Van Olinda on the American Tavern. Part I.

Edgar S. Van Olinda was a long-lived journalist for the Times-Union in Albany, New York. His regular beat was arts and culture, covering especially music and film. From the 1940s his city column increasingly looked back, to old Albany, in diverse ways: its Dutch roots (seemingly his own), Limerick-Irish history, German heritage, distinctive architecture and more.

Breweries and beer seemed a particular interest of his, as they recur regularly in his work.  I have not been able to determine his birth year and date of passing, but he was still writing for the paper in 1970. By that time he had to be about 85, judging also by archival photos.*

In his column of March 29, 1943 he chronicled the passing of the free lunch at a local hostelry, Kalkbrenner’s. The bar had been set up by the current owner’s father ca. 1900, and was called originally Schlitz – perhaps financed by the famous brewer although this is uncertain.



The permit system of buying food mandated by the war finally put paid to a rare, post-Prohibition survival of the free saloon lunch.

While that survival was notable in itself, Van Olinda’s commentary gains further interest for its insight into the city’s German-American tavern culture:

Although the “free lunch” counter is now one of many cherished memories, there still is food to be had [at Kalkbrenner] even if a slight tariff is placed on the check; delicacies such as ham hockies and sauerkraut, roast fresh ham, corned and smoked beef, great big frankfurters, bologna, pickled lambs’ tongues, home baked beans, Liederkranz cheese and pickled limes. And for the piece de resistance a great, shining roast turkey for sandwiches, and the carcass for delicious turkey soup. Of course, if you insist, the waiter will take your order for some of the draught bock beer which is seasonable at this time of the year.


Charlie’s place is one of the last of the old hotels with the real Bavarian atmosphere. Even the architecture on the front of the building—great spaces of stippled stucco, criss-crossed with solid, weather-beaten timbers, crowned by a peaked roof—carries out the simulation.

The same issue of the paper, bare inches from Van Olinda’s column, contains war news of great import, including how permanently to disarm Germany and end its militarism after the anticipated victory.

The disjunction is notable: a benign, comforting picture is offered of German ethnicity via its transplanted food and beer, only lightly Americanized (the turkey, beans), while the country at the same time was in a civilizational struggle with the ruthless Nazi regime then in power.

Van Olinda makes no effort to reconcile these two visions, it is almost as if they are separate things. In many ways they were though, or at least, by World War II the country was able to view them as such.

World War I was different, the German immigrations of the 19th century were more recent, and there was a cultural divide. It was exemplified by the writing of journalist and author H.L. Mencken who challenged the justice of America entering a European war.

In a famous jibe Mencken called war proponents “Anglomaniacs”. While there was certainly a pro-Nazi element in German ethnic America in the 1930s, it was largely silenced or neutralized once the war started. Mencken himself, not pro-Nazi but against American involvement in another European war, withdrew from active involvement at the Baltimore Sun.

If there was lingering resentment nationally of German-American culture by the early 1940s, it was kept out of the public eye in the form of news and opinion coverage.

We can conclude, or so I view it, that by 1943 Kalkbrenner’s and its like had become American institutions. Their hallmarks of food, beer, and architecture might suggest otherwise, but note Van Olinda’s term “simulation”.

Kalkbrenner’s old saloon, when Pearl Harbor brought America into the war, was an echo of the German nation in America, not its reality. Remember its formal name, finally, as Van Olinda memorialized it: the American Tavern.

Part II continues the series.

Note re image: source of image above is identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in source belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*Note added December 1, 2021: I later determined Van Olinda was born in 1884, son a church organist. I elaborate in the Final Part.


9 thoughts on “Van Olinda on the American Tavern. Part I.”

  1. I can’t help but wonder if this was a kind of gentle cultural propaganda–no attempt to reconcile the two but by juxtaposing the cozy German-American life with the militarism of the Nazis, he’s trying to portray a vision of German-Americans as part of the American tapestry and not an other to be reviled or disliked.

    Pure speculation, of course, but I’ve always found the very swift end of German-American identity at the start of WW2 particularly fascinating and hard to parse. Of course the horrible way Japanese-Americans were treated at the same time has a much easier and sadder explanation: skin color.

    • On the juxtaposition point, if intentional I think it had to be from the editor, not Van Olinda. He likely wouldn’t have known the other content of the page, in advance I mean. I do believe finally, as stated in the text, that what Van Olinda called old Bavarian was something considered thoroughly American by then. Bock beer itself was, of course.

      An annual bock beer celebration was held into the early war years as I discussed recently for a wine and food group in LA, kind of the same thing or another aspect of what I’m highlighting. Many restaurants with a German-American theme continued through the war as well, in Yorkville in New York, and elsewhere in the country.

      I would be surprised if this general area hasn’t been examined by scholars in book-length form, there must be a study out there, or a few.

  2. Gary,
    The Schlitz Brewery built tied houses before prohibition. Several survive with exterior Schlitz insignias in Chicago. The Albany building in the photo Pinto references doesn’t look related to those (and likely was outside Schlitz’s primary market).

    In spite of there being a sizable pro-Nazi sentiment in the US prior to the US entry into WWII, German Americans weren’t segregated. However, large populations of American and Canadian citizens of Japanese descent were sent to camps during WWII. In Canada during WWI, some ethnic Germans including Austrians plus other non-German ethnic immigrants from Austria-Hungary were sent to camps. It’s not likely that those non-German ethnics were at all sympathetic to the German/Austrian cause.

    • Grist for the mill certainly, the post can suggest of course numerous directions to uncover further detail or for further examination. In general though, my sense is German-Americans fought the Second World War as loyally as their compatriots did. After all many American senior officers had German (or German cultural) background, the cases are too well-known to cite. It may have been similar during WW I at fighting man level – eg Eddie Rickenbacker presumably – but in society at large there was a split in public opinion. Some German-American opinion-makers argued against entry into the war in 1917. Henry Mencken was perhaps the best-known example. The problem is in WW II he had much less to argue in support than 25 years earlier, so his continued opposition was seen as tilting against windmills, or being simply the curmudgeon he was, or being (at least) incoherent. Even in WW I arguably he was at sea, but his stance during the Second War sunk permanently his reputation as a public intellectual (we would call it today), imo.

  3. On Edgar S. there may be more to be gleaned from these:

    James E Van Olinda, 1854 – 1931
    James E Van Olinda was born on month day 1854, at birth place , New York, to Abraham Van Olinda and Laura Van Olinda .
    James married Emma Van Olinda on month day 1878, at age 24 at marriage place .
    They had 4 children: Edgar S Van Olinda and 3 other children .
    James lived at address .
    He lived on month day 1865, at address , New York.
    He lived on month day 1900, at address , New York.
    He lived on month day 1905, at address , New York.
    He lived on month day 1920, at address , New York.
    He lived on month day 1930, at address , New York.
    James passed away on month day 1931, at age 77 at death place , New York.
    He was buried on month day 1931.

    #99C Albany Scrapbook 1916-1928
    Largely poetry and verse, includes writings
    by Edgar A. Guest, news clippings, some
    photographs and ephemeral items.

    #99D Albany Scrapbook 1939-1947
    Largely “Around the Town” and “Tattletales
    of Old Albany,” columns by Edgar S. Van

    And the Waterford Museum has an object, but the low res photo is of no help …

  4. – captioned ‘Schlitz Hotel 1890 Broadway albany ny’ and it would seem likely one of many – an early-ish example of vertical integration?

    See also captioned The 4 story Schlitz Hotel opened in 1890. The hotel was best known for the adjacent Palm Garden built in 1895. The Palm Garden closed in 1919 as a result of Prohibition, and the hotel closed in 1921. It was razed in 1964.


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