UH-Downtown building's ground-breaking uncovers oil, bits of history

by Lisa M. Chmiola and Robert Schoenberger

Daily Cougar Staff

Construction workers struck oil, beer and a hidden tunnel at One Main Street while breaking ground for a new academic building at UH-Downtown Tuesday.

Oil was spilling out of a hole next to an underground tunnel in the ruins of an old Houston refrigeration building, said Art Baker, labor foreman for JT Vaughn Construction, the project's contractor.

The oil, one of the bigger surprises discovered on site, probably came from an underground oil room used for fuel storage, said Ron Shoup, project coordinator.

"(The area around the oil) will probably have to be excavated," Shoup said. "We're testing the water now."

The oil will either be taken to a special landfill for disposal or sold to an asphalt company, if it is of high enough quality, Shoup said.

The foundation of an icehouse, once owned by the now-defunct American Brewing Association, was also unearthed on the site of UH-Downtown's construction project, said Steve Brunsman, of UH-Downtown. He said the building was originally built in the 1880s by Adolphus Busch.

The building first served the area as an ice factory before becoming a cold beer storage area, Brunsman said.

Shoup said the beer was shipped in refrigerated railroad cars from a St. Louis brewery for sale in the local market until a Houston brewery was built.

Shoup added that Busch personally held half ownership of the brewery and sold the other half to Houstonians.

The icehouse was supplied with beer from a brewery (built in the 1890s), the ruins of which lie beneath a UH-Downtown parking garage, Shoup said.

"It was used to make root beer during Prohibition in the 1920s," Brunsman said.

American Ice & Storage bought the building next, followed by the M&M Building's acquisition of it. In 1948, the building burned down, Brunsman said.

South Texas Junior College, which later became UH-Downtown, acquired the building in 1967, where it was used for parking, Brunsman said.

Although officials at UH-Downtown knew about the building's history, the unearthing of the brewery has caused a great deal of speculation around Houston.

"This is not a historical discovery," Shoup said. He when the UH System decided to build the new building, they hired a historian to investigate the site. Because the brewery, although owned by Adolphus Busch, was not an Anheiser Busch brewery, the researcher had to travel to St. Louis to get the details of the building's origin.

Also of interest on the site was a tunnel leading to Buffalo Bayou. The tunnel runs about 20 feet down before going 30-40 feet to the bayou, Baker said. There are two long pipes running along the bottom of the tunnel, he added.

The tunnel was probably used for moving equipment and water, Shoup said. Local brewing experts agree.

"Breweries, especially big breweries, use a lot of water," said Brock Wagner, co-founder and brewmaster of the Saint Arnold Brewing Company, Houston's first microbrewery. "(The tunnel) might have been there to get the water in and out."

The only use Buffalo Bayou water would have had in brewing would have been to cool the beer, Wagner said. At the turn of the century, brewers ran water pipes around the brewing tanks, and ran the cheapest water they could through them to draw heat off of the beer, he said.

Shoup said the bayou water also may have been used to make ice that kept the beer cold.

Among the beer bottles, bricks and oil, workers made other discoveries.

Apparently, the foundation for the building was laid by horse-drawn carts, said Baker, pointing out embedded horseshoe prints.

The standing walls of the brewery were lined in cork, according to Baker said.

Wagner said that, although once popular for sealing beer bottles, cork has not been in use by breweries since the 1700s.

"I would have imagined they may have used cork as an insulator," Wagner said. "This was before mass refrigeration was available, so lots of breweries would store beer in cork-lined rooms and constantly bring ice in to cool it."

Whether or not the unearthing of the icehouse was historic or not, it has sparked the imaginations of those working with the construction.

"It's sort of like peeling off a layer of history," Brunsman said. "I'm sure if you peeled back (the foundations) of any of these buildings, you would find older buildings."

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