History and Legacy of The Mission Brewery Plaza Building

The Mission Brewery was built as a brewery in 1912-1913 and opened in June 1913. The brewing industry was pioneered in San Diego by Austrian immigrants Mr. Doblar and Mr. Wedel who opened many local beer gardens following the opening of the first brewery in 1868. The San Diego Brewing Company was later founded in 1895 by men of German descent, and Gothic style breweries became popular in San Diego.

The man who purchased the Mission Brewery site, block 182 of the Middletown Addition, in 1912, was August F. Lang, a German. The purchase was made in the name of the newly incorporated Bay City Brewing Company, for which Lang had served as president and secretary-treasurer in 1886. A druggist by trade, Lang had previously owned and operated a drug store in the Granger Building.

When the brewery opened, the San Diego Consolidated Brewing Company, formerly the Bay City Brewing Company, had three executive officers: Lang, as president and treasurer, Frederic Handschy as vice president and general manager, and Jacob Guehring as superintendent and brewmaster.

Knowledge that Prohibition and the end of the legal sale of alcoholic beverages faced them, caused the managers to begin production of a nonalcoholic drink dubbed the “Hopski” in 1915. Due to poor sales, caused in part by anti-German sentiments held during World War I, the “Hopski” was discontinued two years prior to ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Passage of the Volstead Act in Congress, which defined “intoxicating beverages”, whose manufacture and sale the Eighteenth Amendment had banned, brought Prohibition into effect from 1920-1933. These years had disastrous consequences for the brewing industry, and San Diego’s Mission Brewery, as one of its members, did not survive. The brewery closed in 1918 and was eventually sold, in 1923, to the American Agar Company.

Although the brewery was a short-lived venture, it was the first Mission Revival style brewery to have been built in America and is now the oldest surviving brewery structure in San Diego.

The American Agar Company which was housed in the Mission Brewery buildings, was the first agar plant in San Diego and one of the first in state. Agar, a product of ocean kelp, is employed in the manufacture of iodine, gels, and bacteriological culture plates. The history of its discovery and production dates back to the fifteenth century.

The earliest record of commercial agar production in the United States was in 1919. Chokichi Matsouka started the first agar plant in the Glendale-Pasadena area at that time. He soon lost his business. The Matsouka Company sold its equipment to John Decker, who began producing agar in the Mission Brewery in 1923- Becker attempted to improve Matsouka’s methods, and produced a good quality agar until heat resistant contaminants destroyed his capacity for sterilizing the agar. The factory closed but was reopened in 1932 when Dr. Horace Selby, acting as a consultant, solved the sterilization problem. In 1933, however, competition from imported Japanese agar at one fifth the price of the American product, forced the American Agar company to fold.

Agar production in California was continued on a reduced scale by Mr. Steve Corfield, who opened a family business in National City in 1934. He later became a partner in the new American Agar and Chemical Company, formed at the urging of the War Productions Board in the early 1940s. In the intervening years, the former brewery building was purchased by Lou Small and B.J. Shipman, who operated a Mexican imported seafood business there. Their import business lasted only a short time, for once the United States and Japan were at war, Japanese imports were halted and agar production became a priority of the federal government.

Small became interested in the product, and he and Corfield formed the American Agar and Chemical Company in W1. The company furnished 95 percent of the agar required by the War Productions Board, earning commendations for its contribution to the war effort. For twenty-five years the American Agar and Chemical Company was the sole producer of American made agar, and its product proved superior to imports. The company continued production until the factory closed its doors in 1987.

Over the years, the southwest section of the tower building was subleased to other tenants such as the New Linen Supply Company. It was the success of continued economic return that saved the Mission Brewery buildings from demolition.

The American Agar Company building, formerly the Mission Brewery, is actually two buildings, a small single-story structure in front of a large multi-level tower structure. The buildings are connected by an archway composed of brick and faced, along Washington Street, with stucco. Originally built in 1913, they are joined examples of large-scale industrial Mission Revival architecture. Although the buildings have served various functions, they have retained the integrity of their Mission Revival design.

The property sits on the southwest corner of Washington and Hancock Streets. Originally sited on San Diego Bay, successive landfills have resulted in its present location, approximately one mile distant, separated from the bay by Lindbergh International Airport.

The small building sits in front of the large building and faces onto Hancock Street. The original office section, it is separated from the tower building by a 14-foot wide driveway, connected by the aforementioned archway. Initially set farther back from Hancock Street, a forward section was added in 1940-50, virtually doubling the building’s size and extending it toward the street. An espadana parapet runs continuously down Washington Street, starting at the corner of Hancock on the small building, progressing to the archway, and spanning the east elevation of the tower building.

The tower building, an imposing, coral colored structure of industrial design, was largely constructed of brick masonry. The ground floor was faced with stucco and the upper floors were painted, leaving the masonry exposed to view. The March 17, 1912 San Diego Union noted that the purpose of the first level stucco was to emphasize the Mission Revival architecture. The east ground floor elevation consists of a series of large arched windows and an arched vehicular entrance midway between the tower and office buildings on the east. Arched windows are also seen at various points on all elevations, and on the west, east, and north facades of the fifth-floor tower.

Roof espadana parapets occur at all levels. This pattern is repeated on all but the south and west facades, beginning at the roof line and continuing along the north and east facades of the tower. The entire first floor, except for the southern “rear” elevation is delineated by espadanas. The second floor west addition of the tower section does not include this Mission Revival element.

The actual square footage varies among the floors of the tower section. The ground floor is divided into three main sections partitioned on a north/south line across the structure. This interior division was repeated in each of the upper floors, although the square footage encompassed by each varies. The tiered look of the building, when viewed from the east and north, reflects this variation.

The southern elevation of the tower building reaches to one and one-half stories, with an espadana roof line similar to the others. It is exposed to the railroad spurs, some of which were installed at the time of construction to access the brewery. Fenestration on the south elevation is more standard without the extensive use of arches; a double door entrance is in the eastern section. On this elevation, both of the lower floors were stuccoed. At the west end of the south elevation, a loading dock area with elevated entrances and overhead cables (the rear section of the nonextant western addition) once assisted the loading and unloading of cargo.

There were two additions to the tower building. The ground floor of the main section was extended west, and a second story was added (the one briefly referred to above). These additions probably occurred at the same time, in 1941, after the War Production Board identified a significant lack of agar production and the second agar operation, the American Agar and Chemical Company, moved back to the Mission Brewery site. In January 1988, when the current architects first inspected the premises, they found no remnants of either brewery or agar production equipment in the extended western section. Only storage racks were found, located along the westernmost wall. Through photographic evidence, we can document that the addition was not present in 1928. We know what happened in October 1929 and its impact on the business climate. Through the title records, we can document that the decline of the first agar era-was clearly underway in 1932. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the American Agar Company would have undertaken expansion construction during this time period which was also just prior to its relocation to National City in 1934. The western addition is no longer extant.

Five other structures, tin sheds, were at one time on the site. Architects in 1988 found that they were all used for seaweed storage, evidenced by the seaweed storage racks in them. Most of them were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s but the construction date for one shed has been difficult to establish. The buildings on the site were appraised for Commercial Building Records by a San Diego County assessor in the late 1950s. This followed a purging of the county Commercial Building Records which occurred sometime in the 1950s. At the time of the appraisal, a 1930 construction date was assigned to the tin shed which was virtually up against the western addition to the tower building but the actual date was certainly later and more in line with the post-1941 construction detailed previously. Supporting a later date is the fact that the western wing addition had three windows facing the adjacent shed which was less than four feet from the building wing. If the shed had been constructed in 1930, a wing would not have been added that included windows from which only the metal walls of the shed could be viewed. Therefore, a construction date in the 1940s would be a more appropriate estimate for the construction date for the earliest of the five tin sheds. None of the sheds remain today.

Most of the structure’s interior is vacant with few remnants of the brewery and/or agar processing equipment, and their structural accommodations, still evident. Some interior walls are in poor condition. Storage areas were created out of the western and southeastern sections, including the added western wing which no longer exists.

The northern end of the east section of the tower building was the area where the original sterilizer/ovens were located. The appearance of the roof in this section suggests that it was raised to accommodate the retrofitted equipment. Other evidence of alterations include steel beams, support columns, and the absence of stairs accessing the elevated door on the north wall. Dates for such alterations, as was the case with the aforementioned construction, cannot be ascertained as there is no documentation.

The second floor of the tower section is accessed via a freight elevator or enclosed stairs. (The freight elevator ascends to the fourth level, and the pulleys are on the fifth floor roof.) The second floor is generally vacant and in poor condition. Vents were located on the west wall in the center section and the western room is in particularly poor condition.

The third floor is also vacant and in disrepair. Brick walls were built to a thickness of approximately one foot. Arched windows of the east elevation have rectangular frames in the interior. A ladder roof access in the southwest corner of the east room exits onto the roof southeast of the laboratory.

As with the second and third floors, the fourth floor is currently vacant, except for the remnants of various platforms and tank supports.

A chemical laboratory was located on the fifth floor. This area was originally used as a laboratory for the brewery and then also served as a lab for the isolation hospital. Eventually, the American Agar Company used it in similar ways. There is a landing, leading to the laboratory, off from which a former office area was constructed, with stained wood walls. Access to the roof was built into the south wall. This is also the access to the fifth floor restroom, which is located in an enclosed setting on the roof.

The spaces on the various roofs were fully utilized for miscellaneous storage and for the required ventilation, ductwork and fire prevention equipment. The roofs behind the espadana parapets are flat and covered with rolled roofing material. The brick masonry of the structure is evident in several exposed walls and along the parapets themselves.

Additional Notes: 

In 2012, Coronado Brewing Company recommissioned the 15 BBL brewing space, but quickly outgrew the space. Since 2013, Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment has been operating in the space. They have now reached their max capacity and are building out a much larger space in Carlsbad. 

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