Former Brewery Complex in Flint MI


Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan
Date added: February 22, 2024 Categories: Michigan Brewery
Saginaw Street Thread Creek Bridge looking northeast with Thread Creek & dam in lower right which is south property line of Brewery Building (1979)

Most modest nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Michigan towns boasted at least one local brewery that provided the immediate community and a small surrounding market area with a beer that satisfied the public's taste. In the larger urban areas, a multitude of such breweries existed and competed for shares of the market through active advertising campaigns, aggressive price cutting practices, and dramatic mergers and bankruptcies. No matter what its market setting or size, each brewery promised the drinking public that its beer was the one that would best satisfy the parched palate.

The City of Flint was a typical town when it came to brewing its own local beverages. Several breweries already existed in the city when, in 1896, William Willdanger, Robert Wisler, and Adam Ketterman stormed the market with a new recipe. The three Flint businessmen built an attractive but utilitarian structure on South Saginaw Street for their new enterprise and brightly proclaimed in paint on its street facade that this was the "Home of Flint Beer." By 1897, an aggressive advertising campaign was well underway. Advertisements in the daily Flint Journal, the weekly Flint Saturday Night, and other popular tabloids of the day announced that Flint Beer was "Brewed at Home, Used at Home, Get it by Phone." The closing line of every advertisement assured the potential buyer that Flint Beer would "Satisfy the Most Critical."

The Flint Brewing Company remained a successful operation until 1915 when Genesee County residents embraced the Prohibition philosophy and voted with an overwhelming majority to make their county "dry." The brewery immediately closed its doors, throwing its owners into bankruptcy. It did not remain unused for long, however. In late 1915, a group of zealous anti-alcohol Methodists decided to make an example out of the popular brewery. Reasoning that there could be no more dramatic a way of showing religion's victory over drinking than to convert a brewery into a church, the Methodists purchased the structure and opened in its brew house and cellar the Lakeside Methodist Episcopal Church. The public hailed the event as a great moral victory and celebrated with a liquor-less banquet given in a brew chamber that previously had housed brewing equipment. "It is but fitting," said the congregation's pastor at the banquet, "that a building whose product has probably done as much to corrupt the morals of the City as any other institution should now take the role of a reformer." A lay-speaker declared during the evening that "While there is still a considerable amount of liquor being sold in the County it is infinitesimal as compared to the amount sold here when the County was wet. Nothing can better show the trend of Flint than to see the old brewery, that has done duty for over 20 years, sold for a church."

The building's reformation was about as short-lived as the drinking habits of Flint's residents. Within a few years, and for reasons not recorded, the Lakeside Methodist Episcopal Church moved out of the brewery and constructed a smaller church elsewhere in Flint. A local trucking firm took control of the building and converted much of its floor space into warehousing. By the mid-1920s, the Acetylene Welding Company and the Boyd Sign Factory had also moved in. When the Flint Casket and Woodwork Company took over the structure in approximately 1928, improvements were made to the existing structure and new additions were constructed that added fifty percent more floor space. These enterprises strictly were temporary tenants in the life of the brewery, however. When Genesee County repealed its liquor controls in the early 1930s, the structure immediately reverted to use as a brewery.

By 1933, the Flint Hill Brewing Company had purchased the building and had refitted it with over $350,000 of new equipment. The Company spent six years scrambling to quench the pent-up thirsts of Flint residents who had grown tired of Prohibition. In 1939, the White Seal Brewing Company purchased the enterprise and continued to promote its success. Only one incident during White Seal's proprietorship threatened the business. On June 21st, 1940, a fire at the brewery damaged over 5,000 gallons of beer. Because the beer already was bottled, government officials ordered all of it dumped. On a warm summer afternoon a few days after the fire, a small crowd gathered to watch as brewery employees uncapped 52,000 bottles of White Seal Beer and poured their contents down the drain. A Flint Journal reporter present for the heartbreaking event stated that the beer spread over the concrete warehouse floor and overflowed onto Fifteenth Street. "A river of suds wound its way to the sewer and the immediate vicinity of the brewing firm was fragrant with the aroma of malt and hops wafted into the atmosphere by gentle summer zephyrs."

In spite of the fire, White Seal bounded back as the producer of "Flint's Leading Beer" and continued to be a successful beverage manufacturer until 1949 when the Valley Brewing Company absorbed the Company. Valley Brewing vacated the structure in 1953 after larger beer conglomerates forming in Michigan and the Midwest swallowed its share of Flint's beer markets. The structure remained empty until the Flint Automation Company Machinery Manufacturers moved in in 1965. Unfortunately, the structure was again vacated in 1971. Today, a local Flint consortium of business people has purchased the brewery and plans to adaptively reuse its floor space for offices and a restaurant. Because the plans include a sensitive restoration of the establishment's original structure along South Saginaw Street, the brewery will remain an architectural highlight for Flint, a reminder of Flint's heritage as a Prohibition town, and an economically viable feature of Flint's present-day business community.

Site Description

The original portion of the White Seal Brewery is a brick structure constructed in three distinct segments ranging in height from two to four stories. A handsome 1896 Commercial Italianate building, the brewery can be seen throughout its entire neighborhood because it rests on a knoll at a sharp bend in South Saginaw Street. The brewery displays three major brick and concrete block additions constructed in 1928, 1934, and 1944. The White Seal Brewery stands on a large property flanked by the Grand Trunk Western Railroad tracks and a neighborhood of modest workers' housing on the north, the right-of-way for I-475 on the east, Thread Creek Pond on the south, and vacant commercially zoned property on the west.

When William Willdanger, Robert Wisler, and Adam Ketterman established the Flint Beer Brewery in 1896, they built a large three-part brick structure using a Commercial Italianate design. As if to clearly delineate the brewing processes taking place inside, the partners fashioned distinct appearances for each of the brewery's three parts which can most clearly be viewed from the front, or western, facade. The northern-most segment is four stories in height. Its northern face is three bays wide and displays a balanced fenestration of bowed-arch windows at the first floor level, trabeated windows at the second story level, and rounded-arch windows at the third story level; at the fourth floor, two ocular windows flank a blank expanse of brick traditionally used for a painted sign. A brick and stone bandcourse above the first floor, decorative brick spandrels between the second and third floor windows, another brick bandcourse above the third level, and an elaborate stepped and dentilated brick cornice line add detailing to this northern facade. The western facade, or street facade, of the northern segment is only two bays wide but offers a similar fenestration and brick ornamentation. This first segment of the three part brewery traditionally served as the brew house. The large brewing vats and web of cooling pipes filled the high-ceilinged rooms.

The center portion of the three-segment brewery is three stories high and two bays wide. Again, the fenestration is balanced but here, bowed-arch windows pierce the first and second floor facades while two rounded-arch windows accent the unusually high top story.

The appearance of the second segment is distinct from the first; they are united, however, by continuation of the narrow brick and stone bandcourse above the first floor level and use of the same brick detailing at the cornice line. This middle segment traditionally served as the brew "cellar" where the bottled beer was briefly racked for settling and aging. The Brewery's third segment, a two story, single bay structure with two trabeated windows, stands united with the rest of the building through use of the same first floor bandcourse and ornamental cornice-line. Here, the beer was stacked, cooled, and finally, sold to Flint's distributors, retailers, and beer drinking residents.

The interior of the brewery's original structure displays no ornamental detailing. The builders used hardwood floors throughout the structure, supporting them on metal or wood floor beams. Walls offered rough brick finishes or, at most, plastered and white-washed facings. Stairways were simple constructions done in wood or made with metal stringers and balustrades and wood treads. No brewing machinery or equipment remains in the structure today because all of it was auctioned when the Valley Brewing Company vacated the structure in 1953. An array of bolt marks, oil stains, and burns, however, provide a clear indication of where the pieces of brewing equipment once stood.

Various owners of the Brewery made additions to the original structure during its many years of service. In 1928, for example, the Flint Casket and Woodwork Company constructed a simple addition on the back, or east, facade of the structure. Little of the Single story addition is visible from the outside today, however, because later additions almost completely surround it. Only along the northern face of the complex can one see a single brick facade capped by a modestly detailed brick cornice line; a garage door, added later, pierces part of the facade. In 1933, when the Flint Hill Brewing Company purchased and re-fitted the brewery after the end of Prohibition, and again in 1944, when the White Seal Brewing Company owned the structure, new additions expanded the floor space available in the complex. These later additions include the single- and double-story concrete block and brick loading docks and ramps that face South Saginaw Street, the single story brick warehouse that runs along the eastern face of the 1928 addition, and the huge one-and-one-half story block warehouse that stretches eastward from the back of the complex almost to the right-of-way of I-475. While providing many times the square footage available in the original brewery, all the additions remain visually subordinate to the Older building. Lower in profile, and on the whole, located away from the original structure's main facade along South Saginaw Street, the additions do not interfere with the strong visual impact that the White Seal Brewery always has had on its surrounding neighborhood.

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan North and west (front) facades (1979)
North and west (front) facades (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan Close-up of west (front) facade (1979)
Close-up of west (front) facade (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan North and east faces (1979)
North and east faces (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan South and west (front) faces (1979)
South and west (front) faces (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan Saginaw Street Thread Creek Bridge looking northeast with Thread Creek & dam in lower right which is south property line of Brewery Building (1979)
Saginaw Street Thread Creek Bridge looking northeast with Thread Creek & dam in lower right which is south property line of Brewery Building (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan AMTrack viaduct over Saginaw Street looking southeast (1979)
AMTrack viaduct over Saginaw Street looking southeast (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan Saginaw Street Thread Creek Bridge looking northeast with Thread Creek & dam in lower right which is south property line of Brewery Building (1979)
Saginaw Street Thread Creek Bridge looking northeast with Thread Creek & dam in lower right which is south property line of Brewery Building (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan AMTrack viaduct over Saginaw Street looking southeast (1979)
AMTrack viaduct over Saginaw Street looking southeast (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan I-475 elevation looking west over depressed freeway (1979)
I-475 elevation looking west over depressed freeway (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan AMTrack viaduct over I-475 looking southwest (1979)
AMTrack viaduct over I-475 looking southwest (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan Looking northeast up Saginaw Street with Ice House, Brewery building and AMTrack Station on Hill behind brewery building (1979)
Looking northeast up Saginaw Street with Ice House, Brewery building and AMTrack Station on Hill behind brewery building (1979)

Flint Brewing Company, Flint Michigan Brewery building looking north across Thread Creek from I-475 (1979)
Brewery building looking north across Thread Creek from I-475 (1979)