The red Schmidt sign that once lit the St. Paul skies above West 7th Street was all about beer — and, for thousands of blue-collar employees, a steady job.

The old sign is long gone, along with the brewers. But a new full-scale replica of the historic sign, which was lit Saturday night, speaks to redevelopment of the century-old Gothic brewery and its promise for the traditionally working-class district.

A year and a half after work began, the $125 million Schmidt Artist Lofts project is practically finished and nearly fully leased, its 260 apartments and townhouses occupied by artists with low to moderate incomes.

“We love it,” said Lauren Rasmussen, who moved last winter into a two-bedroom apartment with her husband, John, a graphic artist. “It was a great opportunity for us to get into something that was affordable, and we loved the different amenities with the studio space and the creative community.”

The exposed-brick units were carved out of the former Schmidt brewhouse and bottling house, a West End landmark that last turned out beer 12 years ago and went dark after an ethanol operation there shut down in 2004.

Now, developer Craig Cohen is planning to remake the former keg house into a “festival market” with small shops and a restaurant. He’s buying it from the West 7th/Fort Road Federation district council, which owns the old Rathskeller building, and hopes to turn it into an event center with proceeds from the sale.

A warehouse on the site, under different owners, has been talked about as a brewpub, museum or brewing incubator.

So the return of the Schmidt sign, the original of which was scrapped years ago, is “the literal cherry on top for the whole development,” said Owen Metz of Dominium, the Plymouth-based developer that converted the old brewery into housing he now manages.

Occasionally, vandals would tinker with the wiring to shut off certain letters in the sign, turning “Schmidt” into a familiar if vulgar Anglo-Saxon term.

“That happened, but rarely,” said Ed Johnson, the federation’s executive director.

Weekend festival

The lighting of the sign — its letters as tall as 18 feet, and 6 feet wide — was scheduled for Saturday night during the inaugural GermanFest, a food and beer-splashed festival on the brewery grounds sponsored by the Fort Road Federation and FILO Productions.

GermanFest features polka bands, family events, and bus and walking tours focused on St. Paul’s Germanic history, with hopes of drawing 20,000 people for the weekend. The event was the brainchild of Johnson, who wanted to reconnect the neighborhood with its rich past.

“It’s a pretty amazing story,” he said. “Schmidt was the economic powerhouse for the community back in the day.”

Now the brewery is providing a home for young people like the Rasmussens.

“We had lived in northeast Minneapolis before, and thought that we owed St. Paul a shot too,” Lauren Rasmussen said.

Dominium, which has a history of successfully converting old industrial buildings into housing, first looked at the brewery in 2007. It wasn’t until 2012, however, that it secured financing and bought the castle-like brewhouse and bottling house for $6.2 million.

Total tax credits for the project, which included state historic preservation and low-income housing, came to $70 million. Dominium also got state and local funding to clean up the site.

A challenging project

The brewery, which first went up in 1855, was bought and expanded in the early 1900s by Bavarian brewer Jacob Schmidt, who added the crenelated towers and Gothic touches. His business partners, Adolph and Otto Bremer, made Schmidt one of the best known beers in the country.

Minnesota Brewing Co. bought the brewery in 1991 and produced the Landmark and Pig’s Eye brands, adding an ethanol plant in 2000 to bolster the bottom line. It halted brewing in 2002 and two years later closed the ethanol plant, controversial for its smelly emissions.

The brewery sat empty until Dominium bought it. Converting it into housing, Metz said, was endlessly complicated.

“There was a plethora of unforeseens,” he said. “We had 50 to 60 tanks fully intact, a ton of piping left in place, lead-based paint and not all the floor plates aligned. A portion of the 1880 limestone portion collapsed, so we had to rebuild …

“It’s a little like an oil refinery with a building built around it.”

Dominium spent $125,000 on the replica sign, which had to win approval from state and city preservation offices to maintain the site’s historic fabric. Rebuilt by Lawrence Sign from the original blueprints, the sign last week was installed on the catwalk 100 feet above W. 7th Street.

“Saving the building in itself was a huge endeavor,” Metz said. “But the sign has been gone for so long, it really puts this on the map as the shining moment of the redevelopment. It’s giving more back to the community, not just the residents.”