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Trashed brewery is artist's treasure trove

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Nov. 26--The giant bottle atop the old Pabst Brewery has been part of the landscape for generations of North Jerseyans -- a rusted sentinel seven stories above the cemeteries bisected by the Garden State Parkway near Exit 144.

Matt Gosser didn't grow up with the bottle, but he can see it on the western horizon from his high-rise apartment in Newark. To say that he is intrigued by it, and what lies beneath, would be an understatement.

Gosser, who teaches architectural drawing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has spent 16 months trawling the long-shuttered industrial complex for artifacts he has turned into art. Gosser's fascination with the plant started with photographs -- he has hundreds -- then evolved into sculpture.

He has fashioned a torso from steel reinforcing beams -- scraped free of the concrete poured over them to form walls and floors in 24 buildings at the 10-acre plant on the Newark-Irvington border.

There is a collage that forms the 6-foot-tall outline of a man's face -- a "Death Mask" for the plant made from hundreds of employee head shots found in abandoned personnel files; a scale model of the plant made of salvaged circuit boards -- a Bunsen burner from the brewing lab fashioned as the bottle. And a recliner made from the rollers of the old bottling assembly line.

"When I make these things I'm thinking about life," said Gosser, 34, an Ohio native. "It's my job to give these things a second life."

Gosser is an industrial archaeologist -- salvaging objects, and through them, history and culture. In his job, he makes drawings to erect buildings; in his spare time he assembles the detritus of their coming down.

His work is on display at NJIT's architectural school through Dec. 10 -- Pabst Blue Ribbon will be served at the closing. The exhibit presents an evocative and surprisingly moving glimpse of a bygone time at a plant where at least 50,000 people worked over five decades.

Last year, wreckers started demolishing the plant, which closed in 1985. A residential housing complex will take its place.

The future of the famous bottle is uncertain.

Gosser has been undeterred by the demolition, working with urgency to salvage what he can. He has hundreds of boxes in his apartment and storage space at NJIT.

The plant looked like it was closed in a hurry -- pinups were still on the inside of locker doors, pictures were on desks and reams of personnel files were all but abandoned.

"It was heartbreaking when they cracked open that room and all the records started cascading down," Gosser said. He went to work, sifting through files that showed young men leaving the plant for World War II and women leaving to raise children. There were hundreds of reference letters recommending workers for jobs at the plant, among them one from former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He salvaged architectural drawings from the brewery and even the nuts and bolts of its machinery.

Gosser has evaded police to scale the base of the bottle and used breaches in a cemetery fence to explore the 10-acre site, sometimes with directions from scrap metal scavengers and drug addicts who have frequented the complex in the 20 years it has been abandoned.

For him, it is a treasure trove. "It was like shooting fish in a barrel. The metal I was pulling out of there is inherently sculptural," he said.

He salvaged the "pretty dark and psychotic" paintings of a homeless man who had lived in the sales building. Of 200 works, he was able to save 30, some of which appear in the show.

"I wanted to give this guy one last show," said Gosser. "I think he died. I don't think an artist would just leave his work like that."

Nine other artists' work involving salvage from the brewery are also on display at the architecture school.

Gosser goes into the plant alone, no steel tipped boots, no cellphone. Sometimes he wears a hard hat and respiratory mask. He has hand-held video footage of the wrecking ball smashing into the side of a building he's still rummaging through.

"I'm probably knocking five to 10 years off my life going in there," he says. "But you never know how long that's gonna be, and at this stage it seems like a good gamble."

Gosser waves off a colleague's concern that he could get killed in the plant.

"Then my art will increase in value," he says.


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