Bob Sandage stands in the middle of the main floor of the building known as the Wrecking Bar, which he purchased in March of this year. The grandiose architecture of the space is impressive, even in its dilapidated state. The wooden floor is only partially exposed — the rest of it lies under board tiles stuck to the floor with a sticky black substance. Parts of the walls are missing, and in a back room, part of the ceiling is gone. Windows are covered with plastic and blue tape. "You've got your work cut out for you," I observe. Sandage laughs heartily, nodding his head in agreement.
Built in 1900 as the home of businessman and philanthropist Victor Kriegshaber, the Wrecking Bar (named as such when it was an antique store that closed in 2005) sits on Moreland Avenue at the cusp of Inman Park and Little Five Points like a battered beauty queen. Designed by architect Willis F. Denny, who also designed Rhodes Memorial Hall among other buildings, the Wrecking Bar is a now-rare example of Denny's over-the-top Victorian style. For years, the sight of its grand columns and domed roof, coupled with graffitied walls and broken windows, has provoked frustration in passersby. The home's historical value, as well as its potential, seemed immeasurable. Watching it fall into disrepair was almost unbearable.
But the task of rehabbing a 110-year-old building wasn't something to be taken on lightly. Apart from the obvious work of renovation, the main building plus the warehouse in back make up about 18,000 square feet. It was hard to imagine who, or what kind of business, would need that much space. And the building had a few folks who were interested in it staying unoccupied. "When we first put up the fence, some guy was out there yelling at the contractor," Sandage says. "He was yelling, 'You stole my house! I'm gonna burn it down!'"
Sandage has been working toward a brewpub for a long time. Now in his early 40s, the passionate homebrewer says he first got the idea about 15 years ago, and began the serious planning for this project five years ago. Two years out of college, Sandage started his own engineering business. Last year he sold that business in order to pursue his beery dreams. "It's something I've always wanted to do," he says, his blue eyes gleaming in a way that belies his laid-back nature. "Brewing and food have always been my passions. The opportunity to save this building was just something I couldn't say no to."
While saving the building is a lovely sentiment, it hasn't been that simple. Legislation had to be introduced to the City Council and the zoning law had to be changed just to allow brewing on the site. Because houses flank the building, the neighborhood had to agree to allow a restaurant to open here. The main concern was noise, so Sandage agreed to close at midnight. "We've gotten some flack from people about that online," Sandage says. "People are like, 'Why close then? That's so lame.' And I'm like, 'Fine, you come negotiate with the neighbors.' But there's plenty of other places in Little Five folks can go if they want to drink until 2."
The brewpub itself, which Sandage hopes to open in early 2011, will occupy the lower level, or what used to be the house's basement. The beer will be brewed in the warehouse out back, and the main level will be used as an events facility.
Building a pub from scratch in the basement almost seems easy compared to the painstaking historical restoration going on upstairs. Sandage and a few helpers have been doing a lot of the work by hand, chipping away layers of paint, restoring old fireplaces, and rebuilding the screen porch that had totally rotted in recent years. Sandage has also had some help from the public. "Ever since the project was announced, we've had people send me messages saying, 'I'd love to help you out somehow.' I mean, we have almost 1,200 fans on Facebook," he says, looking amazed. "So we started doing these volunteer days. People come and hang out and work. They clean bricks for a while and then we have pizza and beer. I can assure you there will be some perks for those folks in the future as well," he laughs.
Now that most of the permits are in place, more professional builders and work crews will be stepping up the speed of the project. But the work done by hand has uncovered some amazing things. In one of the back rooms, layers and layers of paint were removed carefully. One day, Sandage's wife noticed what looked like letters on the wall. After some more painstaking paint removal, they uncovered a message written in ornamental lettering: "Laugh and the world laughs with you. Snore and you sleep alone." Sandage plans to match the paint and make the message more visible.
"We never would have seen that if we'd just had contractors in here doing the work," he says. "There's a benefit to doing it yourself."
While the events facility will be an appropriate use for this grand old building — Sandage is particularly excited at the idea that couples will be able to have beer specially brewed for their weddings — the beer community and the neighborhood are looking forward to the pub. Chef Daniel Butler, who is currently part of the team at Sound Table and has worked in the past at Shaun's and Cakes & Ale, is slated to run the kitchen. Butler and Sandage have already begun work on the menu. Sandage says no style will be off limits when it comes to the beer, and that the food will be "beer-centric."
Veteran brewer and mainstay of the homebrewing scene Chris Terenzi will oversee brewing operations. Terenzi worked in the past as assistant brewer at Max Lager's, and as head brewer at U.S. Border Brewery and Cantina in Alpharetta. At Wrecking Bar, 12 draft lines are planned, as well as four lines for casks.
Apart from the excitement of another beer-making operation in Atlanta, the Wrecking Bar brewpub marks a change for the neighborhood along this stretch of Moreland Avenue. Little Five Points seemed stuck for many years in its lovable but down-market hippy-punk aesthetic. Now establishments such as the Porter Beer Bar and the Wrecking Bar are signs that the neighborhood is evolving.
And, just as important, this project signals that the beer culture of Atlanta is evolving. In June of last year, an article I wrote about the homebrewing community, which featured Sandage and Terenzi among others, ended with the line "These guys look a lot like the future of Georgia brewing." In early 2011, that future will have arrived.
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