By Brian J. Pape, AIA
The famous Chumley’s is slowly crawling back to business after eight years in limbo, a phoenix rising from the rubble of 2007. When the former speakeasy for literati finally re-opens this Fall, the ghosts of e.e.cummings, Faulkner, St. Vincent Millay, O’Neill, Steinbeck, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, among many others, will hardly recognize the place. Manager Jim Miller holds the lease, the liquor license, and the memorabilia for the bar, including book covers from its author patrons.
Chumley’s is part of a single parcel of land with five buildings on it. The Northeast corner of Barrow Street and Bedford Street is a property that has one of the most interesting histories with a reputation that has spread around the world. This assemblage of several modest structures began prior to 1826 when Peter Demarest built a two and a half story frame home at 84 Bedford, soon followed by a small brick home in the “backyard” for Albert Romaine in 1827, with 82 1/2 Bedford as an address. In 1831, a two and a half story carriage house used as a blacksmith shop, with a stable in the backyard was built by Cornelius Hopper at 86 Bedford. In 1846, Benjamin Demarest built the two and a half story brick corner home at 82 Bedford. Lastly, John Asmussen built a two story brick stable at 56 Barrow Street in 1889. Originally, each building had at least one open passageway from the street to the backyards, but during the 1870’s the homes were enlarged by adding floors and building over the passageways. The remaining passageway at 58 Barrow leads to “Pamela Court” and the home formerly called 82-1/2 Bedford.
It may seem strange to us that two stables, a blacksmith, and at least three homes would be crowded into one small parcel, but in the working class area of over one-hundred-fifty years ago, horses dominated land transportation, and having a place to house and care for them was as essential as living space. Therefore, almost every block would have a carriage house, and living in small quarters was no sacrifice.
Over the years, many more alterations were made to each building, creating smaller apartments for tenants as the original owners moved out, and adding a storefront to the corner building. In 1922, social activist Leland Chumley converted the blacksmith shop into a Prohibition-era speakeasy, and by 1926 had purchased 86 Bedford and connected it to the stable in the back. Chumley remodeled the front to look like a garage door (no windows), and created another entry off the Pamela Court passageway on Barrow street. Legend tells us that when police were going to raid the illegal establishment, Chumley was warned to “86 his customers” out the 86 Bedford door while the police waited outside the Pamela Court entry!
One of the many bureaucratic delays the Owner Margaret Streiker Porres suffered through in restoring these buildings concerned what part of history the Landmarks Commission wanted the rebuilt facades to represent: the original blacksmithy, the altered garage door during Prohibition, or the residential doors as of 1969? Although a preference for the Prohibition era was expressed, what the owner was belatedly told to build is as out of place as any could possibly be, a kitschy arched door with transom and sidelights, set in a false stone-block stucco facade. What a pity!
The residential spaces were refinished years ago, selling as condos for $1-4 million, including the old stable building. We look forward to having Chumley’s finally rejoin the ‘hood.