"The History of Harbour Place"
by: Charlene White
As you walk through the beautiful halls of Harbour Place, it's hard to imagine that in 1884 this plot of land was simply a marsh. Norfolk was a port town on the rise at that point in history. In 1884 after this marsh land was filled in, Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company of St. Louis, MO. purchased the property and built their Norfolk branch in 1888. This was a prime location since the old New York, Philadelphia & Norfolk Railroad ran right behind the building. When the Monticello Hotel opened in 1898, for a time Norfolk experienced great growth. By 1911, Norfolk's population had jumped to 76,671.
About 20 years later, an addition was made to the plant increasing the brewing and storage facilities. When Virginia went dry in 1916, the plant discontinued the bottling of beer and devoted its efforts to bottling "a near beer" known as "Bevo". This was a short term project as it was a poor substitute for the real thing. The company turned its attention to the manufacture of ice and greater use of its storage facilities, becoming known as the Anheuser-Busch Ice & Cold Storage Company. They had a daily capacity of 100 tons of ice and 48,000 bottles in the bottling department. After Prohibition was repealed in 1932, attempts were made to brew beer. After WWII a slow decline took place in business downtown, and the railroad no longer operated in the area. At that point, the building was partially destroyed by fire and Anheuser-Busch closed its operations February 28, 1929. For a while the Atlantic Brewing Company operated the plant but soon discontinued operations.
In the early 1960s the ultimate fate of the building was uncertain but there was talk of plans to renovate and develop the area with town houses, condominiums and small shops. At this point in the early 60s Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing bought the building. It sat vacant for 20 years and became a home for animals, pigeons and the homeless.
In 1981 the city of Norfolk made a request for proposals to purchase the old cold storage building. Dilapidated and run down as it was, it was in a prime location on the waterfront. Al Jensen, a local architect, had a vision to build a beautiful condominium with commercial offices on the first floor. He knew there was a market for people who wanted that style of downtown living. His project to complete his quest began. He took on two partners in the venture, Doug Kahle, a lawyer, and Jim Ingham, who had a commercial building background. The three put their thoughts and money together to make a proposal to the city to build Harbour Place. Out of many proposals received, theirs was accepted. Doug Kahle said, "The city was most impressed with our proposal because our concept was to keep the shape of the original building intact and to use some of the old bricks." Even though they spent a lot of money confirming the strength of the interior structure, it was also a factor in confirming their bid. Mr. Kahle noted that the concrete columns that were all left intact actually become stronger with age. He believes the structural integrity of the building has certainly proven itself over the last ten years.
The group bought the building and land for $600,000 in 1983 and when the project was finished it was assessed at $15,000,000. The building took 12 months to complete. The entire exterior of the building was removed and three stories were added to the top of the building. Everything to the east of the lobby was also added to the original structure.
Mr. Kahle said, "Al Jensen was the visionary." When they first entered the vacant old cold storage building, it was a sight to behold; however, looks were not everything. Mr. Kahle said, "I felt something on my legs. I looked down and my legs were covered in fleas!" Cork was used for insulation in the past and many animals had taken up living in the building. Between the fleas and the pigeons, he did not want to linger in the old cold storage. Needless to say, the first step was to fumigate the building.
It's hard to imagine what a risk these investors took in helping turn around downtown Norfolk. There was no World Trade Center, no Harbour Park. None of the lovely buildings we are surrounded by now were here. They were visionaries and entrepreneurs, much to our benefit. The building ended up being 80% occupied by completion and went on to receive awards by the city. Mr. Kahle said although the partners did not make profits on the project, they do have a sense of pride when they ride by Harbour Place. They know they were instrumental in building one of the most attractive buildings and first-class condos in downtown Norfolk. Personally, I'm glad these three proactive men had a dream and took action. I love living and working in Harbour Place.
Just imagine, in the early 1900s the Clydesdale Horses were kept where the pumping station is now. They would pull up to our building and go about town delivering Budweiser beer. We've come a long way...or have we? The challenges of life seem to be the same. We just live in a little more comfort.
Historical facts from Carol Walker's "Norfolk a Tricentennial Pictorial History”, Doug Kahle, Anheuser-Busch Archives, Mary Curry, Rose & Kurt Rosenbach, and Jim Sellers.