67 years ago in June the Anheuser-Busch brewery at Van Nuys, CA opened its doors. A ceremony was held in its hospitality room, called the Rathskeller. Senior executives of Anheuser-Busch were present as I discussed yesterday.
The Rathskeller term was brought to America by migrating Germans. It recalls the below-ground bars or restaurants of German towns. As the war was over by nine years such prewar terminology was being revived in American brewing and hospitality.
The brewery was built on a large plot in the San Fernando Valley between 1952 and 1954. A good idea of the scale and exterior as originally conceived can be seen in a period Flickr image.
The plant was a major contributor to postwar economic and population expansion in The Valley. It was driven by the growing freeway system, consumerism, and suburban modes of living.
The exterior is light-coloured and mostly cubic-functional, but the windowed towers at one end mildly recall 19th century brewery tower construction, and the iconic Budweiser plant in St. Louis.
The interior of the Rathskeller and lobby were, in contrast, designed in an emerging regional style, known as Southwest. Its influence in American design has only grown since then.
This is a softer, more natural look inspired by vernacular styles. “Southwest” is well-explained in The Spruce, a home design and decor site. It is an amalgam of Indigenous, early Spanish, and West European influences.
A hallmark, states The Spruce, is “earthy color palettes and rustic accents”.
In 1954, photographer George Szanik captured warm, evocative images of the lobby and Rathskeller, even as he used black and white. A naturally dry climate can mute colour, or at certain times a day, so the technique worked perfectly.
Five photos may be viewed in Architectural Digest‘s online archive. To see them, click on nos. 152-155, then on “print”. They appear in excellent resolution.
Behind the reception desk is a mural or large painting of Clydesdale-type horses drawing a Western-looking wagon carrying barrels.
In the Rathskeller, a painting depicts what seems miners working with a pickaxe. A floor vase holds tall bullrush-type plants. Metal “cowboy” brands are affixed to the bar, which is topped with white granite or marble.
Draft fonts adorn the bar, with bottles of Budweiser placed strategically. Porcelain mugs are shown, perhaps to accentuate the natural look, which lends a Germanic touch as well.
The flooring is polished pine or other wood. A low armchair with recessed back is in plaid. Bar stools seem covered with a mottled rawhide. The ceiling is exposed beams with a white daubing or textured drywall between.
The ceiling may have been inspired by Adobe (Viga) design but evoked as well I thought a timbered look, Tudor and other, of old Europe.
In 1978 Busch Gardens Van Nuys, the related entertainment facility, closed to make room for a plant expansion, to make Budweiser Light. Tours of the brewery were discontinued for the next 40 years. Tours re-commenced in 2018 (I’m not sure of the status post-Covid 19).
A Daily News report that year shows a server pouring a Bud Light in what seems clearly the old Rathskeller, now called Bud Light Tasting Room. In the embedded short clip from a Twitter account, resident master brewer Jeff Jenkins explains the tour in a lively manner.
The clip shows further scenes in the tasting room. Clearly it is the Rathskeller again, looking rather functional these days.
In 2010 a YouTube video was posted to commemorate the passing of an employee at the brewery. One part briefly shows the Rathskeller, the exposed beams are still there.
At that point tours were not being conducted so the room was probably reserved for employee recreation or other internal purposes.
The video shows the reception area (lobby) as of 2010. The desk looks similar to the original but smaller, perhaps remodelled. The Clydesdales and beer-laden wagon of 1954 are still there behind the desk, this time we can see the colours.
With all the changes in American industry, in brewing, in beer since 1954, the Van Nuys plant is still there, still brewing, still providing work and an economic boost for the area.
The YouTube video focuses on the people at the brewery, the friends and colleagues of the departed employee. Many worked in production, lab work, and supply chain. The parts that make things happen, on the ground.
The caption states it is a “small” tribute but it is not small, it is big-hearted. It enlarged my understanding of American and Anheuser-Busch brewing history, and gladdened me besides.