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Thursday, June 14, 2012 07:03 pm

I’ll have another

With Obed & Isaac’s in full swing, the Conns look ahead

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While beer for Obed
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

Court Conn sounds relaxed.

He’s sitting at Three Kings, a St. Louis pub, talking via cell phone, as if he had nary a care in the world. It is a Tuesday afternoon. The sun is out. He is, he says, smelling roses.

And he should be.

Conn and his wife, Karen, are four months into the impossible, having purchased and renovated an old home (strike one) in downtown Springfield (strike two) to open Obed & Isaac’s, a bar/restaurant centered on beer where you can’t get a bottle of Bud, or Miller, or any other kind of mass-produced malt beverage (strike three).

There was no logical reason to open a brew pub in a home built shortly after the Civil War. The Conns already had a successful bed-and-breakfast, The Inn at 835 on South Second Street.

“We gambled everything,” Conn says. “Literally, we mortgaged our house. We mortgaged the inn.”

They did it all in six months, from the day they acquired the home to the day it opened on Lincoln’s birthday. It has not been closed a single day since, and waits for tables are not uncommon.

Audacity is an understatement.

Conn, a hobby brewer, had never made more than five gallons of beer at a time until he bought equipment to brew 250 gallons at once in a converted carriage house adjacent to the brew pub. And Springfield had never supported a beer parlor that didn’t offer pretty-much-all-tastes-the-same products from corporate-owned breweries that churn out millions of gallons a year.

Was he nervous?

“Hell, yeah, I was,” Conn says. “You couldn’t believe the criticism: You’ll never succeed without mainstream beer, you have to carry them. I didn’t put that kind of money in my brewery to put mainstream beer in.”

Now, Conn talks about a raspberry wheat elixir and other planned exotics. His pub has a dozen taps, and soon, he vows, each will flow with Springfield-made suds. Until then, he fills gaps with microbrews made elsewhere. The menu has equal quirk, with surprises such as fig pizza (made from flatbread) lurking amid chili and other standards.

While beer for Obed
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE


While the brew pub is busy, Conn says that he doesn’t consider the project complete.

“It’s not going to be a success until we use the Maisenbacher House for something good,” he said.

Ahh, the Maisenbacher House, the historic home that once made Conn and his wife part laughingstock, part symbol of everything wrong with Springfield.

The Maisenbacher House was facing the wrecking ball in 2008 when the Conns cut a deal with the city: If taxpayers paid to move the house five blocks to its present location adjacent to Obed and Isaac’s, they’d do the rest. Much of the deal was done on handshakes. Only after the first $115,000 in public money had been spent to move the structure and demolish an existing house to make room for it did the public learn the true cost. And politicians balked, at least initially.

While the 300-ton house sat parked on Jackson Street and the Conns faced the media, the administration of then Mayor Tim Davlin pushed the city council to approve another $280,000 to build a foundation. The council said no, and pundits had a field day, with radio hosts playing “Our House,” the 1980s hit about a house in the middle of a street, and bloggers blasting the Conns and the city.

 “You did what you did in order to get your mitts on a Lincoln-era mansion for pennies on the dollar, get someone else to move it to your piece of property and have the bulk of renovations covered by someone else so that YOU can reap the benefits of owning a newly refurbished inn or bed-and-breakfast,” wrote someone dubbed simba4hof in the online comment section beneath a State Journal-Register story published while the Maisenbacher House sat in limbo.

Victoria Ringer, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., and other supporters of the Conns could only watch.

“It was terrible,” Ringer says. “It broke all of our hearts to see that. We knew what their vision was. It hurt all of us, that these folks who had gone out on a limb for a personal project were taking such crap, quote-unquote.”

If he did it again, Conn said he’d get guarantees in writing from politicians before making a commitment.

“It was extremely hard,” he says. “You go through all that, you read the blogs and they beat the shit out of you. If I had to do it all over again, I’d have to think long and hard.”

The city eventually approved money for a foundation, and tax-increment financing is now funding faade improvements so that the Maisenbacher House from the outside doesn’t look like an empty shell. But it is, in fact, a shell, without electricity, plumbing or sewer service. It will not stay that way, Conn promises, although the couple has no firm plans.

“The inside of it ought to be our responsibility,” Conn says. “It’s going to take a significant amount of money. I can’t go back to the bank right yet – you can only go back there so much.

“We’ll figure something out – give us a little time.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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