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The 200-Year-Old Bar Beloved by Book Editors and Longshoremen – The New York Times

The 200-Year-Old Bar Beloved by Book Editors and Longshoremen - The New York Times
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https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/13/t-magazine/ear-inn-new-york-history.html
 
The 200-Year-Old Bar Beloved by Book Editors and Longshoremen
The legendary Ear Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village has had many lives.
Nov. 13, 2018
The 212
The Ear Inn on Spring Street, photographed in October 2018.Nina Westervelt

The Ear Inn on Spring Street, photographed in October 2018.Nina Westervelt
In this series for T, the author Reggie Nadelson revisits New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from time-honored restaurants to unsung dives.
On Sunday nights, when the house band plays jazz at the Ear Inn, a bar over by the Hudson River on Spring Street, the whole building shakes. In the little apartment upstairs — once the home of the Ear’s first proprietor and now used by the current owners for occasional gatherings — old Dutch gin jugs shudder, thick glass Champagne bottles rattle, and 18th-century apothecary flasks clink. But then this building, with its sloping floors and death-defying stairs, went up some time around 1770. It has housed a bar continuously since 1817. In its early days, water lapped at the front door, which was then just four feet from the river.
The Ear is an amiable place: good music, good company, good drinks and food. Waves of customers come and go throughout the day — including tourists, of course. When I visit in October, a woman remarks in a German accent, “My book says this is the last real place in New York.” At lunchtime, there are editors who come from the Penguin Books office around the corner, as well as a few locals, some execs from the UPS outpost across the street. Then the cocktail crowd comes: the groups of 20-somethings who gather on the sidewalk in good weather and the residents of the neighborhood’s shiny new condos.
The Earregulars, the house jazz band at the Ear Inn, draw a crowd on Sunday nights.Nina Westervelt

The Earregulars, the house jazz band at the Ear Inn, draw a crowd on Sunday nights.Nina Westervelt
“It’s all dog walkers and joggers around here now,” says Richard “Rip” Hayman (that’s Captain Richard Perry Hayman, of the United States merchant marine), who has co-owned the Ear with Martin Sheridan, his partner in the venture, since the 1970s. “In the evening, you can smell the Botox,” Hayman adds with benign sarcasm. In his lilting Irish accent, Sheridan notes that during the recent fashion week, with shows happening nearby, “The models wandered past looking like lost peacocks on their high heels.”
With its affable owners and its music and poetry readings, the Ear resembles a congenial Irish pub. (And there are beers enough to satisfy any beer bore.) But what provides the almost palpable rush at this place is that it seems to vibrate with New York history, with the thrilling story of a city becoming itself. Inevitably, there are ghosts. 
Ghosts of Portuguese sailors who arrived in New York even before the Dutch; of the Dutch who drank Champagne with their oysters, leaving those old bottles behind; of Thomas Cooke, the brewer who ran the place in the late 19th century, when the waterfront had exploded with traffic, ships, cargo, passengers, all looking for a drink; of the dockworkers of the mid-20th century.
“Even in my time, you could smell the coffee and the spices from the ships,” says Hayman. When he and Sheridan bought the place in the ’70s, it was still a longshoreman’s dive where the guys who didn’t get a gig unloading ships (remember those scenes in “On the Waterfront”) drank from 5 in the morning until noon. They were plenty upset when the new owners tossed the pool table and the jukebox and changed the Ear’s M.O. by introducing food and civility.
The Ear in 1973.Courtesy of the Ear Inn
The Ear in 1973.Courtesy of the Ear Inn
Memorabilia clings to the Ear’s interiors like barnacles. In the front room, there’s the bar with bottles at the back, baseball caps hung overhead, a painting of the building as it might have been when it led directly out to the Hudson River. The walls are crammed with old beer signs, photographs, newspaper clippings. Scribbled on a chalkboard are the daily specials; today’s include braised beef rib, shepherd’s pie, halibut with lemon butter. At the bar, Chef Ng Fonglum offers spicy lamb burgers and shrimp and the best dumplings this side of Chinatown. Everything is fresh — much of the produce is schlepped down from Hayman’s farm upstate — and nothing is fried.
Over lunch — creamy soup, great cheeseburgers, Guinness for Sheridan, Goose Island IPA for Hayman — the men recall their early days at the Ear. The artist Shari Dienes lived upstairs; when Hayman wanted to buy the Ear, she sold a Rauschenberg for the cash to help pay for it. John Lennon hung out at the bar, and Allen Ginsberg recited his work at poetry readings. The red neon sign outside lured them all in.
The sign is from the 1930s, after Prohibition, Hayman believes. The Landmarks Preservation Commission refused any additions to its design but had no problem with a subtraction and so, voilà, “Bar” became “Ear.” The Ear Inn sign became a kind of beacon, a lighthouse lamp in what was a desolate corner of the city through the 1970s and even the ’80s, where the homeless warmed themselves at barrel fires. “I used to bring them sacks of potatoes for roasting,” says Sheridan. It was a block, he adds, that was scary and thrilling: a good place for a murder or a duel.
The phone booth at the Ear.Nina WesterveltMemorabilia clings to the Ear’s interiors like barnacles.Nina Westervelt
Down the street, maybe a six-minute walk, is where Richmond Hill once stood. The colonial estate served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of Long Island. Later, it belonged to Aaron Burr, who left from there in 1804 to take part in that fateful duel with Alexander Hamilton. (Cue the musical.) In those days, the area was still part of the pastoral exurban village of Greenwich. In 1817, it was formally incorporated into the City of New York and everything changed.
That same year, 326 Spring Street first opened as a bar. It was also the year that construction began on the Erie Canal and, as a result, the port of New York exploded. Across the pond, Beethoven, Shelley and Byron were at work. It was the year Jane Austen died.
When construction on the condo next to the Ear began in 2006 — it was Philip Johnson’s last design, known as the Urban Glass House — the foundations of the tavern were dug up and stabilized. “They dug down about six feet,” Hayman says, and found “apothecary bottles for elixirs and salves, and pieces of the actual original pier into the Hudson, animal skeletons.” Sheridan adds that the New-York Historical Society, which received the artifacts, said it was the best find they’d had in 100 years.
The Ear is sometimes known as the James Brown House, and this is the best story of all — perhaps true, perhaps not. (This part of town was never of much interest to anyone, so it remained intact and its legends grew.) James Brown, it is said, was an African-American aide to George Washington in the Revolutionary War and might be the fellow depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Given his freedom, Brown had the house built for himself in the 1770s and lived there as a prosperous tobacconist and apothecary until his death.
Around 1985, the Ear’s current owners invited the other James Brown to perform; he was playing uptown. Sheridan says a message came back: “Brown said he couldn’t come, and also that the fried chicken in New York was so bad that he was going back to Georgia.”
Late afternoon at the Ear: At the bar are a few friends, an ex-cop. Over another pint, Sheridan swears that both James Brown stories are true — more or less. But I believe it all. The Ear is that kind of place. Cue the storytelling; wake the ghosts.
 
 





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