Best Caves

Lemp Brewery

It's strange, accessing the Lemp caves. You don't crawl in the expected way, on your tummy, walkie-talkie in hand, wearing a spelunker's helmet, or plot strategies with subterranean maps. You just walk into a building, turn on a few lights and proceed to a cargo elevator that drops you three stories straight down into one part of the cave system. If you want to travel to another leg of the network, you can either wander through the dank, muddy tunnels or you can get back on the elevator, resurface, walk a few hundred yards in the open air, enter another building and submerge again. It's a funny way to spelunk, but it works well for the cowardly and the claustrophobic.

Located directly underneath the Lemp Brewery complex at the corner of South Broadway and Lemp Street, the Lemp cave system was once part of the larger Cherokee Caves, a natural complex that stretched throughout South City. In the mid-19th century, beer baron Adam Lemp, needing a way to naturally refrigerate his lager beer, harnessed the coolness of the caves and transformed them into a series of wild and wonderful semi-Gothic tunnels and dungeons, most of which still retain a striking similarity to how they appeared a century-and-a-half ago.

"The buildings have vaults," says Shashi Palamand -- who, along with his father, Rao Palamand, owns the Lemp Brewery complex -- "which were part of the underground system, but (Lemp) changed them for his own purposes and made beautiful-looking vaults. From the brewhouse, you could come down through the elevator. There was a little mining trolley that he used to have going around. There's another entrance from the bottling plant, and he would store all the beer in there and then throughout the whole area and in the vaults. They're deep underneath the buildings. Almost every building is connected by either the caves, or tunnels which he built, or caves that he turned into tunnels by widening them.

"Back in the 19th century, refrigeration was at a real premium, and that's why he wanted the caves, for their natural coolness. These caves are 55 degrees year-round. That's not cold enough, so he built an icehouse. They used to cut ice off the Mississippi, bring it up through his railroad; he'd lift it up to an upper floor (of the icehouse), process the ice and then take it down to the caves to bring the temperature down to anywhere from 35 to 40 degrees."

There are 29 buildings in the Lemp Brewery complex, most built between the mid-19th century and the early 20th. Adam Lemp moved his brewing enterprise here because of these caves, and above them he constructed what seems to be a little township: Alleyways and streets connect the buildings, buildings that, although constructed for various functions, were created with an artisan's eye for detail. The complex is still totally intact and in use, and the compound's Gothic presence, especially on a gray, drizzled day, suggests Transylvania. It makes sense, even from above, that there are caves beneath.

Though some of the Cherokee Cave system was destroyed when Interstate 55 was built, the tunnels underneath the Lemp branch are in relatively pristine condition. After cavegoers step off the wide freight elevator and into the darkness, a flashlight reveals an outlet, and maintenance manager Jerry Hunter plugs in an extension cord that lights up a long tunnel, one that seems partially manmade, partially natural. A curved stone ceiling has been constructed as extra support; remnants of the trolley tracks lead deep into the darkness. Every turn reveals another corridor, and huge rooms branch off, each a storage room that once held beer barrels. Dozens of these storage spaces fill the system, says Palamand, pointing with his flashlight into the black. "These are some of the vaults -- the lagering cellars -- and there are three levels of these. These are some of the smaller ones, but there are some that are 15 feet tall. They all kind of have a Quonset-hut shape."

Turning a corner, he continues: "That leads down to something ... whoa. I've never seen that before." His flashlight is aimed at a large pulley system, ragged with rust, all gears and levers, that appears to be some sort of heavy-duty dumbwaiter. "We're still trying to figure out what some of this stuff was used for. It all had a purpose, but ..." He trails off while rounding another corner. Another set of lights is illuminated, and there, close to the ground, a weird little window is framed into the stone wall. Inside the window, a natural spring flows. "Hey! Cool! Look!" Palamand says. "I've never seen that before!" It's a sort of Harry Potter moment, as he delights in the sight with the wonder of an adolescent. Regaining his authority, he explains that the Palamands hope to bottle and market this spring water some day.

Adam Lemp seemed to relish the underground in a similar fashion. In addition to constructing all that cold-storage space, he tended to indulge himself. He transformed huge caverns into dungeonesque rooms with domed ceilings, all of which are easily accessed as sub-basements beneath the buildings. Continues Shashi Palamand, "Being a beer baron at that time, he had so much money that he didn't know what to do with it all. So he took part of the cave and turned it into a theater, where he had plays and whatever. He took another part of it and created a spa, like a pool. And they used to go down there to relax." The theater still exists, sitting at the tail end of one of the caves. It, like much of the other fanciness, has been ignored for the past century and is in a state of disrepair.

Other areas, though, are pristine and still being used on occasion. Until about a year ago, the Lemp was one of the prime spots in the city for all-night raves, and some of these sub-basements were used. And, visiting the massive cave system through the eyes of a rave promoter, it's no wonder; way down in the ground, nothing can touch you: no one to lodge noise complaints; little threat of intervention. The sound is literally buried, and the heavy darkness is perfect for massive light shows. One particular area was a remarkable space for a party; its 30-foot domed ceilings, painted white, reflected the strobes and colored lasers; the bass boom was huge; and the overall feeling of the party was accentuated by the freaky, ghostly atmosphere of the space. Palamand surveys the space and offers this understatement: "This is a very fascinating room -- that they cared about the architecture down here, when they didn't have to."

-- Randall Roberts

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Previously in Best of St. Louis