The fight to be the oldest bar in New York City lives on
By Christian Nilsson, Video Journalist
New York City has roughly 1,700 bars (more than any other in the country per square mile), and while several boast the title of "The Oldest Bar In New York," only one can have a right to the claim. There is one tavern in Manhattan's East Village that's commonly referred to as the "oldest tavern in New York City." McSorley's Old Ale House is a time capsule; the history covering the walls takes patrons back more than 160 years. Continuously run since it first opened its doors in 1854, owner Matthew Maher says there isn't a bar in New York that is older -- but a little known bar in Queens is challenging that claim.
"We've continuously operated in the same place for 186 years -- since 1829," claims Neir's Tavern owner Loycent Gordon. "I want the title of 'America's Oldest Bar.'"
According to Queen's historian Richard Hourahan, Neir's Tavern in Woodhaven poured their first beer in 1829 -- 25 years before John McSorley opened his small ale house just eight miles away. Neir's is perhaps most recognizable as one of the filming locations in the 1990 Scorsese film "Goodfellas," but it's also known as the place where entertainer Mae West first performed.
When Gordon purchased Neir's in 2009, he knew very little about operating a bar and even less about the tavern's history or how far back it really went. Hourahan started looking into the history of other taverns in New York and, naturally, researched the history of McSorley's Old Ale House. He found a 2012 report from the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission that infers the building McSorley's currently occupies wasn't built until 1865 -- more than a decade after they claim to have been established.
"Maybe they were selling outdoor drinks?" Hourahan jokes.
I did a bit of my own research and started digging into the archives of the New York Times and the now-defunct New York Tribune in the hope of finding a mention of McSorley's or "The Old House At Home," as it was called back then. The first hit came from an 1895 issue of the New York Daily Tribune. An article casually refers to McSorley's as an alehouse that "has stood for forty years..." So that puts the opening date around 1855.
The next notable mention is an article from a February 17, 1954 issue of the New York Times, marking "100 years today." McSorley's handed out 100 dollar bills to every patron who walked through the door in celebration.
PHOTOS: NYC bars at the center of the debate
After all my research supported McSorley's 1854 timeline, I looked into the Landmark Preservation Commission report Hourahan mentioned. While it says the building wasn't recognized until 1865, the report notes tax records indicate improvements were made to the vacant lot in the early 1850s. McSorley's could "very possibly have operated out of this small structure," however, not have been recorded.
If Neir's opened in 1829, why does matter whether McSorley's opened in 1854 or 1865?
"We have continuity," Maher said. "McSorley's never closed since the day it was opened. I doubt [Neir's] was open during Prohibition."
If Neir's wasn't open during Prohibition, they can't be the oldest continuously run bar. And if McSorley's opened in 1865, Pete's Tavern in Manhattan's Gramercy Park would take the title.
"We sold what was called a 'near beer,'" Maher added. "It was 3.5% alcohol."
According to a 1940 issue of The New Yorker, during Prohibition, a retired Bronx brewer named Barney Kelly would make the "near beer" in a row of washtubs in the cellar.
While the owner of Neir's Tavern told me he believes they were open through Prohibition, there's little to no substantial evidence to back up that claim. Gordon also says there's a rumor Neir's had a still on the premises, but at this point they haven't found any proof.
McSorley's has documentation, an E.E. Cummings poem written in 1925 titled, "Snug And Warm Inside McSorley's" which references drinking ale. There's even a painting by John French Sloan done during Prohibition, entitled "McSorley's Saturday Night," which shows a packed tavern with patrons all beer in hand. Throughout Prohibition, the place was never raided. In fact, politicians and police would frequent the alehouse.
Just as I was about to determine McSorley's was the oldest bar in New York, I learned of another -- much lesser-known -- tavern that opened nearly a 100 years before McSorley's. Fraunce's Tavern in Manhattan's Financial District is commonly referred to as "the oldest building in New York City." It first opened in 1762 -- 92 years before McSorley's and 67 years before Neir's. However, the Queens Historian says Fraunce's doesn't count."It burned down," Hourahan says. "It's a creation."
It's true. The building was closed during the early 20th century for major reconstruction, but the structure always remained intact and the tavern never went out of business.
The Queens historian looks at Fraunce's with that critical of an eye -- disqualifying them on a technicality -- but a critical eye can also be directed towards Neir's. While the Queens drinking establishment may have opened in 1829, Queens didn't become a part of New York City until 1898. Wouldn't Neir's become a New York City bar that same year? In that case, McSorley's remains the oldest -- but if you wanted to argue that McSorley's has changed their name since opening, then that eliminates all three.
All of these bars can be ruled out depending on the guidelines, but each are a piece of New York City history. Each have their own charm and their own stories.
Fraunce's Tavern is where General George Washington bade farewell to his officers of the continental army. He could have been king, but instead, stepped aside in the interest of the newly formed United States.
McSorley's Old Ale House has an old gas lamp lined with wishbones that, as legend has it, date back to the Civil War. Soldiers from nearly every American war would hang a wishbone, promising to take it down upon their safe return home. Those remaining are from the boys who never came back.
Neir's is the last remaining relic of the famed Union Course Race Track, which used to reside across the street, but is now long forgotten.
So which bar is the oldest in New York City? I guess it depends on who you ask.
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