23 March 2012

The Secrets of Bill's Gay Nineties

Bill's Gay Nineties closes on Saturday, March 24, possibly forever. The owners are talking about finding a new space, and they may. But regardless, it will never be the same. The bar has been in the same 1850s townhouse since opening during Prohibition. It's an irreplaceable setting for this diamond.

I'm not certain that New Yorkers realize exactly what they're losing. Yes, a former speakeasy with peerless dark-wood atmosphere and decor and a world-class collection of old theatrical and boxing memorabilia. (The owners are taking all that with them, so the restaurant that moves in will look nothing like Bill's.) We all know that. An unmatchable Old New York atmosphere. That, too. And staff who have been doing the same job at the same place for anywhere from 10 to 60 years. Ditto.

But Bill's has other hidden values, which will disappear come Sunday. Old places like this tend to, over the years, end up with pieces from other old places, ones that disappeared long ago. Take the swinging doors that lead into the basement bar. I've always admired them. But they struck me as being too ornate and fine, even for a class joint like Bill's. They seemed more 1890s than 1920s.

Turned out my instincts were correct. These swinging doors once hung at the entrance of the bar at the old Hoffman House, one of the most famous hotels ever to grace Manhattan. It held up the west side of Madison Square from 1964 to 1915 and was the last word in urbane, Gilded Age luxury. It was a hangout for Democrats and their supporters; Grover Cleveland was a frequent guest. And the bar's fame was wide. The walls were decorated with opulent murals and the cocktails were first rate.

Those doors should be in the Smithsonian.

The third floor, usually closed, is home to a private rental room, and dominated by a beautiful old wooden bar. This bar came from Delmonico's, arguably the most famous restaurant in New York City history. The owner doesn't know which of Delmonico's many locations the bar came from. (The restaurant moved steadily northward over the years.) But my guess would be the final location, at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street—just ten blocks from Bill's. What's more, Delmonico's closed in 1923, one year before Bill's reportedly opened.

The bar is in remarkable shape. It's a crime that it's only been seen by those smart or lucky enough to rent out the room. There are wood inlays and gas lamp fixtures and a brass rail that is undoubtably brass.

Behind the bar are glass cabinets for liquor bottles.

And the bar still contains its original copper sink (above).

Elsewhere in the room are various old signs, including this large one for Bill's Gay 90's Revue.

This stained glass window is probably as old as the bar, and from a time where Pabst was not only a leading brand, but a respected one.

And then there's this curious caricature of showman Florenz Ziegfeld. No information on that.

Down in one corner of the basement is the secret room where the liquor was chuted down to whenever Prohibition agents raided the bar.

The swinging door is a thick piece of brick wall lined with metal. The entry is small. You have to duck your head. The room is not large, but I'm sure it suited its purpose.

Finally, there's this guy. He stood outside Bill's for many decades before being moved to the basement. The wooden Indian has already been sold to a guy in Texas.


Woodford said...

Beautiful & Heartbreaking. New York will not be the same.

Henry Krinkle said...

That's a shame, I love the rustic look.

Cesc Sales said...

awesome oldies

Dan said...

I didn't know too much about this place until I read about it on this site. When I heard that it was closing (again, on this site) I knew that I had to visit. And I'm very thankful I did.

Thank you!!!

Mitch said...

I have worked just a block away for a number of years. I have to say that Bill's definitely kept its light under a bushel during the time I worked here. I went to the bar a couple of times, and while it is the sort of thing that I like, it's not as appealing to many of my younger co-workers. That being said, unless you were pretty eagle-eyed, you wouldn't have known anything about the history of the place - which might have appealed to some of them. And certainly not anything about the items discussed here.

I hope the owners do move... and I hope they do a better job telling the world about the treasures they hold.

Anthony Devers said...

The landlord is now claiming that the bar and fittings belong to him...