Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC

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At 54 Pearl Street, at the corner of Pearl and Broad, you will find Fraunces Tavern; the oldest bar in NYC. It is a pretty yellow and red brick structure that looks like it has been plucked from the 18th century and put down in modern New York. Fraunces Tavern can boast of an amazing history that dates back to the very early days of New York.

Fraunces Tavern over time

The land on which Fraunces Tavern stands was occupied by water until the end of the 1600s. By the last decade of the 17th century, New York City was rapidly growing into a leading colonial port. With its naturally protected harbor and its open, multi-ethnic population devoted to commerce, such growth was unstoppable. In order to raise funds for a new market house and ferry building, the city sold lots created by filling in part of the Great Dock along Pearl Street in 1691. The new block also protected the city hall on the north side of the street from high tide flooding.

The plot of land that is 54 Pearl Street (landfilled water lot) was purchased from the city by Stephanus Van Cortlandt (1643-1700/01) in 1686. Van Cortlandt was the son of the wealthy and well positioned Olaff Stevenson Van Cortlandt, who immigrated to New Amsterdam (Dutch New York) in 1638.

Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC
Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC: Stephanus van Cortlandt

Stephanus Van Cortlandt’s daughter, Ann married a young upcoming French Huguenot merchant, Stephen (Etienne) De Lancey in 1700. That same year De Lancey purchased the 54 Pearl Street lot from his father-in-law.

In 1719, De Lancey applied to the Common Council for three and a half more feet to be added to his plot of land on the northwest corner where he planned to build “a large brick house.” It is believed that sometime between 1719 and 1722 De Lancey built a house on the property. The house was probably three stories and constructed with brick with a tile with lead roof. It is unclear if the De Lanceys ever lived it in or used it as a rental property.


From 1738 until 1740, Henry Holt rented 54 Pearl Street where he taught dance and held balls. From 1740 to 1759, the building was most likely used for mercantile and/or residential use, as was fitting for the neighborhood at the time. In 1759, the firm De Lancey, Robinson, & Co. purchased the building. The firm, composed of Stephen De Lancey’s son Oliver, Beverley Robinson, and James Parker, dealt in imported European, West Indian, and East Indian goods, such as rum, sugar and textiles. Despite its prime location, business was slow. In 1761, the Company offered rooms for rent but were forced to sell in 1762.

Samuel Fraunces purchased 54 Pearl Street in 1762. Fraunces converted the home into a tavern called the Queen’s Head Tavern, named for Queen Charlotte of England. Taverns were a cornerstone of 18th century colonial social life, and the tavern thrived. The colony of New York was heading for drastic changes, however.

A series of new laws and restrictions were placed on the colonists by the Crown and general unrest spread throughout the colonies. Despite the tavern’s Loyalist-sounding name, it was used as a meeting place for the secret Sons of Liberty society, a group that sought to protect the rights of the American colonists. They plotted the lesser-known New York Tea Party in Fraunces Tavern in 1774.

Fraunces Tavern; The Oldest Bar in NYC
Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC: Sons of Liberty

By 1775, tensions between the British and the colonists continued to mount in New York. A group of men tried to steal cannons from the Battery on August 23, 1775 and exchanged fire with the H.M.S. Asia, which was situated in the harbor. The Asia pelted the city with cannonballs until 3am the next morning. One of these 18-pound cannonballs crashed through the roof of Fraunces Tavern. Samuel Fraunces actually left New York in 1775 for New Jersey, getting out of the way of the oncoming conflict. Fraunces’ Loyalist son-in-law took over the running of the tavern during the time that Fraunces spent in New Jersey. Fraunces returned in 1778.

Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC
Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC: Samuel Fraunces

The tavern remained open during the British occupation of New York during the Revolution. The Royal Governor of New York, Governor Tyron, hosted a diner for 70 distinguished British guests at the tavern in 1780. After the British surrender at York in 1781, the tavern took on a new role. Throughout the war, African-American slaves had left their Patriot masters and gone to fight for the British Crown.

They were promised freedom in exchange for their service. General Birch held weekly trials at Fraunces Tavern for these men to come and prove their loyalty and service to the Crown and ensure their freedom and safe passage out of New York. The tavern was also used as the headquarters for the American Commissioners while they negotiated with the British for their evacuation from the city. Evacuation Day cane on November 25, 1783, and Governor George Clinton held a celebration at the tavern.

Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC
Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC: Fraunces Tavern (1832)

Nine days later, on December 4, 1783, George Washington invited the officers of the Continental Army to a dinner in the Long Room at Fraunces Tavern. Washington used to dinner to retire from public life (before he was unanimously chosen as the first President of the United States.) Gathered with his officers in Fraunces Tavern he said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I take leave of you. I devoutly wish that your latter days may be as happy and prosperous and your former ones have been glorious and honorable.

Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC
Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC: George Washington’s Farewell at Fraunces Tavern in NYC

Fraunces Tavern had seen a lot, but it’s time wasn’t over. In the early days of the United States, while New York served as its short-lived capitol city, the tavern was home to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Shortly after leasing space to the new government, Fraunces sold the tavern to a Brooklyn butcher named George Powers so that he could retire to New Jersey. Powers later also rented space to the Department of War and Department of Finance, making Fraunces Tavern the home of some of our very first government offices.

Like Washington, Fraunces did not get to retire as intended. During the Revolution he had become acquainted with George Washington. He was asked to serve as the Head Steward of Washington’s Presidential household in New York, retiring briefly once the capitol was moved to Philadelphia, and then returning to the President’s service until 1794.


Into the Modern days

Fraunces Tavern continued on through the years. Though it changed owners several times and became primarily a boarding house in the 1800’s, it was always known as Fraunces Tavern and its place in history was not forgotten. A series of fires forced parts of the tavern to be rebuilt several times, until it looked very little like the original structure. Two extra floors were added and the roof was changed. A cast iron façade was added and the entrance was changed.

By 1900, 54 Pearl Street, along with many other older buildings, was facing demolition. The Daughters of the American Revolution fought to save the building, even trying to purchase it. The owners refused. The City of New York joined in the effort. On the basis of eminent domain, the city declared the building a park so that they could save it.

Once they had taken over the property, it was sold to the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, who own it to this day. They have restored the 18th century appearance as best they could (with no known pictures of the original building to work off of.) The modern additions were stripped away and the brick structure underneath painstakingly restored for a re-opening on December 4, 1907.

Fraunces's Tavern Restored 1907

 

The site was later brought back into the spotlight during the 1970’s when a bomb placed by FALN, the Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation, a group devoted to seeing their home removed from U.S. control, exploded in the doorway of the bar. A number of people were killed and countless others wounded, but the ale house lived on.

4 Killed, 44 Injured in Fraunces Tavern Blast

 

There is now a museum attached to the bar, remembering its revolutionary history and a plaque remembering the victims of the 1970s bombing. Oldest Bar in NYC

Fraunces Tavern Museum

Try to plan your visit to the restaurant alongside a trip upstairs to the museum. This is one of New York’s hidden gems – a fantastic small museum that will provide a rich history of not only the tavern, but colonial life in New York and the history of the early days of this nation. You will be able to see the Long Room set up as it would have been for Washington’s Farewell Dinner and much more! Museum entrance is in the second floor of Fraunces Tavern. The stairs are just behind the host stand on the first floor.

Open 7 days a week, from 12pm to 5pm. The last tickets will be sold at 4:30pm.
Closed on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day

Admission:

Adults (18+): $7
Seniors (65+): $4
Students (w/ valid ID): $4
Children (6-18): $4
Children (under 5): FREE
Active Military (w/ ID): FREE
Family Group: $20
General Group Rate (14+ adults): $5 per person

Fraunces Tavern accepts the New York Pass and the Downtown Culture Pass. The Museum is wheelchair accessible. An Introduction Loop for our audio components is provided for the benefit of hearing aid users.

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Fraunces Tavern; the Oldest Bar in NYC
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