Unearthing Austin's culinary history: Schneider Beer Vaults
The first time I entered the basement in Austin's La Condesa restaurant, it was filled with trash. Old car parts and motor oil cans were strewn across the floor. Cockroaches scurried along the walls, fleeing the beams of flashlights. There was a dank, humid quality to the air as beads of condensation slowly dripped from the vaulted roof. That was in 1999, back when the now-vibrant Second Street district was nothing but empty warehouses and factories, when the only street life emanated late-night from the famed Liberty Lunch, back before Antoine Predock's iconic City Hall was built, and before La Condesa was even an idea.
It's not often that my twin careers intersect. As a food writer, I focus on the present: what's new, what's trendy; what tastes great right now. As a professional archaeologist, my research dwells on the past. For my own mental clarity, I like to keep my professional interests compartmentalized. But sometimes it takes me a while to make the obvious connections: like when the very sites and stories I unearth serve as landmarks for Austin's changing culinary map.
In 1999, the city hired the firm I worked for to conduct a historical and archaeological assessment of five blocks before it embarked on an ambitious Downtown redevelopment project that would include a new city hall. Staff had told us the existing auto-body shop at the corner of Second and Guadalupe streets had a basement associated with it, which was built at the same time as the rest of the 1936 structure as part of the first automobile showroom in the city. However, when we entered the basement through a metal hatch in the concrete floor above, we knew it was much, much older. The basement was built entirely of rough-cut limestone blocks cemented together with a pinkish, sandy paste mortar typical of 19th century masonry. It consisted of two connected rooms, each with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and air vents leading to the surface above. There was flagstone floor and what appeared to be a well on the side of one of the rooms.
This was no auto showroom basement. In fact, everything about its construction bore the signs that it had been built by the property's previous owner, the Schneider family, whose patriarch had been a brewer from Germany. As research later revealed, the basement was built in 1860 by Jean Schneider as part of what he hoped would become Austin's first brewery.
Jean Schneider's plans for a brewery never materialized. He died in a wagon accident hauling sand up from the Colorado River in 1862. He left his wife stranded with five small children whom she struggled to raise in a one-story house next door.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood around them began to change. What had once been a quiet residential quarter populated by genteel tradespeople gradually transformed into a rowdy red-light district bursting with bordellos, gambling houses, and bars. Instead of distancing themselves from the disreputable businesses around them, the Schneider family appeared to have embraced them. Schneider's oldest son Jacob opened a dry goods store where his father had planned the brewery. Taking advantage of the changing neighborhood character, second son Albert operated a saloon across Guadalupe Street. Another son became a carpenter and general contractor. The Schneider businesses flourished. They did so well, in fact, that the family began to acquire more property around them, which they rented to tenants, some of whom were openly engaged in the tawdry business of the red-light district around them. Eventually Jacob Schneider built a much larger edifice for his dry goods store across Second Street which is now Lamberts restaurant. By the Twenties, the family had amassed a small empire in the red-light district.
Through all this the brewery vaults endured. The family used them to store dry goods and possibly even ferment some of the beer served at Albert Schneider's saloon across the street. In the Thirties, the Schneider family leased their homestead at the corner of Second and Guadalupe to the Goad Motor Company, which built a showroom specializing in luxury automobiles. Rather than demolishing the basement along with the rest of the Schneider compound, the company simply poured their showroom slab right over it.
When we rediscovered the vaults in 1999, the developers in charge of initial site planning for the block resisted the recommendation to preserve them, citing constraints to the underground parking lot they had planned. "It was the city's project manager who ultimately stepped in and told them they needed to design their building around the vaults ... and that was the last anyone ever discussed it," recalls Mark Denton of the Texas Historical Commission.
In 2001, the vaults were capped with concrete and a new design team for the building went to work with a fresh attitude. "Any time we have something that has some existing historical character we can reuse, we see it as a good thing," says Michael Hsu, who was eventually hired by the New Waterloo hospitality group to design the restaurant space that became La Condesa. Instead of viewing it as a liability, the team took advantage of the vaults to design a space that is visually unique. They kept access to them through a door next to the kitchen.
These days the damp Schneider basement is anything but grubby. A new floor has been put in, the walls are repointed and cleaned, and the new lighting has been installed. If you ask nicely, La Condesa's manager will take you down there. The Schneider vaults are a quirky reminder that cities are like layer cakes; that there is always room for the past in the here and now.