feet high.
The bedrooms were on the second floor. The main bathroom has a white granite shower stall and a marble and cast-iron mantle. The servants' quarters were located on the third floor, which boasts cedar walk-in closets, a skylight and an observation deck. The mansion does not have a ballroom in the traditional sense because the Lemps built an auditorium, ballroom and swimming pool in a natural underground cavern that could be reached from a now-sealed tunnel in the basement. Another tunnel led from the house to the brewery.
The wine and beer cellars, laundry and kitchen were located in the basement. The huge kitchen that once served the elite of St. Louis society has been completely modernized and now serves the honored guest of the historic Lemp Mansion Restaurant.
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