Why the landmark Imperial Brewery downtown will soon face the wrecking ball

Photography by Jeremey Theron Kirby

Kansas City has long loved local lager. The vacant Imperial Brewery Co. building looming ominously over I-35, just south of downtown Kansas City, is proof.

Built in 1902, at its zenith the six-story brick brewery was producing some 300,000 barrels of beer a year. The signature beers were Mayflower and Imperial Seal. It’s been vacant for the last forty years.

In 1850, there were just six thousand Kansas City residents and two breweries. As the city’s population grew, so did its thirst. By 1900, Kansas City had about three hundred and fifty pubs for two hundred thousand people.

Seeing an opportunity to meet the city’s demand for beer, a group of investors from St. Louis as well as some local saloon owners joined forces and hired German immigrant Ludwig Breitag to build a large-scale, “state-of-the-art” brewery. Originally constructed in a late-Victorian, Romanesque style, the large main building had a tall central tower with arched windows and several small auxiliary structures, such as an ice house and stable. 

Just a few years later, the brewery changed hands, being purchased by a new consortium called the Kansas City Brewery Company. By 1910, the facility was one of the area’s main suppliers.

Prohibition devastated the local beer industry. The brewery was converted to a flour mill known as the Boulevard Mill. The mill had a successful run, finally closing its doors in 1985, says Jeremiah Dean, whose family’s real estate company bought the property in 2007 and has owned it for the past fifteen years.

“At one point, we toyed with the idea of turning it into a boutique hotel, maybe some shops,” Dean told Kansas City for this article. “There have been lots of ideas floated about the old brewery.”

Dean Realty began renovating and restoring the building, stripping the plant of its former milling equipment. In 2011, the former brewhouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dean’s family business merged with another local real estate company, Copaken Brooks, where he joined as vice president. Dean says the company has been prodded by Jackson County and Kansas City officials looking to demolish the dilapidated structure and create a new development opportunity. At some point, the old building will be gone—its location, configuration and dilapidated physical state make rehabbing it financially unviable.

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