Looking for Tied Houses in the Midwest

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A major tenet from The Gentle Art of Wandering is that, no matter where you are, you can always find something interesting. On a recent trip to the Midwest, my dog Petey and I wandered around looking for old Tied Houses.

Tied houses were taverns owned by a large or local brewery. The tavern was tied to the brewery for the beer they sold. Tied houses were very common at the turn of the last century and obviously went dark in 1920 with the coming of Prohibition. One of the provisions of Repeal at the end of 1933 was to eliminate the practice of tied houses. Breweries were now required to sell their product to a distributor who in turn sold the beer to a tavern or retailer. This three-tier distribution system is still in place today. A notable exemption from the three-tier system are brewpubs and craft breweries.

Tied house buildings are worth searching for because they oftentimes have distinctive architecture with symbols of the brewery built into the design. They are also a reminder of what urban life was like 120 years ago. Many of the surviving structures are so distinct that they have been registered as historical landmarks. If you look hard enough you may even find a tied house for a brewery that has been out of existence for more than a century. In a sense wandering around an old neighborhood looking for tied houses is a form of urban exploration and finding an urban archaeological site.

Looking specifically for tied houses illustrates another tenet of The Gentle Art of Wandering. Sometimes you need an idea such as a tied house (or public stairway) to get you out the door to start wandering. You can add some context to your idea by doing some research to get some specific locations to start the journey. It’s the combination of an idea, some context, and then taking action that makes for a wandering adventure. A wandering adventure consists of not only what you expect to find. It is also about what else you find along the way, even if it is a complete shock or surprise.

As for tied houses, you can find them in older neighborhoods of old industrial cities. In Milwaukee and Chicago you can find buildings that once housed taverns not only on commercial streets but also on residential streets. The corner tavern was very common in those cities.

It’s clear that taverns played major part in industrial cities with large immigrant populations at the turn of the last century. In addition to having a tavern always within walking distance, many of them offered a free meal if you agreed to drink a beer while you ate. Jurgis Rudkis, the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, staved off starvation by nursing a beer while filling up on the free food. He did this so often that he had to keep finding new taverns so he wouldn’t be thrown out.

Here is some of what we found while looking for tied houses:

This tied house is on residential street intersection on the north side of Milwaukee. The building is made out of Milwaukee Cream Style Brick.

A closer look at the top knot reveals that this one-time tavern was tied to Miller Brewing Company.

Just a few blocks away is another Miller Brewing tied house built in a completely different style and made out of red brick.

Here’s another Milwaukee Cream Style Brick tavern building that may have been a tied house.

Although there is no visible brewery identifier, the top knot of the building does have flourishes and details typical of a tied house.

This building too was probably a tied house. The new owners have replaced the medallion on top with their own identifier.

As you may be starting to notice there are many Cream Style Brick buildings in Milwaukee. The brick was made locally and the distinct color comes from the chemical composition the local clay. Although the brick is no longer made, it is still a unique identifier for Milwaukee and the surrounding area. At one time Milwaukee was called the Cream City because of the brick.

Even if a cream style brick building is not a tied house, the details in the brick work are always worth checking out.

This tied house on the west side of Milwaukee was built by Schlitz Brewing.

Here’s a closer look at the Schlitz logo.

This fabulous tied house is on the south side of Milwaukee. At the time of its construction (1895), there was a large steel rolling mill across the street to provide plenty of thirsty customers. The tavern is now a popular Serbian restaurant.

Here’s the tavern from a different angle.

This tied house is in the city of Racine. Racine is located on Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Chicago.

It was built by Pabst Brewing.

Prior to 1889 Pabst Brewing was named Phillip Best Brewing. I believe that this building may have been a tied house for Phillip Best Brewing.

I believe that the PB at the top of the building may stand for Phillip Best.

With the pictured Pabst tied house located in Racine, this is a good time to take a walk and see what else is around. Exactly one street to the east of the tied house is the world famous headquarters of the Johnson Wax. The building complex was built in the late 1930s and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Both the exteriors and interiors of the buildings are fabulous and well worth taking the time to tour.

Here is one view of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Much better views are available on the tour.

And here’s another view of the Johnson Wax headquarters.

If you walk the entire mile it takes to circumnavigate the Johnson Wax headquarter complex, you’ll pass this 1882 fire station.

At one time Racine had the largest concentration of Danish immigrants in the country. You’ll pass several Danish Kringle bakeries on your way to the tied house and Johnson Wax. Kringles are very tasty and have now been named the official state pastry of Wisconsin.

Here’s one of the Kringle bakeries that you’ll pass when you visit Racine.

And here’s a rack full of kringles. I would very shocked if you did not like the taste of kringle.

To continue with the theme of wandering, one block to the east of the bakery is cemetery named Mound Cemetery. Whenever you see the name Mound it’s always worth taking the time to check it out. And true to its name, Mound Cemetery has fourteen intact Native American burial mounds.

The rise in the background toward the left is a burial mound.

When Petey and I reached Chicago, we found several more tied houses including these:

But the most interesting tied house we saw in Chicago was for a brewery that went out of business before Prohibition – the Edward R. Stege Brewery. It went out of business in 1905.

With Chicago being a very difficult city to drive around, your best bet is to pick one old neighborhood to explore. That is, park the car once and start walking. As you walk, look around. I am sure that there will be something that catches your attention. It might even be a tied house that no one else had recognized before!

3 Comments

  1. I never knew what a tied house was. Thanks!
    I particularly liked the Phillip Best Brewing tied house. Fabulous architecture. I also liked that very narrow corner building made of cream bricks. I’m always fascinated by those extremely narrow buildings built on corners with acute angles.

  2. Once again you picked a fascinating subject to put into context for all of us! Your research is amazing on this topic! The contrast between a tied house and today’s craft beer pubs is enormous, with the craftsmanship and architectural details that go into the tide houses no longer apply to any of these pubs today. Thanks again, David, for a wonderful wandering trip. 🤗

  3. Do you know if there are any tied houses in St. Louis?

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