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Culture

German brewer's US villa puts cultural heritage to the test

Americans may like drinking imported German beer, and many Americans have German roots. But a former beer baron's dilapidated villa is forcing Newark to decide just how important its German heritage is.

It's obvious at first glance that the Krueger mansion has stories to tell.

Looming behind a barbed-wire fence on a quiet residential street in Newark, New Jersey, the brick-and-brownstone mansion's wide archway, ivy-covered columns and imposing tower exude a bygone sense of wealth and prestige - not to mention a touch of pompousness.

The late 19th-century building seems to be suffering the indignities of boarded-up windows and stolen furnishings with a sense of resignation.

Local historian Guy Sterling is raising a cry about the condition of the abandoned mansion, once the home of prominent German-American brewer Gottfried Krueger.

"Everybody drives by and says, look at this place, it's incredible. Wouldn't we love to have it as a headquarters for a business, for an office, for whatever?" he told DW. "That's great, but what's being done in a practical manner is little, if anything."

Home to the man who first put beer in cans

Since the mansion passed out of the Kruger family's hands following the 1926 death of the patriarch, later becoming home to a beauty salon through the middle of the century, the city has let it stagnate. Squatters occupied the building until the authorities kicked them out, only to allow antique dealers to pilfer the site's stained-glass windows, chimneys and a large bronze oculus.

Guy Sterling at the Krueger mansion in Newark, Copyright: DW / S. Shahrigian

Guy Sterling is raising awareness for the protection of the Krueger mansion

For Sterling and a handful of local history buffs, the neglect of the mansion today is an injustice of historic proportions.

"This I see as one of the preeminent symbols of German-American influence in the United States pre-World War I," said Sterling, explaining that Gottfried Krueger turned himself into one of Newark's richest and most powerful citizens after emigrating from Germany.

According to Sterling, Krueger's brewery was the first to put beer in cans, albeit several years after his death. A larger business bought the Krueger Brewing Company around the 1960s, causing the Newark plant to close.

Germans once comprised the city's largest ethnic group, ahead of Irish, Italian, Polish and other groups, says Sterling, and German culture influenced everything from school curriculums to public festivals. But that has waned over the decades, along with collective memory of the mansion's history.

Do it yourself in America

In Germany, all levels of government are generous in funding the preservation of historic sites, but on the other side of the Atlantic, there seems to be little interest in saving the German heritage of Newark and other US cities.

Frank Trommler, a German professor at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that German-American pride started disappearing during the two world wars, when US propaganda made citizens suspicious of people who spoke German.

Since German reunification in 1990, the German "brand" has made a major comeback in the US, and there's an ever growing taste for foreign beer. But places like the Krueger mansion and the communities they once represented are at risk of being forgotten - in spite of the fact that more Americans trace their roots to Germany than any other country, according to the latest federal census.

Trommler spent years in a preservation struggle of his own, gathering funding to restore an 1817 German-American library in Philadelphia, known as the Volksbibliothek, and transform it into a research center. He said from 1994 to 1999, he raised nearly $1 million for the cause - $500,000 from foundations based in Germany, $300,000 from the German Society of Pennsylvania, and $100,000 from the state's museum commission.

Trommler said the project was not an easy sell for the German Society. "Maybe [members had] a German-European habit of letting the state do the cultural things," he said. "The Anglo-Saxon and especially American habit is, if you want culture, you have to do it yourself."

He added that turning the Philadelphia library into a research center gave his project a sense of purpose beyond preserving a chapter of history of little interest to many Americans. "One needs rallying issues," commented Trommler.

Where you can still find German culture

A number of institutions in the Midwest, where German-American communities thrived through the 19th century, preserve the local history. There's the Athenaeum Foundation in Indianapolis, the Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee and a famous beer hall at the University of Wisconsin's student union, among other sites.

But Trommler said institutions like the recently opened German-American Heritage Museum in Washington, D.C. have struggled to gain a foothold due to the lack of an active local German-American community.

Terry Grasse, an assistant manager for the museum, would only concede that the institution has had the same fundraising challenges as other museums in a difficult economic climate. But when asked what advice he would give Sterling about garnering interest in the Krueger mansion, Grasse said it is wise to get everybody in the community involved.

"When you're marketing something like that in this day and age, you have to realize that these sorts of institutions can't and shouldn't be exclusive to the community they're representing," he said. "That might not even be where all of the interest is coming from."

During a visit to Krueger mansion, Sterling struck an emotional note while discussing his project.

In a perfect world, kids get the whole story

"In a perfect world - and I'm looking up and praying - it would be a wonderful museum to the German contribution to American life," he said.

Sterling had gathered a few members of a small nearby German-American club and two local history enthusiasts for the afternoon. Standing in front of the mansion's crumbling cement steps, one of the latter echoed Sterling's sentiments.

"We don't teach our history well enough," said Bill Chappel. "We tend to take little bits that suit our political agenda. We don't teach the kids the whole story. I think this is a teachable moment, right here."

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