On November 19, 1969, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated 326 Spring Street, also known as the James Brown House, a NYC Landmark. The James Brown House was built in 1817 and, as the designation reports notes, retains its original gambrel roof, second story lintels and dormers.
Perhaps even more than its architecture and age, the James Brown House embodies an incredible social history of New York over more than two centuries. To start, it’s named after James Brown. No, not THAT James Brown, but a much older (and in his own way equally historically significant) James Brown, who was reportedly an ex-slave and Revolutionary War veteran. He was the first owner of the home, and according to lore an aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Some have even suggested that Brown was depicted in the famous Emmanuel Leutze painting of the victorious Delaware River crossing.
When built, 326 Spring Street was on the edge of the Hudson River, although it is now two blocks inland. At this time, the area was being transformed from swamp and sandy hills into a upper class residential neighborhood. Brown was a tobacco merchant and operated a tobacco store on the ground level. Unfortunately, documentation and records of most free Black New Yorkers from that period no longer exist.
The James Brown House is also the location of The Ear Inn, the oldest continuously operating bar in New York City, which dates to at least 1835, but may have opened as early as 1817 when the building was built.
James Brown sold the building to two apothecaries in the mid-19th century. It was purchased in 1890 by an Irish immigrant named Thomas Cloke. Cloke’s tavern’s clientele were the sailors and longshoremen who worked on the nearby docks. Cloke sold the bar in anticipation of Prohibition. During Prohibition, the restaurant became a speakeasy, while the upstairs floors were variously used as a boarding house and a brothel.
After Prohibition the bar re-opened as The Green Door and continued to serve waterfront workers. After the neighborhood declined in the mid-20th century, a group of artists purchased the lease and re-opened the bar. They renamed it The Ear, as a way of avoiding the landmarks approval process for new signage for the bar, by utilizing the existing neon “BAR” sign on the facade and simply covering up the ends of the “B” so it became an “E.” A music magazine they published upstairs took the same name, and the bar became known as a hangout for musicians, poets, and artists.
The James Brown House has led many lives in its more than two centuries of existence. Thanks to its landmark designation, it should lead many more.