Beer at the Alhambra Summer Garden

Before Prohibition came along in 1917 and forced an entire generation of Washington restaurants and saloons to close, a favorite pastime for many Washingtonians was to while away a summer evening in one of the city's many beer gardens, where cool brews would take the edge off the interminable heat and humidity. One of the best-known spots was the Alhambra Summer Garden at 4th and E Streets NE, run by the Washington Brewing Company, whose extensive works filled the rest of the block. In 1933, just as beer was once again becoming legal, the Washington Post's John J. Daly recalled the Alhambra's glory days:
There was the Alhambra. Some called it the Last Chance. It sat upon a stately knoll east of the Capitol—a brewery nearby. Night after night the swains and lassies gathered there and quaffed golden brew. They danced to the strains of a German orchestra playing good Teutonic music—and American popular tunes. "The Sidewalks of New York," and "Auf Wiedersehen."
Postcard from the Alhambra (author's collection).
By 1865 the first beer garden on the future site of the Alhambra was in operation. It was established by Prussian-born George Jeunemann (1823-1884), who came to Washington in 1851 and worked first as a tailor before going into the "liquid bread" business. An August 1865 advertisement in The Evening Star touted dancing every Monday night at Jeunemann's "Lager Beer Brewery and Pleasure Garden." After Jeunemann's death, his family sold the complex to Albert Carry (1852-1925), a prominent businessman who renovated the brewery before selling it to English investors in 1889. The new owners rechristened it the Washington Brewery, choosing as their trademark a portrait of George Washington atop an eagle. It was during the days of the Washington Brewery that the beer garden came to be called the Alhambra.

The Washington Brewery (Library of Congress).
Site of the Washington Brewery, from the 1903 edition of Baist's real estate atlas.
Washington has always had its share of breweries. In 1809, for example, prominent Georgetown businessman Daniel Bussard (1771-1830), whose house still stands on 35th Street, opened the Georgetown Brewery on the banks of Rock Creek. Ten years later, a certain Jonathan Dumbleton was selling pale ale and porter produced by the "Washington City Brewery" from his shop under the bookstore of Daniel Rapine (1768-1826), Washington's second mayor, on Capitol Hill. Other early breweries were in Southwest (the "Island Brewery" in the 1840s), in Foggy Bottom, and in Southeast.

But beer drinking didn't really become pervasive, here or elsewhere in the U.S., until the arrival of thousands of German and Irish immigrants in the middle of the 19th century. According to author Daniel Okrent, Americans drank just 36 million gallons of beer in 1850 but by 1890 were consuming 855 million gallons, almost 24 times as much. The immigrants brought with them the new lager method of making beer, which required chilling during the fermentation process. The first lager breweries used underground storage vaults to keep their beer cool; the advent of artificial refrigeration in the 1880s helped spur beer's increasing popularity.

Advertisement from The Washington Post, November 19, 1902.
As Garrett Peck explains in his highly informative and entertaining Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't, there were just four large breweries left in Washington in the late 19th century. The largest was the well-known Christian Heurich Brewery on the banks of the Potomac where the Kennedy Center now stands. The much-smaller Abner Drury Brewery was adjacent to it. The other two breweries were on Capitol Hill: Albert Carry's National Capital Brewing Company and the Washington Brewery, whose two main brands were "Imperial Export," a light beer ("clear and sparkling as champagne") and "Culmbacher," advertised as "heavy in body and a most excellent tonic, containing a great deal of nourishment that helps to build up and strengthen the system." Both were lagers that were aged in the brewery's extensive underground vaults.

A corner grocery store advertises Washington Brewery Company beer circa 1903 (Source: Library of Congress)
At the end of the 19th century, local beers like these faced increasing competition from big national brewers like Pabst, Schlitz, and Anheuser-Busch, which sent refrigerated trainloads of pale, inferior beer around the country to be bottled locally and sold for people to drink at home. Intensive advertising campaigns insisted that this insipid, pasteurized beer was superior to the fresh products made by local brewers and served on-site in their beer gardens. But the best efforts of the national behemoths did little to stem the patronage at D.C. beer gardens.

Advertisement from The Washington Herald, May 30, 1913.
There were many beer gardens, large and small, in pre-Prohibition Washington. Gerstenberg's, a celebrated German restaurant on "Rum Row" (the 1300 block of E Street NW), had a small beer garden in back, as did Dennis Mullany's pub just south of the Avenue where the Commerce Department now stands. The proud Frenchman, "Count" Jean-Marie Perreard (1844-1918), had a beer garden in the rear of his restaurant at 1206 E Street NW, where every July 14th he staged a passionate reenactment of the storming of the Bastille. Up on 14th Street above Logan Circle was Kozel's (later Geyer's), a rooftop beer garden that was one of the most popular of all. And down near the southwest waterfront, known as the Seventh Street wharves in those days, was Hall's Summer Garden. "The main attraction there, in the summer, was the crab feast," according to John J. Daly. "It was a place where gentlemen took off their coats, stretched them over the backs of chairs, and went to the serious work of shelling Chesapeake Bay hard-shelled crabs, with foaming seidels on the side."

Advertisement from The Washington Times, May 29, 1910.
The Alhambra was designed as a long beer hall with a stage at one end where a wide variety of entertainment was offered. A March 1884 advertisement promised "A Wilderness of Enchanting Attractions this Week by Conners and Kelly, Luigi Del 'Oro, Dermot and Doyle, Devere and Oakes, Carrie Brower, [and] Carrie Duncan, who will appear in a Grand Olio of Delightful Novelties." Concerts and dancing were the most frequent attractions, but other vaudeville-like amusements appeared occasionally as well. In August 1901, a three-line notice in the Evening Star advertised that "The Largest Man-Eating Shark" would be on display at the Alhambra for one night only. Presumably it was not alive.

Beer gardens like the Alhambra were precursors to the supper clubs of the 1920s and 1930s, popular places that mixed drinking and dining with entertainment and offered an escape from quotidian woes. By all accounts the Alhambra did a booming business right up until it was shut down by Prohibition. The entire Washington Brewery, filling a large city block, was shuttered around 1919 and stood idle for years as its owners searched for a buyer. In 1921 rumors spread that the old summer garden would be reopened as a dance hall for African-Americans, and hysterical neighbors responded by sending a flood of protest letters to the D.C. commissioners' offices. No such dance hall ever opened, however. Instead developer Charles E. Myers bought the property in 1924 and within a year sold it to the D.C. government to be used as the site for a new junior high school. Myers won the contract to demolish all the old brewery structures and did most of the work by early 1926 but balked at having to remove the "maze of subterranean vaults somewhat similar to the tomb of King Tut or the catacombs of Rome" that had once been used by the brewery for cold storage and that covered the site, extending out under 4th Street, according to an article in the Washington Post. It's unclear whether the old vaults were cleared away, filled in, or just left in place, but construction soon began on A.T. Stuart Junior High School (now Stuart-Hobson Middle School), which opened in 1927. No visible signs remain of the rollicking beer garden that enlivened this corner for more than half a century.

Site of the Alhambra Summer Garden today (photo by the author).
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Sources for this article included Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2010); Garrett Peck, Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't (2011), Madelon Powers, Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman's Saloon, 1870-1920 (1998); Christine Sismondo, America Walks Into a Bar (2011); Daniel Tana, "The Last Call: Preserving Washington's Lost Historic Breweries" (2013); and numerous newspaper articles.

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  1. Very nice post. While my great grandfather had the beer garden on 14th St NW, his father had a brewery on N St NW just off of North Capital St. Loeffler had a beer garden near that location. More info including pictures of the beer garden can be found here....

  2. Fun article! I do wish they'd have more summer garden-type places downtown where you could laze back after work on a summer's eve. The fountain at the National Gallery is overrun. Maybe someone else would be willing up put up dead sharks or reenact the storming of the Basille?

  3. In recent years the school had some serious rat problems. Makes me wonder about whether those tunnels are still around -- rodents would probably love them.

  4. I live right near this and have always loved the old photo of the brewery. It looks like a castle, I think. Wish it was still there...sorta. My kids went to Stuart Hobson and we used to joke that they went to school in a brewery!


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