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A Century Ago Neighbors Also Were Complaining About Taverns

By Paul Kelsey Williams
Historic Preservation Specialist, Kelsey & Assoc., Washington, DC; Scenes from the Past author since 2001.

History does indeed repeat itself, and often. Over 110 years ago, bar fights, liquor license protests, and yes, even lateral expansion of bars into adjoining spaces were all topics in the 1890s.

Washington is not usually touted as a city of immigrants or industry, but it does in fact have a rich history of both; its history is often taught without any mention of breweries, bottling companies and beer gardens, but the truth is that in the 1870s and 1880s all Washingtonians could walk to a German-owned beer garden no matter where they lived in the city. One of the largest and most popular of these was located at 1827 14th Street, in the heart of today’s U Street neighborhood, in a building where today people shop for upscale furniture.

In 1897 — not 2007 — it seems that everyone in what was then an emerging neighborhood at 14th and S Streets drank at the saloon; that year alone, 1,700 of its patrons, men and women, signed a petition to keep what was then known as Kozel’s beer garden open and freely flowing with beer. It was owned by German born George Kozel, who like many of today’s bar owners, faced continual pressure to close from those in the minority not willing to imbibe one of the many products of locally brewed beer.

George Kozel’s father, John C. Kozel, had established one of the first known breweries in Washington in 1856, located at 9th and M Streets, NW. In 1861, he opened a brewery complex in Square 617, bounded by First, Second, N and M Streets, NW. It was an “extensive brewery and [he] commenced the manufacture of weiss beer,” according to his obituary. The complex also had a residence for the Kozel family at 43 N Street, NW. Stoneware beer bottles embossed with the name John Kozel are prized by collectors of breweriana today.

John Kozel had been born in Württemberg, Germany in 1822, and immigrated in 1856 to the United States and to Washington, DC with his wife of eight years, Christiana, along with their children George, Paulina, and Caroline. Their youngest son, Charles, was born in Washington in October of 1858.

Kozel joined the Union army in the Civil War, serving with Loeffler’s Company Militia Infantry, 8th Battalion, organized on April 11, 1861 in Washington for the defense of the city. It was led by fellow brewer Ernst A. Loeffler, who owned a large brewery and beer garden next to the Kozel’s on land which is now somewhat ironically the New York Avenue Playground.

John Kozel died on January 30, 1881, and was buried in Prospect Hill cemetery; his wife died in 1887. Their son, George Frederick Kozel, had joined his father’s brewery business, and by 1890 had opened a saloon at 1827 14th Street, between S and T Streets, NW, according to the City Directory. He had been born on February 12, 1851 in his father’s hometown in Germany, and first lived above the saloon with his second wife, DC native Katie M. Meyer. They had married in 1885, and later moved to a house close by at 2233 13th Street that still exists.

Kozel’s saloon expanded to the rear yard and second floor at 1827 14th Street, offering full German meals and a special room for women patrons. A mention of the beer garden was included in the July 4, 1903 edition of the Washington Post, during what was a notably hot summer, that stated it was one of the “coolest spots in Washington. . . . [T]he proprietor of this cozy resort takes pride in seeing that his patrons are served with the best of everything. A delightful musical programme is a nightly feature and one that is greatly enjoyed by its many patrons.” An interior wall of the saloon featured faux rock and heavy vines to add to the grotto-like atmosphere.

Newspaper headlines from December of 1894 are not all that different than what might be reported about DC’s bars in 2004, 110 years later. On December 1, 1894, Edward McQueeney entered Kozel’s saloon with two others, and soon began a fight with barkeeper Abraham Wolf, who responded by throwing a glass of beer in his face, cutting McQueeney’s face. A trial ensued, and the judge in the case declared to Wolf, “You knew the men were drunk and you sold them liquor and made them drunker. . . . [T]his habit of regarding . . . bar room paraphernalia as lawful weapons because they are handy has got more than one man into trouble” (Washington Post). Wolf was fined $50 for his assault.

Just 20 days later, married owner George Kozel himself ran afoul of the law when he was charged with assault on patron Mollie Cosgrove, who lived at 69 Defrees Street. “The plaintiff alleges that Mr. Kozel . . . kissed her and made other improper demonstrations toward her.” (Washington Post, December 21, 1894). Kozel was released on $100 bond.

Today’s often automatic practice of protesting the liquor licenses is also not a recent phenomenon. In January of 1897, the Anti-Saloon League targeted Kozel’s beer garden when its license was due for renewal by what was then known as the Excise Board simply because it was one of the most popular drinking establishments in the area. The January 16, 1897 Washington Post reported, “The German-American Union has taken the case up and proposes to defend the garden, one of their favorite resorts, and which they consider a ‘blessing in hot weather.’ A petition signed by 1,700 patrons of Mr. Kozel’s place was filed with the board, stating that they desired the garden continued.”

In 1897, owner George Kozel wouldn’t have known that his expansion into the adjoining building at 1825 14th Street would be known as controversial “lateral expansion” over 110 years later by the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board. His open air rooftop beer garden had well over 100 chairs and a stage for live music that was performed nightly in an era when Washingtonians had open windows all summer long. In May of 1897, the Anti-Saloon League again targeted Kozel’s license when they reported that he had expanded laterally without a proper license. They apparently lost their case, as the beer garden would flourish for another 15 years.

In fact, the vast success of his beer garden led Kozel to enroll in an animal husbandry course at Cornell University to learn how to raise his own chickens to meet the demands of his hungry customers. Sadly, however, Kozel died of a skin infection in Ithaca, New York on February 26, 1907. One of his pallbearers, Fred H. Geyer, took over the beer garden and renamed it after himself.

Geyer remodeled the ground floor of 1825-1827 14th Street beginning in January of 1914 at a cost between $30,000 and $50,000, according to newspaper accounts. Goyer’s beer garden was described in the October 22, 1933 Washington Post by John J. Daly as “the dandy of all beer gardens — Geyer’s. Out in the back yard, covered with gravel that persistently got in low shoes, a band blared away while waiters rushed to and fro with seidels, steins, and schooners. Geyer’s was the Mecca for young love; for the young blades of the day. It was packed and jammed nightly.” Geyer, however, apparently overextended himself, and declared bankruptcy in April of 1914.

Geyer maintained the beer garden, however, but witnessed an interruption in his liquor license in October of 1916, “on the grounds that women drank in the summer or winter garden” according to the Washington Post. His business only had weeks left, however, as an auction of all the liquor took place on the premises on October 31, 1917 (at which time one of the bidders was robbed of $200). The following day, November 1, 1917, a local prohibition law took effect in Washington, known as the Sheppard Act — a full three years before the 18th Amendment was enacted that banned alcohol for the next 13 years.

Denied a livelihood from the sale of beer, Geyer leased part of the building to the Ajax Rubber Company beginning in 1920. In January of 1921, he closed the ‘dry’ restaurant and the entire building was leased to the Boston Auto Top Company, a manufacturer of retractable automobile tops. In 1931, the building was leased to Sears, Roebuck, and Company, which opened a branch to sell tires and automobile accessories.