Dodson Moving installs the hydraulic jacks surrounding the Boehler House. Photo by Scott Martin for the Pearl.

After two months of dropping plumb-bob lines, tightening guy wires, removing asbestos tiles, storing away window sashes, and shoring up termite-ravaged wood beams, workers with Dodson House Moving elevated the famously leaning Boehler House at 328 E. Josephine St. off its foundation and 30? into the air on Wednesday.

It was one small step up for the former Liberty Bar, one giant step forward in the much-anticipated historic restoration of the 1891 house and saloon that belonged to Fritz Boehler, said by some to be Pearl’s first brewmaster.

Wednesday’s dramatic lifting off the venerable but decaying structure was overseen by Edgar Dodson, with his adult son, Gator, at his side. Together they represent two of the four generations of a San Antonio family that has been helping preserve houses and other significant buildings since the end of World War II.

“It’s a good thing we’re doing this now because if the Pearl hadn’t taken these measures, this building would have come down,” Edgar said, watching workers carefully insert steel support beams under the structure, preparing it for the next big step in the process. “It’s quite evident that water has been getting under the building and foundation for decades and rotting it out. There would have been no way of keeping this building standing without giving it a new foundation.”

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Wednesday’s elevation involved a team of Dodson workers, and scores of pneumatic jacks and old-fashioned wood support pilings, long steel beams, and a forklift driver with a soft touch. Passing vehicles slowed as drivers paused to gaze at the elevated structure.

The day’s work was the first delicate movement in a carefully choreographed sequence to bring the sagging structure back to life. If all goes well, the house will be moved a few dozen feet west on to the Liberty Bar’s former parking lot via pneumatically-driven steel rollers the first week of December.

“We will wait several days now and give the building the time it needs to return to equilibrium,” said Jeffrey Fetzer, the architectural preservation consultant who has worked on the Pearl project since Silver Ventures acquired the landmark brewery complex in 2002. “The wood moves in these old buildings. We’ll let it settle, then move it just enough to allow us to design and build a new foundation.”

 Exposed botten beam of Boehlers. Photo by Scott Martin for the Pearl.
Exposed rotten beam of Boehlers. Photo by Scott Martin for the Pearl.

It’s a sort of architectural root canal on a lot that now sits astride a section of Josephine Street that rises two feet above the level it occupied when Boehler House was first built. The lot’s slope will have to be reshaped before a new foundation is poured.

The Boehler House will sit on steel support beams until late spring while the new foundation is completed. Engineers and designers are still formulating a plan, but it is expected to incorporate concrete beams around the building’s perimeter. A concrete “mud slab” underneath the building will allow for proper drainage.

An historic photo of the Boehler House. Photo courtesy of Pearl Brewery.
An historic photo of the Boehler House. Photo courtesy of Pearl Brewery.

Once the building is moved back to its original location, this time on a new foundation, the laborious process of historical restoration will begin, which Fetzer estimated will take at least 12-18 months. So far, only a single photograph of the building’s exterior from 1891 has been located. It shows a slightly smaller building that was later expanded on its north side and possibly on its south side. A slightly different mission-style pediment advertises the “Liberty Saloon, Fritz Boehler, 1891.”

The building’s signature second-floor balcony is nicely squared in the historic photo, just as it appears much later in a 1983 photograph. The celebrated sag of the balcony floor and slowly worsening list of the building’s eastern wall have been the subject of various legends and stories. The truth appears to hold less romance and myth: wood rot, termites and a failed attempt in the ’90s to stabilize the foundation account for the building’s leaning facade.

Upstairs balcony of the Boehler House. Photo by Scott Martin for the Pearl.
Upstairs balcony of the Boehler House. Photo by Scott Martin for the Pearl.

Dodson workers slowly returned the east wall to vertical plumb via  a series of guy wires, moving it 7? of the out-of-plumb 11? between mid-September and Wednesday’s elevation. The still-sagging second floor balcony has fallen an estimated 10? over the six-foot length of its floor.

Dodson also moved the 1900 Mueller House built by the Pearl’s cooper, or wooden barrel maker, about 60? north of its original position to its current location where Pearl restored it and gave it new life as the Granary restaurant.

Once the historic preservation is underway, Silver Ventures and the Pearl team will consider how the Boehler House will come back to life. Will it return to its roots as a saloon, or its beloved late 20th century life as a popular restaurant and bar, or as something else?

“Pearl has always seen the Boehler House as an important structure in the neighborhood, one with strong ties to Pearl Brewery,” Fetzer said. “It’s definitely a labor of love, given the time, effort and commitment it will take to complete the project. It’s certainly not a business deal. Pearl sees it as a way of extending its own gateway north to the expressway.”

Fetzer said legend has it the first beer produced by Pearl after Prohibition ended in 1933 was sent to the Liberty Saloon, where the brewery’s own workers often gathered after their shifts.

First trucks leaving the Pearl Brewery with legal beer at 21:01 a.m. Sept. 15, 1933. Historic photo provided by the Pearl.
First trucks leaving the Pearl Brewery with legal beer at 21:01 a.m. Sept. 15, 1933. Historic photo provided by the Pearl.

San Antonio artist and photographer Scott Martin, who has documented many other aspects of the Pearl’s redevelopment, has been working alongside the Dodson team since it began work in mid-September on Boehler House. Except for his camera and tripod he looks like a crew member in his safety vest and hard hat. Martin’s documentary work of the Boehler House preservation will be the subject of a coming interview on the Rivard Report.

*Featured/top image: Dodson Moving installs the hydraulic jacks surrounding the Boehler House. Photo by Scott Martin for the Pearl. 

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.