Toledo’s Alegae Bloom will return this year on August 2. No, not the one filled with toxic microcystins—although this one is just as vibrantly colored. Together with the Ohio Environmental Council, the Maumee Bay Brewing Co. is taking an active position in the water quality issue, annually releasing this uniquely local beer, colored with matcha powder to mirror the bright-green, toxic waters of the lake. While this move is a positive way to bring the current water issue to light each year, today’s Maumee Bay Brewing Co. actually inherits a long lineage of Toledo’s old glory: the Oliver House, whose unassuming brick facade encapsulates more than a century of survival, reuse, and progress.
In 1995, Jim Appold, owner of the Oliver House, reclaimed the rights to a vintage brewing company named “Buckeye-Beer” (1838) to start up the Maumee Bay Brewing Co. out of the Oliver House facility. In doing so, he brought together a legacy story that pays homage to the rushing energies of westward expansion and captures the oft-times blurry founding years of Toledo, making the history of the Oliver House a perfect lens through which to capture that rarely documented part of our history.
Resurrecting original recipes from the 1800s for beers drunk by American settlers, the Maumee Bay Brewing Co. operations in the historical Oliver House closes a historical loop. At the start of construction of the Oliver House as a major luxury hotel in 1853, the brewing industry was part of a long-established culture of saloons, inns, and taverns in the area. As Neal Kovacik, general manager of the Oliver House recounts, “The interesting thing is, before there was oil… Before it became known for glass and everything else, brewing in Toledo employed more people than any other industry in the 1800s.” According to historian Arnette Hawkins, the saloon existed in Toledo almost two decades earlier than the official founding of the city in 1833. Essentially, the Appold family returned the Oliver House to an industry and craft original to the time of its establishment, reviving the history of Buckeye Brewing, an institution as old as the founding of the city and one of the oldest breweries in American history.
Though built as a high-end luxury hotel at the forefront of settlement in 1859, the Oliver House has had a far more complicated and longer history within the ebb and flow of industry. Its six-year-long construction ensured comforts and technologies at the height of its times, distinguishing it from the typical lodging experience that consisted of sharing a room with strangers.9
The Oliver House took a logistical location on rail-center Middlegrounds, overlooking a busy commercial river. With its steam heat, limited indoor plumbing, and gaslighting, it was an upper-crust boutique luxury hotel designed by a presidentially-recognized Isaiah Rogers at the height of his career. The plan of the hotel is “A” shaped, with wings branching off of an oval lobby, hosting 164 rooms, a dining room where one could have a professional business lunch, and ground-floor commercial space.10 At a time when makeshift inns and hotels were strewn all across the inhospitable swamp land, Toledo was at the seat of attention for the equivalent of American royalty (including, rumor says, Abe Lincoln himself) to go through a swamp, and to stay there.
The evolution of the Oliver House through the times reflects the political and economic changes of the nation. Just two years after the completion of the hotel, Civil War broke out. In the heat of war in 1862, architect Isaiah Rogers was so recognized in the nation that he was appointed Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department by Abraham Lincoln to oversee the design of key federal buildings. As war continued, the Oliver House became a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad, signaling that the house and its location were crucial in solidifying the political standing of the region in a nation on the verge of war. To this day, Rogers would be known as “the father of the modern hotel,” with the Oliver House as the last of Rogers’s built works to survive.
In the late 19th century, the Oliver House became a symbol of Toledo’s progress and growing importance as a rail hub and progressive microcosm of American industrial success. Yet, perhaps in a far-too-familiar plot twist, its immense success and fame for its premier location only lasted for thirty-five years, and by 1894 it was outpaced by other competitors who embraced electricity over gaslighting. The 1895 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows the vacant hotel: “NOT RUNNING.” Thus quickly ended the Oliver House’s illustrious existence as a luxury hotel and began its curious second, third, and fourth lives as a shell open to a diversity of inhabitants and industrious uses.
Briefly used as an infirmary for veterans of the Spanish-American War, the hotel was turned into a rooming house throughout the early 1900s, and finally closed in 1919. Ironically, as the hotel’s downfall was its inability to update to electric power from steam heat, its subsequent major owner would be a major lighting fixture manufacturer, The Edward N. Riddle Company, which mass-produced and developed markets for ornamented sconces of metal and glass for electric lighting. In 1919, Riddle took over the hotel and gutted its interior while reserving its iconic brick shell, adapting it into an industrial plant. Vintage lighting sconces can still be found dating to 1935, indicating the company’s manufacturing well into the decade of the Great Depression “when lighting designers seemed to get more fanciful as bread lines got longer,” making “fitments” ready for any “fashion change.” In some ways, the building anticipated a coming century of change, housing Toledo Wheel & Rim, an axle manufacturer in 1947 as a part of the wartime economic bubble following World War II. Twenty year later, in the beginning years of economic inflation of the Vietnam War in 1967, the Oliver House was used for show and storage of novelty items of Successful Sales Co., in addition to hosting other small businesses.
It would be fifty years later in 1995 before the house was returned to productive use under the Maumee Bay Brewing Company. This unusual temporal existence simultaneously demonstrate the proto-modernist adaptability of its simplistic layout and the longstanding impact of its short-lived years as an iconic hotel destination on subsequent generations. Each adaptation was a very conscious move that involved both innovation and preservation, creating the current unintuitive combination of a historic hotel museum and a brewery. And this legacy continues today beyond the stories of “old,” “historic” Toledo, as preserved structure and modern yet traditional company take on contemporary issues. While reviving recipes a century old, the brewery is also taking inspirations from the problems that Toledo residents face today: the water crisis of 2014 and the subsequent years of recurring algal blooms. Rather than merely remaining a relic, the Oliver House site gestures at a history of creativity, hope and possibility that we now look to for our future.