Budweiser Van Nuys: Born of the Years

In June 1954, the Budweiser, or Anheuser-Busch brewery at Van Nuys, California opened its doors. A ceremony was held in its hospitality room, the Rathskeller. Important executives of Anheuser-Busch were present, as I discussed yesterday.

The word Rathskeller was brought to America by German immigrants. It recalled the atmospheric cellar bars and restaurants of German towns. With the war over by nine years in 1954, 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 “as-built” scale and exterior can be seen in this Flickr image.

Images shown below were taken at the site in 1952 during the groundbreaking ceremony (source: USCLibraries Digital Collections).

 

 

The plant contributed to a postwar economic and population boom in The Valley. The growth was driven by an expanding freeway system, consumerism, and suburban modes of living.

The brewery was cubic-functional, in plain white, but windowed towers at one end recalled the iconic Budweiser pile in St. Louis, Missouri.

In contrast to the plain exterior, the Rathskeller and lobby interiors reflected the emerging “Southwest” style. Its influence in American architecture and interior design has only grown since.

It’s a soft, natural look, an amalgam of Indigenous, early Spanish, and American West influences. Southwest is well-explained in The Spruce, a home design and decor site. A hallmark 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 of the day, so his 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 fill the screen with detail.

Behind the reception desk we see a mural or large painting. A team of Budweiser Clydesdale horses is drawing a Western-style wagon laden with boxes and barrels.

 

 

In the Rathskeller, a painting depicts what seems miners with a pickaxe. A floor vase holds tall, bullrush-type plants. Metal “cowboy” brands are affixed to a bar covered with white granite or marble.

Atop the bar are draft fonts, with bottles of Budweiser spread strategically around. We also see porcelain mugs – a Southwest natural touch perhaps, but evoking German beer Keller too.

The flooring is polished wood planks, pine or other. A low armchair with recessed back is in plaid, while bar stools seem covered in mottled rawhide. The ceiling is exposed beams with white daubing or textured drywall between.

The ceiling perhaps was inspired by Adobe (Viga) design, but evokes to my mind a European timbered look, Tudor or other.

In 1978 Busch Gardens Van Nuys, the related entertainment facility, was closed so the brewery could expand to make Bud Light. Public tours of the brewery ceased for the next 40 years but recommenced in 2018.

A Daily News report in 2018 shows Bud Light being poured in what is clearly the Rathskeller of 1954. It is now called Bud Light Tasting Room. Embedded in the news story is a video in which resident master brewer Jeff Jenkins describes the tour in lively fashion.

The clip pans onto the tasting room. We see again the old Rathskeller, looking rather ordinary these days, the stylish Southwest motif just a memory.

In 2010 a video was posted to YouTube in commemoration of an employee at the brewery who had passed away; it is still up 11 years later. Some parts briefly show the Rathskeller, e.g. the same exposed beams as in 1954.

A wrought iron lamp also seems from 1954, and a painting or two. In 2010 the room was probably used for employee recreation, or other internal purposes.

The video shows the lobby area as well. The desk looks similar to the 1954 original but less stylish, perhaps remodelled. The Clydesdales and beer-laden wagon are still there on the wall, this time we can appreciate the colours.

Beer and the brewing industry have changed significantly in the last 67 years. But Anheuser-Busch Van Nuys is still active, still providing an economic boost in The Valley.

The video on YouTube focused on the people: friends and colleagues of the departed employee. At the end we see his work gloves and safety glasses framed. His name was Jack.

His co-workers in the film worked in production, lab work, or supply chain, the parts of a brewery that make things happen on the ground.

The video description states it is a “small” tribute. It is not small, it is big-hearted. It enlarged my understanding of American and Anheuser-Busch brewing history, and gladdened me besides.

 

 

 

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