1400 Fifth (1892-1915): Herman Obernauer & Co.

1936 Obernauer

from The Jewish Criterion, 1936

Before Prohibition, the liquor trade was a popular occupation among German Jewish immigrants in Pittsburgh. The president and first vice president of the national Wholesale Liquor Dealers’ Association were both members of Rodef Shalom Congregation, and several early families of the synagogue had ties to the trade, according to research from Rodef Shalom archivist Martha Berg. Herman Obernauer was also a member of Rodef Shalom. Born in the Kingdom of Württemberg, in southern Germany, in January 1856, Obernauer spent his late teens and early twenties traveling throughout Europe as a salesman. He came to the U.S. in 1880 and settled in Pittsburgh, where he worked as a bookkeeper before opening a wholesale liquor operation on Fifth Avenue.

An illustration of Obernauer from the 1892 book "All Sorts of Pittsburghers," by Arthur G. Burgoyne. The book is a collection of poems and profiles.

An illustration of Obernauer from the 1892 book “All Sorts of Pittsburghers,” by Arthur G. Burgoyne. The book is a collection of poems and profiles of local notables.

In the four decades before the Eighteenth Amendment banned the sale of alcoholic beverages, in 1920, at least fifteen liquor wholesalers or retailers operated on Fifth Avenue in Uptown. Herman Obernauer & Co. spent at least eight years at the “old” 395 Fifth. It was a long, thin building with “all the requisite facilities for conducting the business on a large scale,” according an 1890 profile of the operation. “An immense stock of pure wines and liquors, including fine old brandies, gins, etc., and splendid Bourbon, Monongahela and Maryland whiskies of all the leading brands is kept on sale, and a heavy trade with Pittsburgh, Allegheny and all the surrounding sections of the country is carried on.”

It was a contentious time for the liquor business in Pennsylvania. The temperance movement continually threatened the trade, and a pair of laws establishing the state liquor license program — the Brooks Law in 1887 and the Wholesale Act in 1891 — made it expensive to get into business; the annual fee in Pittsburgh was $1,100 in the early 1900s, nearly $25,000 in today’s dollars. The laws also let the public comment on liquor licenses. In 1893, someone asked the court to revoke Obernauer’s license because one of his drivers had been caught selling liquor. The laws at the time restricted wholesalers to selling only in large quantities. Obernauer said the deed went down without his permission, and said he had fired the enterprising driver.

1911-05-20 Fifth:Stevenson

The intersection of Fifth and Stevenson as seen in a May 20, 1911 photograph from the Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection. Herman Obernauer & Co. occupied the building at the corner decorated with paintings of his products.

In 1892, Herman Obernauer & Co. moved to 400 Fifth (now 1400 Fifth), at the corner of Fifth and Stevenson. Obernauer made the most of the three-story building and its prominent corner lot by painting giant bottles on the exterior advertising products such as Berthana Medicated Wine, Belle of Pittsburg Whiskey and H.O. Brown Gin, the latter two being patented products from the distillery he operated. Pedestrians passing by the store could peer through two big windows to see displays of bottles stacked four-high.

A lifelong Democrat, Obernauer was a presidential elector on four occasions: for the moderate anti-Prohibitionist Woodrow Wilson, for James M. Cox in 1920, for the ardent anti-Prohibitionist Al Smith in 1928 and for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.

The intersection of Forbes and Stevenson as seen on April 25, 2013. Credit Eric Lidji.

The intersection of Forbes and Stevenson as seen on April 25, 2013. Credit Eric Lidji.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall for the liquor trade, Obernauer retired from the wholesaler liquor business in 1915, at the age of 59. He sold the business to a Philip Braun, who operated a liquor business out of the building until at least 1918. For many years, the building housed the Admiral Restaurant. Today it is Aces & Deuces Lounge.

After getting out of liquor, Obernauer used his connections as a director at Merchants’ Savings and Trust Co., a bank located five buildings up from his store, to make the transition into real estate, which sustained him until his death in 1947, at age 91. But before retiring, he dabbled in inventions. Along with a fellow B’nai B’rith member from McKees Rocks, Obernauer patented a design for a “foldable structure that can be advantageously used by campers, tourists and others as stool, table or other support.”

The Arlington Apartments, where Obernauer lived for the final decades of his life, as seen in a September 24, 1929 picture from the Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection.

The Arlington Apartments, where Obernauer lived out his final decades, as seen in a September 24, 1929 picture from the Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection.

Later in life, as a widower, Obernauer lived in the Arlington Apartments at Centre Avenue and S. Aiken along with his son Harold, a prominent lawyer and an active figure among local Jewish philanthropic organizations. All told, Obernauer had three children.

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2 Responses to 1400 Fifth (1892-1915): Herman Obernauer & Co.

  1. Shirl Dranzik says:

    We have one of his liquor bottles which is very old and was wondering if it was worth anything ..

    • ericlidji says:

      I’m not sure about the worth. When I was researching Obernauer, I came across numerous websites for collectors of “pre-Prohibition” memorabilia, so there is definitely a market for it. If you have a picture of the bottle, feel free to post it here.

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