The few square miles now making up Sunset Hills was once the playground of the rich and famous beer brewer barons. Overlooking the Meramec River, the summer homes of Falstaff beer's Lemp and Griesedieck families, Anheuser, and Busch make Sunset Hills today a beer-lovers historical paradise.
Our area has a long and storied connection to the Lemp family (the first brewery, 1840, in St. Louis began as a grocery store), the Pabst family (1890’s) and the Carling label, as well as to the Griesedieck family. And now we learn about the Koehler family’s Columbia Brewing Company.
Davidson Mullgardt, once an English teacher and now local Lemp historian, spoke to the Sunset Hills Historical Society Monday, focusing on the Lemp family and their Sunset Hills residence on Alswel Lane.
The home is now privately owned, and the current residents who prefer to remain anonymous, say living at Alswel is “like being on vacation every day.”
That must have been what William J. Lemp, or "Billy," used to think when he built it in 1911 on 192 acres overlooking the Meramec River.
Billy's father, Johann Adam Lemp came to America from Germany in 1838, and began the brewing business by 1840, selling homemade lager beer, and for a while vinegar, from his grocery store. He joined with Western Brewing Company that was owned by Jacob Fieckert.
Western Brewing Company met the the thirsts of ever growing numbers of German immigrants in St. Louis. Adam Lemp, as he was known, discovered caves under the ground that now holds up the St. Louis Arch, when he tripped into a hole near Cherokee Street. He built the Lemp brewery there in 1864, using the cool caves to age his lager beer and cutting ice from the Mississippi River.
In 1892 Adam Lemp, and his wife Julia Fieckert, moved into his father-law's house—what is now the Lemp Mansion—at 3322 DeMenil Place in St. Louis, just around the corner from the Lemp brewery. There they raised eight children. The Lemp Mansion Restaurant & Inn is now known for family-style fried chicken dinners, homemade desserts, and murder mystery dinners. It overlooks I-55 and the massive Anheuser-Busch brewery today.
Adam Lemp's eldest daughter Annie was an author, son Louis was a champion horseman and is said to have hung out with gangsters, and their sister, Hilda, married Milwaukee's Gustav Pabst, uniting two of the largest American brewing families.
After his father Adam’s suicide, William "Billy" Lemp replaced him at the helm of the family brewery.
Billy Lemp married Lillian Handlan in 1899 and they had one son. She was later known as the “Lavender Lady” and the marriage ended in a name-calling, public divorce in 1909. It was said that she wore lavender fur coats while riding in a carriage with lavender leather seats.
The fourth son and heir-apparent to the family business, Frederick, died under mysterious circumstances in 1901, in California. His father was so distraught, that in 1904 William Lemp Sr. committed suicide in a bedroom of the mansion on DeMenil Place. He had also just lost his good friend Frederick Pabst of Milwaukee.
Youngest daughter Elsa married the same man twice and died in 1920, in what is thought to be murder made to look like suicide, possibly a result of domestic violence.
By 1915, Billy Lemp was head of the brewery, Falstaff beer was one of the best-selling in the world, and he had made a fortune. So he moved with his second wife, Ellie Koehler Limburg, of the Columbia Brewing Company, to a new summer home in what is now Sunset Hills, on Alswell Lane. The Koehler family already had a place in the area.
Today, Alswell Lane is gated, but I can remember going on a driving history tour with my mom and dad, and thinking that it looked like a Swiss chalet. For a while, Alswell served as an antique store in the 1970s and '80s.
Billy had Lemp brewery architect Guy Norton design and build the Swiss chalet-style country house, that came with a $125,000 price tag.
The main house was built of concrete and steel, clad in cypress wood. A little later, two guests houses, a keeper's house, a dairy, a barn and garage were built in a matching style.
There is still a smoke house standing in one of the neighbor’s backyard. Kids remember getting chased by a caretaker of the property who was said to be Asian. Some say this is how the house came to be known as the derogatory moniker of "Chinaman’s Castle."
Billy Lemp's brother Edwin also built a summer home called Cragwold, at Balmagoun in Sunset Hills, near what is today Powder Valley Nature Conservancy. Edwin Lemp was a bachelor who died of natural causes at 90 and worked tirelessly to improve the St. Louis Zoo.
Billy Lemp abruptly shuttered the brewery in 1919 in reaction to Prohibition. His near-beer Cerva had failed after less than a year on the market. By June of 1922 he sold the brewery for less than a tenth of its value. He left Alswell with his wife to live in the Chase Park Plaza hotel and shot himself twice in the chest while at the office in the Lemp Mansion, and died.
Busch, Anheuser, Griesedieck, Lemp and Koehler chose the Meramec Valley for their summer or country homes. Today it is known as Sunset Hills, and most of us live here year-round.
Billie Lemp's brother Charles, a banker who wanted nothing to do with the family brewing business, lived in the mansion with his dog and a married couple as caretakers until 1949, when he shot first his dog, and then himself to death.