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Happy Birthday, Tom Bernardin!

Our good friend Tom Bernardin was born on this day in 1948.  A longtime resident of the West Village, Tom is perhaps best known as the “unofficial” historian of Julius’ Bar, and is also a contributor to our oral history collection.

Tom Bernardin, photo by Liza Zapol for GVSHP, March 12, 2015

Tom was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts and spent most of his childhood there before his family moved to Andover.  He graduated from Holy Cross College in Worchester in 1970; though drafted into the army for the Vietnam War, he was granted conscientious objector status and avoided being shipped off to the conflict.  It was shortly after this that Tom moved on to New York City.

When Tom first arrived in the city he stayed with a sister in New Jersey while looking for work and a place of his own.  He first found work at the B. Altman’s Department Store, working as a candy salesman, though augmented this job with English language teaching.  Eventually he secured a job as an English teacher working for the City of New York and his own apartment on East 52nd Street. While living in this apartment, Tom began his work and volunteering with Village preservation efforts, inspired by Margot Gayle, “one of the most charming, smart, and gracious people” he recalled meeting. Her organization, the Friends of Cast Iron, inspired in Tom decades of work in historical preservation and restoration, and working with her was also one of his first exposures to life in the Village, as she lived at 44 W. 9th St. at the time.

Per Tom’s GVSHP oral history:

“She lived at 44 West 9th Street, in a huge apartment filled with all sorts—oh, my god—sculptures and books and files and what not. She raised two or three daughters there, and that was shortly after she had saved the Jefferson Market Courthouse Library. She had done that by drawing attention to the clock. It was slated for demolition. Margot very wisely figured rather than just all of a sudden, let’s raise a gazillion dollars to save this building, why don’t we get the clock working? That will draw attention to it; so she did that. This is the late ‘60s, I’m in Massachusetts, and bang, she gets the clock working. She starts a committee. She gets some important people on board and manages to have the building declared a landmark and saved. She brings in Giorgio Cavaglieri, the great architect, to do the interior and exterior renovation. That was maybe four or five years before I encountered her.” (Bernardin pg.7)

Under Margot’s influence, Tom became a champion of clocks and lampposts, earning himself the nickname “Lamppost Tom.” In 2001, Tom founded Save America’s Clocks, and Clocks.org.

 “…Then at the same time I founded a not-for-profit organization: Save America’s Clocks. That’s clocks.org. I think I incorporated in 1997, and put together grant kits, and not knowing what I was doing, all right? Margot Gayle was my Vice President, and also Marvin Schneider is my Vice President now. He’s the official New York City Clock Master, the most charming guy you’d ever meet. It’s his job—and his cohort, Forrest [Merkowitz]—to go and maintain all the city-owned clocks, to wind them. All of a sudden I’m learning all about public clocks. This is courtesy of Margot with her inspiration with the Jefferson Market clock, the library clock. What I wanted to do was find one historic object that appears throughout the country, that were once the pride of these communities, and get them working, because it drives me nuts to drive around—Or you’re in a train or something or other, you’re looking at an old factory, and there’s this great big clock up there that’s just frozen in time. You don’t know what’s behind it, whether it’s a beautiful Howard or Seth Thomas mechanism rotting away. I thought, this is a perfect thing to galvanize a community, and hopefully point them in the direction of historic preservation.” (Bernardin p.10)

On top of being introduced to preservation, Tom also found an outlet in the Village for LGBT life.

“The Village, at that time, with this newfound liberation, this happens I think in any movement. All of a sudden we’re communicating with each other. We’re getting politically active. We’re starting to get some acceptance. And sex. Just sex. That had to implode on itself. It just had to because it was just wild. It was just crazy! The gay bars, and the trucks over on Jane Street, and the Mine Shaft, and the Anvil—and, oh god, the Dugout and the bath houses. And it was fabulous! It was terrific… I loved it. I found it to be all very good-natured, a heck of a lot of fun—and ultimately very dangerous. It had to stop.” (Bernardin Pg. 18-19)

Through all of these varied interests and influences in his life, it’s no wonder that he became so attracted to Julius’, both for its history and as an establishmentbut don’t ask him how it got its name.

“Julius’—I have no idea what it was named back then—would have been one of those pubs, a White Horse Tavern. That’s still there, of course, on Hudson. It gradually segued into becoming a gay bar. The Village of course is left-minded people, more all-embracing people, more nonconformist, anarchist, socialist, lefties, rabble-rousers, all of those great things…Being more open-minded and liberal, it gradually became a hangout for gay men. Hopefully always will be. That’s another one of my battles. You would have people like Edward Albee and just everybody, everybody passing through there at some point.” (Bernardin pp. 15-16)

Julius’. Photo courtesy of Civilian Global.

However, Tom has seen the Village change over the years and is disappointed to see the independent and eclectic character of the neighborhood pushed out by high-end retailers.

“Fourteenth Street here, between Sixth Avenue and Eighth Avenue, was polka dotted with all of these small, ethnic restaurants—Spanish, Italian, Greek, Chinese—dirt cheap. Every year they would close off Sixth Avenue to Eighth Avenue for three nights in June, and the restaurants would put tables out in the street and serve food. It was a real street fair. It was the Real McCoy, as opposed to the nonsense that goes on today that we all have to live with. Not piped-in music, no. Disco boot[leg] selling, you know, pounding music and all of that. That’s just dissipated…

The Village was terrific. There was always stuff to look at, the antique stores. Pierre Deux there on Bleecker Street, on West 4th Street. Now it’s all horrible. I try to avoid going west of Seventh Avenue. I very much resent the money and the pretension. All of those high-end stores. I’m not even going to give them the grace of saying their names. Just ruined it, just absolutely ruined it.
That’s happening everywhere, of course.” (Bernardin p. 14)

You can read the entire transcript from Tom’s oral history here.

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