On this day, 45 years ago, the famous McSorley’s Old Ale House at 15 East 7th Street (just east of Cooper Square) in the East Village admitted its first female patron following a discrimination lawsuit by the National Organization for Women. GVSHP 2015 Village Award Winner Barbara Shaum was the bar’s neighbor and became the bar’s first female customer on August 10th, 1970. McSorley’s boasts that it is the oldest bar in New York City. Founder John McSorley claimed that it opened its doors in 1854, but researcher Richard McDermott has stated that the site was actually a vacant lot from 1860 to 1861.
So is McSorley’s really the oldest bar in New York City? And by that do you mean the New York City bar that opened first, or the longest continuously operated bar? Depending upon how you ask the question, you’ll get a different answer.
By comparison, Fraunces Tavern, located at 54 Pearl Street, is housed in a building which originally dates to 1719, when it was constructed as Etienne (Stephen) DeLancey’s mansion. Samuel Fraunces opened the Queen’s Head Tavern on the site in 1762. This property now anchors the Fraunces Tavern Block Historic District and operates as a museum and bar/restaurant. The building was rebuilt following fires in 1832, 1837, and 1852, and the original appearance is unknown. Its historical importance is clear and its owners claim it is the oldest building in New York City, but it has not operated continuously as a bar for the past 253 years. It has operated at various times as a boarding house, hotel, and grocery store.
Moving uptown a little, 279 Water Street was built in 1794 (or 1801) as a two and a half story wooden building across from the wharves, although it is now two blocks inland. According to the South Street Seaport Historic District designation report: “this building is the only extant wood frame building in the Historic District. Despite the fire hazards and building department regulations, a great many frame buildings were allowed to stand on the filled land of Water Street until the 1940’s, it was believed that the landfill could not support the weight of brick buildings, so special allowances were occasionally made for these lighter wood structures.” The building was the location for a variety of businesses until 1847, when Henry Williams opened a porter house on the site. So although the building is 221 (or 214) years old, it has only served as a “drinking establishment” for the past 168 years. It is currently the Bridge Cafe.
The oldest continuously operating bar in New York City is Hudson Square’s Ear Inn, at 326 Spring Street. The bar opened in 1817. When built, the Ear Inn (which is also an individual New York City landmark) was on the edge of the Hudson River, although it is now two blocks inland.
According to History of the New York City Landmark: James Brown House/Ear*Inn*Virons (available on the GVSHP website along with other merchandise):
When the James Brown House was built in 1817, the district was being transformed from swamp and sandy hills into a fancy residential neighborhood. Its first owner was James Brown, according to legend an ex-slave who fought in the Revolutionary Army. Over the decades, the House’s fortunes have followed the rise and fall of the neighborhood, from middle class homes to bustling commercial waterfront to near-abandonment. In the 1970s, the area was almost a ghost town when a group of struggling artists stumbled on the building and transformed its bar, then a seedy waterfront dive, into the Ear Inn, once described by the NY Times as “a dump with dignity.”
So however you look at it, McSorley’s is not the oldest bar in New York City, though it is undeniably one of its most storied and venerable. If you are looking at the bar housed in the oldest structure, then Fraunces Tavern or Bridge Cafe is the oldest. If you are looking for the longest continuously operating bar, then Ear Inn is the oldest.