What is the Future of Dubuque’s Iconic North End Brewing and Malting Complex?

Council denies another request to remove the conservation-district designation

Posted by mw on March 9th, 2010 8:07 am

Co-owner says repairing the North End property requires more ‘time and money.
There’s a soft spot in Gene Melssen’s heart for the Dubuque Brewing and Malting complex, but as co-owner of one of the city’s iconic properties, he’s also between a brick and a hard place. Once listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the former H&W trucking site has long been a North End eyesore, although its former majesty overshadows the decay. “Sidewalk closed signs” direct walkers to the south side of 30th Street to prevent potential injury from falling bricks.

It is now subject to the city’s Demolition by Neglect enforcement ordinance, which is part of the reason Melssen and his brother, Dale, asked the City Council on Monday to remove the Brewery Neighborhood Conservation District. The council declined, but its patience is wearing thin waiting for an investor to rescue the property. The Melssens hope to do just that.

The council hastily established the conservation district in November 2005 after learning the Melssens and a former investor sought a demolition permit. The original plan was to sell the bricks and steel at a hefty profit, but historic preservationists pursued an avenue to prevent the structure’s loss. As part of a conservation district, the Historic Preservation Commission gets first review of demolition permits.

The architect, Fridolin Herr, also built Ryan House, Dubuque County Courthouse and Basilica of St. Francis in Dyersville, Iowa. Although the building’s loss is inconceivable to preservationists, preserving it is a daunting task. “The commission wants us to make a bunch of improvements and they’ve threatened us with court,” Gene Melssen said. “I do like the building and I will do something with it, but I need time and money.”

The building’s condition makes the cost of repairs daunting. To buy time, the Melssens requested the conservation district be removed and provide them an opportunity to demolish the most deteriorated parts of the structure. “As far as I’m concerned, the place has been neglected since 1930,” Melssen said. He has spent $10,000 buttoning up windows and is applying for a low-interest loan through the city to repair the roof of the brewery. “I just don’t know where all of this will end,” he said.

The maximum low-interest loan is $25,000, which is what it will take to repair the roof. Melssen, a Colorado contractor, said he would love to renovate the building into first-floor retail and upper-level apartments. “I don’t know how much that will cost, but I don’t think you could do it for $10 million,” he said.

Melssen contacted Dubuque Main Street Ltd. earlier this week for help in finding grants and funding sources. “It’s not unlike many of the downtown projects we’ve done, like the Weber building or Dubuque Casket,” said Dan Lobianco, of Dubuque Main Street. “We need to explore all of the options. We’ll put a package together and find some partners to work with.”

Lobianco said potential funding includes tax-increment financing, federal and state historic tax credits and new-market tax credits. “If it becomes a rental-living facility, we can even explore creating an enterprise zone,” Lobianco said.

If funding is secured, Melssen said he will return to Dubuque and oversee the project himself. But funding won’t be secured overnight. A Demolition by Neglect court date looms in May, but several council members expressed sympathy for the Melssens’ position.

Councilman Dirk Voetberg said he was offered the building for free about 13 years ago. “I went through it with a contractor and appraiser, and even then, I decided I couldn’t afford it for free,” Voetberg said. “It’s a wonderful building, but it can’t just sit there as a historical rubble heap forever.”

Although bricks sometimes fall from the facade, the structure is sound. Outside walls are 2 feet and seven bricks deep. “We’re complaining about how to get shingles to the roof, but we can’t for the life of us figure out how they got all those bricks up there 100 years ago,” Melssen said. “All-in-all we want to cooperate and we will preserve the building, but I need money.”

Building’s history

  • 1895 Dubuque Brewing and Malting was constructed; it opened in
  • 1896. Considered the largest and most modern brewery in the country at the time. Turned out 300,000 barrels of beer per year and employed 200 men.
  • 1934-37 Operated as Julien Dubuque Brewing Co.
  • 1940 Purchased by H&W Motor Express.
  • 1977-78 Placed on National Register of Historic Places, then removed by owner request.
  • 1982 30th Street section was sold to FDL Foods.
  • 2002 H&W files for bankruptcy.
  • 2005 30th Street section sold to Auto and Truck Parts Inc.; H&W sections sold to 3M Development; council creates a conservation district for the property.
  • 2006 City Council denies request by 3M Development to remove the conservation district designation.
  • 2009 Fire damages part of the building; Gene and Dale Melssen buy out a 3M Development partner and become LK Development.
  • 2010 City Council denies request by LK Development to remove the conservation district designation.

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