By Brian J. Pape, AIA
The famous Chumley’s has slowly crawled back to business after nine years in limbo, a phoenix rising from the rubble of 2007. When the former speakeasy known for literati patrons finally re-opened this October, the ghosts of E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott 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 and reputations, 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 the 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 brick two-and-a-half-story 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. However, during the 1870s, 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 shop, and at least three homes would be crowded into one small parcel, but in the working class area of over 150 years ago, horses dominated land transportation, and having a place to care for them was as essential as human living space. Therefore, almost every block would have had carriage houses, and living in small quarters was not considered a sacrifice.
Over the years, many more alterations were made to each building. The residential spaces were renovated in 2007, selling as condos for one to four million dollars each.
In 1922, social activist Leland Chumley converted the blacksmith shop at 86 Bedford into a Prohibition-era speakeasy, and by 1926 had built to the back stable. humley remodeled the front to look like a garage door (no windows), and created an entry off the Pamela Court passageway on Barrow Street. Legend says that when police were going to raid the establishment from the Pamela Court entry, Chumley warned, “86 the customers” out the 86 Bedford door!
One of the many bureaucratic delays the owner, Margaret Streicker Porres, suffered was what part of history the Landmarks Preservation Commission wanted the facades to represent: the original blacksmith shop, the altered Prohibition garage door, or the residential doors from 1969? Although some preferred the Prohibition era, the owner was belatedly told to build the residential doors, as out-of-place as any could possibly be—little doors set in faux stone-block stucco. What a pity! What were they thinking?