Lemp Mansion & Brewery (St. Louis, Missouri)
Brewing Up Tragedy!
Lots of people go to St. Louis to visit the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. I’ve been there myself and it’s not completely uninteresting… but for the morbidly-minded there’s a much more fascinating brewery just a few blocks away: the old, abandoned Lemp Brewery, once the biggest brewhouse in St. Louis, closed down by Prohibition. The first time I went to St. Louis (3/25/01), I wasn’t sure exactly where the Lemp Brewery was. I drove around the neighborhood aimlessly, hoping I’d bump into it, and imagine my delight when I turned a corner to behold the words ‘LEMP‘ blazing brightly across the century in the distance. I instantly fell in love with this building. It’s like a gothic castle and it covers 11 city blocks. I was delighted to see that the original Lemp Brewery emblem could still be seen on the side of the building. Why do I have such an incredibly fascination with the Lemp family and the Lemp brewery? Let me briefly tell you the story of the Lemps… one of the most tragic tales in St. Louis (or, indeed, the world).
John Adam Lemp arrived in St. Louis from Germany in 1838 and started a brewery, using the natural cave system under St. Louis as refrigeration to perfectly age his beer. His brewery was a huge success and he died a millionaire. His son William J. Lemp took over the family business and he was the one who built it into an industrial giant. Under his tutelage, the Lemp Brewery that still stands today was built. By 1870, Lemp was by far the largest brewery in St. Louis. However, here’s where the tragedies start…
The first major fissure in the Lemp dynasty occurred when Frederick Lemp, William’s favorite son and the heir-apparent to the brewery presidency, died under mysterious circumstances in 1901. (They think he worked himself to death…) William was despondent and withdrew from the world, until he finally shot himself in the head in a bedroom at the family mansion. William Lemp Jr. succeeded as heir to the family throne and the brewery’s fortunes began to decline until Prohibition closed the plant permanently in 1919. William Jr.’s sister, Elsa, who was considered the wealthiest heiress in St. Louis, committed suicide in 1920. On June 28, 1922, the magnificent Lemp brewery, which had once been valued at 7 million dollars, was sold to International Shoe Co. for $588,500. Although most of the company’s assets were liquidated, the Lemps continued to have a morbid attachment to the family mansion. After presiding over the sale of the brewery, William J. Lemp, Jr., shot himself in the mansion’s office. His son, William Lemp III, was forty-two when he died of a heart attack in 1943. William Jr.’s brother, Charles, continued to reside at the house after his brother’s suicide. An extremely bitter man, Charles led a reclusive existence until he too died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The body was discovered by his brother, Edwin. In 1970, Edwin Lemp died of natural causes at the age of ninety… and thus ended the Lemp family line.
Of course, with so much morbidity occurring at the mansion, I had to track it down too. It is, after all, considered “one of the most haunted houses in America” – and who can resist a billing like that? After one false start where I ended up back on the freeway and had to drive a few miles out of my way, I headed down the correct street and stumbled upon the beautiful Lemp Mansion. Unfortunately, I’d wasted so much time wandering the streets of St. Louis, that I arrived 20 minutes after the last tour began. The Lemp Mansion has now been turned into a dinner theater and I walked in to see that some dinner guests had already arrived and were dining in the same room where William Lemp, Jr. had shot himself all those years before. I wonder if they knew that? I wanted to take a picture of that room, but it felt slightly inappropriate with a bunch of people sitting in their fineries awaiting their meal, so I asked if I could wander about upstairs. They said sure, but I had forgotten that most of the mansion has been turned into an Inn, so the bedrooms are locked guest rooms. So, the best I could do is get a couple of pictures of the upstairs hallway. It was kindy creepy up there except for that glaringly out of place high chair! If I stayed there, I’d want to find out which room William committed suicide in and I’d want to stay there! Because, you know, I have a morbid attachment to the mansion too…
So, I decided I’d have to come back another time to get the full mansion tour… so on April 22, 2001 (a Sunday) I returned within visiting hours, eager to get my full tour. Now, here’s where the story turns grim. I noticed that there were a large number of cars outside the mansion, which made me a little nervous because, after all, there couldn’t possibly be that many people coming for a tour… and they didn’t serve lunch that early in the day previously. As I entered the Mansion my worst fears were realized:
“I would like to take a tour of the mansion.”
“We don’t have tours on the weekends any longer. We’ve started serving lunch on Saturdays and Sundays now.”
“But I’ve come all the way from California to take this tour. I have to work during the week so this is the only time I can take it.”
“Sorry.” <shrug> “You can walk around and take some pictures if you like…”
Oh gee, thanks a lot. I was incensed at my rotten luck!! There, in the parlor where William Lemp Jr. had shot himself, were about 20 patrons stuffing their faces. I thought about taking a picture with them there… but I was too timid to intrude… so I just walked upstairs again, cursing at the morons who had foiled my plans yet again!!! Regaining some measure of composure, although my eyes were slightly watery from bitter disappointment, I managed to snap a few shots of the “Most Haunted House In St. Louis”.
I soon stomped out of the mansion grumpy as can be (it was one of those days, what can I say) and took a farewell exterior shot of the morbid abode and the yard (notice the word ‘Lemp’ on the brewery in the distance). I stood in the yard, still fuming, wondering what I should do now that my plans had been ruined… when I thought about the Lemp Brewery complex that I was so incredibly enamored with. Why not walk around the exterior of the Brewery and get a few extra shots while I’m here? As I began walking around the exterior – photographing the old “International Shoe Company” building (they utilized the Brewery after Lemp had gone out of business) and a remnant of the old Lemp Brewery logo – I found, much to my delight, that a gate had been left open and there was no evidence of anyone around to sully my explorations. I headed towards the interior of the Lemp Brewery Complex. I now present to you an obsessive, loving, and by and large quite dull photo-exploration of the old Lemp Brewery Complex.
Altogether, a fantastic bit of tragic Americana!
- Did you know that there’s a tunnel underneath the road leading from the mansion to the Brewery? That’s how the Lemps used to go to work. And there’s also an auditorium, swimming pool, and ballroom in one of the natural underground caves below the house. They used to cool their beer in the caves too.
- Up until last year (2000) they used to open up the cavern on Halloween and have a haunted house down there. My heart was giddy when I first heard that… until I found out that the cavern is filling with water, so for liability purposes they sealed the door up after last year’s festivities. Damn my rotten luck! Someone told me that you can still get into the caverns from the brewery entrance and there is a bunch of International Shoe Company junk down there, but of course to do that you’d have to either get permission or break in. Hassles, hassles!
- Someone bought the brewery for $200,000 a few years ago and there are talks of renovating it as a restaurant/entertainment complex. That’s always a mixed blessing – because while it’s great to preserve the place, renovation always means destroying some of the beauty of the building. Still, the preservation of the Lemp Brewery would be a grand thing, indeed!
A FASCINATING URBAN EXPLORATION STORY FROM JAY S.
I was wandering around the facility, just taking in some of the history and pondering what powers let this place go to ruin when I noticed a funny thing, an entrance to the main facility. Now, I have been an explorer of places like this for a long time, and love going into old buildings and imagining what they were like all that many years ago. So I took a peek inside. I found that this entrance led to the main facility. So later that night I rounded up a few of my best drinking buddies, grabbed some flashlights and we went exploring. The inside of this place is awesome. There are huge storage rooms that are the size of multiple football fields and at least 4 stories high, empty. Well, some of them are full, one of which by a production company (we had fun dressing like Ben Hur and attacking each other with fake swords and machine guns for about 2 hours). A series of staircases leads you to the underground passageways, which lead you to the caverns. This place has cavern upon cavern, all man made and all in brick arches, for at least 200 feet underground, one on top of the other. After reaching the lowest point of the facility you get to a huge steel door that must have been installed in the original construction because it is OLD AND HEAVY. It took some work to get this thing open but once we did, we had found the “infamous underground cave/swimming pool”. This cave is about 1/2 a mile long and, inside was the remains of the Lemp family swimming pool. I’m sorry to say that this thing is now no more than a muddy pool of water, it doesnt even remotely resemble a swimming pool. The caves are muddy and worn by man, but ironically, you can see small fossilized animal bones in the walls of the cave. I’ve since learned that this is because the cave itself used to have water rushing in from the Mississippi River and the bones were bones of dead river creatures, and creatures that died near the river, that washed through the caves and deposited in the muddy walls, millennium ago. After a little looking around we found an entrance in the cave to the mansion. Yes, this cave ran all the way from the lowest point of the brewery to the mansion. Now I have to say that I had a peek into the mansion but didn’t enter. I was drinking, but not quite drunk enough to turn a little innocent exploring into breaking and entering. So after about 4 hours of exploring we decided to head back. On the way back to the surface we were sidetracked by a separate set of stairs which led to another wing of the brewery. This portion of the place was obviously a packaging plant because there were huge tracks of rolling slides that went all over this gigantic room. It was awesome. we decided that the only fun thing to do was to grab an old box and roll around the place for about an hour. After about six straight hours of exploring we left.
I have been back at least seven times since then and have found a new part of the building ever since. I have stopped going a year and a half ago or so because the cops were starting to get wind. Plus my buds told their buds and their buds told their buds and eventually it became a nuisance so they closed it off. (Why must people ruin everything for me, I ask you???? – DeSpair)
Just a side note, on one trip into the caverns we noticed an old ice maker. This machine was obviously decommissioned many many years prior. We all stepped in closely to examine it further and when we did, IT KICKED ON!!!! No shit, I swear on my children’s lives. This scared a buddy of mine so bad that he ran to the car and waited for the rest of us for 4 hours. Thought you might like to hear that one.
PHOTOS FROM ALAN
I received an e-mail from an artist named Alan who rents studio space in the Lemp Brewery and was kind enough to send me some pictures of the interior of his studio space, as well as some images of the tunnels that lead to the mansion. Oh, I am soooo jealous!!!
“Hello from St. Louis! I just happend to come upon your website pertaining to the Historic Lemp Brewery. Thought you might be interested to know I am an artist who has been renting studio space in the brewery since 1989. Presently my studio is in what is building #8 which is located directly above an entrance to the cave system. It is very creepy down there, yet the architecture and brick work is simply amazing. Many of the walls are ceramic white glazed bricks which are built into the natural cave structure. Yes it is flooded down there. Although you can explore.”
Here are some images Alan generously provided:
For more information on the Lemp Brewery, also see:
Ghosts Of The Prairie