Century-old beer bottle discovered at luxury apartment construction site

A Heurich beer bottle is seen in front of luxury lofts being built in downtown Norfolk, Va., on Dec. 17. While constructing the luxury lofts apartments along the water, Breeden Construction crews came across decades-old artifacts, including the Heurich beer bottle. Jonathon Gruenke/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS

NORFOLK, Va. — Construction crews in Norfolk come across plenty of junk.

Bo Taylor of The Breeden Company, a Virginia Beach real estate firm, said all sorts of things emerge when crews dig — shards of metal or glass, remnants of clothes or shoes from residents’ past.

That’s what happened last spring, when Breeden started work on the The Lofts at Front Street, a 258-unit luxury apartment building on a plot of land that juts out into the Elizabeth River in Fort Norfolk.

Amid all the junk, crew members found a fully intact beer bottle likely more than a century old. It came from a little-remembered Norfolk branch of the Washington-based Christian Heurich Brewing company that once stood nearby.

The bottle has no value except maybe to a collector, Taylor said. But it’s a way to peer into Norfolk’s past.

“It’s interesting to be here in the city of Norfolk, digging down and seeing 100-plus years of artifacts,” he said. “You begin to wonder, why is it here? And how did it get here?”

Despite the pandemic, the $70 million Lofts project got underway in April of 2020.

Concrete footings that go several feet into the ground help to support the building, said Taylor, the project’s superintendent.

While digging those holes, the hidden treasures were unearthed.

It had been an industrial area for decades. On an old plat map of the slip, it’s listed as belonging to Norfolk Coal & Oil Co., with a coal pile set up along the water.

Therefore, it wasn’t surprising to find remnants of industry such as rusty metal objects, gears and a water pump. Several horseshoes found harken back to the era of horse-drawn wagons as a means of distribution.

Other items pointed more to signs of life, such as a woman’s shoe and medicine bottles.

But the most interesting find, according to Breeden, was the Heurich bottle.

It’s a dark beer bottle with a tall neck, featuring the company’s logo of a leaf with an H in the middle. The top of the bottle makes the source clear: Norfolk Branch.

Clearly, Norfolk was a beer city long before the era of micro-breweries in every neighborhood.

Namesake Christian Heurich was a German immigrant who started his brewery in 1872 in Washington, D.C. The company had a massive plant but it closed in 1956. The land is now the site of the Kennedy Center.

The Heurich company also had a presence in Norfolk. In early 1897, it bought a “considerable piece of property” on the northern corner of then-Nebraska and Union streets near downtown for $15,000.

The Norfolk Virginian, a precursor to The Virginian-Pilot, reported: the company “will speedily erect cold storage warehouses, stables, etc. for an extensive branch of the business.

“The Heurich company has a large trade in this city, and the building of a large depot here for the more satisfactory handling of its product has been recognized as a necessity for several months.”

The brewery’s name occasionally popped up in headlines over the ensuing years.

The general manager of the Norfolk branch made news in 1904 when he was found dead in his stateroom on a steamer to Washington. A year later, a driver for the company on horseback was struck by an automobile.

“The horse ran away and his owners were unable to find him last night,” The Virginian-Pilot wrote.

Heurich’s name made the news again in 1909. A blind horse, attached to the buggy owned by the company’s general agent, got stuck in the muck near Sarah Leigh Hospital. (The Pilot’s headline: “Grass Along Bank Tempts Blind Nag to Muddy Plunge.”) The agent summoned several fellow Heurich employees to help rescue the animal.

It’s unclear exactly when the facility closed. An advertisement in 1916 lists the Nebraska Street building as for rent by the Heurich company: it’s a “building suitable for manufacturing” with over 10,000 square feet of floor space, stables, wagon platform scales and “a large fireproof vault in office.”

The Lofts project is now mostly completed, with leasing expected to begin within months. Breeden plans to have a small museum in the complex’s clubhouse, displaying some of the items found at the site, including the Heurich bottle.

“It causes you to think and dream backwards of what life” here used to look like, Taylor said. “Anytime you stick a shovel in the ground in the city of Norfolk, you’re going to find some history.”

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