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'Miss Emma' Saved Her Brewery And Left A Legacy For All Of San Antonio

One of the most popular hotels in the country is in San Antonio. It's named for a woman most people have never heard of. The woman behind the Hotel Emma ran a prominent brewery in South Texas for nearly two decades through some of the harshest times of the 20th century.

Emma Koehler and her husband, Otto, a German immigrant, came to San Antonio in 1884. Otto became the president of the San Antonio Brewing Association, now known as the Pearl Brewing Company, at a time when the Texas beer industry was booming. But a series of tragic events would change the course of their lives in the Alamo City.

Emma was injured in an automobile accident in 1910, and Otto hired a German nurse to help care for her. The nurse was also named Emma — Emma Dumpke — but the Koehlers referred to her as Emmi. She later introduced the couple to her fellow nurse and friend who, coincidentally, was named Emma Hedda Burgermeister. It wasn’t long until Otto had an affair with both Emmas. In 1914, one of them shot and killed him.

Credit Jason Risner Photography
Sherry Kafka Wagner donated her book collection to the Hotel Emma. A library featuring a wide variety of book topics, including some she wrote, is just off the lobby in the Hotel Emma.

His wife Emma, who by then had become estranged from him, stepped up and took over the brewery. She faced an even bigger crisis a few years later: Breweries across the state began to close because of Prohibition.

Sherry Kafka Wagner, an author, urban planner and cultural historian, said Koehler had to reinvent the brewery to keep the business running and keep her workers employed.

“She started bottling water, orange juice, other juices,” Wagner said. “She did not let one of her workers go.”

Koehler also invested $1 million of her own money into the business and sustained the brewery after the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed.

Ironically, the repeal of Prohibition helped the U.S. out of that depression, and by then Koehler had established an advantage over other breweries. With her workforce already in place, it was a quick turnaround for her business to return to its beer brewing roots. It took years for others to catch up.

“The minute Prohibition ended they were ready,” Wagner said. “And the trucks went out filled with beer ahead of everybody else.”

The brewery boomed over the next few decades, even after Koehler’s death in 1943.

Credit Jason Risner Photography
Preservation architect Jeffrey Fetzer is Pearl’s Protector of the Historic Fabric. Fetzer explored the old Brewhouse in 2002 to analyze and document the building’s condition.

Her nephew ran the business when it was renamed the Pearl Brewing Company. Pabst was the owner when the brewery finally closed its doors in 1999.

The Pearl sat abandoned until a local developer bought the 22-acre property. Preservation architect Jeffrey Fetzer said the first time he saw the remnants of the brewery in 2002 — the 19th-century architectural design, the arched openings filled in with bricks, the machinery used to make beer — he felt like a kid in a candy store. Fetzer’s challenge as Protector of the Historic Fabric was to salvage as much of the brewery’s history as possible.

Today, a visitor can walk into Hotel Emma and see a rusting, red-painted ammonia compressor in the lobby. The lobby used to be the engine room, and the compressor kept the brewing process at a constant cold temperature. It stands nearly 8 feet tall, and today it's a focal point for visitors to the four-star hotel, which opened in 2015.

“It’s so unlike most other hotel lobbies where it’s clean, and pristine, and shiny bright,” said Fetzer. “This has an old world, aged look to it.”

Sometime during construction, a name for the hotel was needed. Wagner said a group of former brewery workers were invited in to offer ideas. They shared fond memories of their employer, “Miss Emma,” and the hotel team was inspired. The solution was obvious. The hotel would be named "Hotel Emma."

Credit Lauren Terrazas / Texas Public Radio
The Hotel Emma lobby used to the be the Pearl Brewery's engine room. The red ammonia compressor stayed in place during renovations and was worked into the decor.

“If it hadn’t been for Emma, this place wouldn’t have stayed and become a vital part of the city,” Wagner said.

The next time you find yourself on the Pearl grounds, checking out its shops, having a bite to eat, or enjoying a drink on the grassy lawn, raise your glass and toast the woman whose legacy is all around you.

Lauren Terrazas can be reached at Lauren@TPR.org and on Twitter at @terrazas_lauren.

Lauren Terrazas can be reached at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter at @terrazas_lauren