A Manhattan mini-mystery
It’s not often you can discover long-lost information about a venerable institution like New York City’s PJ Clarke’s. Really — how much more could there be left to learn about a place that’s already a piece of living history?
Since the forties, Clarke’s has played host to celebrities by the dozen, and management doesn’t shy away from dropping some legendary names. Stars like Frank Sinatra, Hedy Lamarr, Jackie Kennedy, Richard Harris, Dick Clark, Peter O’Toole, Nat King Cole and Elizabeth Taylor were regulars — and 22-year-old Buddy Holly even had his first date with Maria Elena Santiago there on June 5, 1958. (Apparently, the choice of venue was ideal: The singer proposed at Clarke’s that very night, and Maria accepted.)
Celeb cachet and the food’s solid Zagat rating aside, one of the most significant things that makes PJ Clarke’s notable is that fact that it has survived.
A two-story throwback to the 1870s, the restaurant/pub now sits nestled among skyscrapers — a sapling in a grove of elms. GQ magazine wrote of the location in 1986, “…here is a little bit of a thing dwarfed by giant structures, but very chipper and strong.”
But it wasn’t always that way.
An inauspicious beginning
As the lore goes, the original four-level brick building went up in 1868, then, courtesy of one Mr Jennings, was turned into a tavern in 1884.
By the year 1912, when the bartender Patrick “Paddy” Joseph Clarke bought the place from a man named Duneen, the place was just another saloon, in just another building, on just another street, in — well, not just another city. Hustling and bustling New York was well on its way to becoming the most populous city in the world — a benchmark it would achieve just 13 years later.
“Murky,” though, is how the bar’s website describes the early days, and goes on to admit, “What became of the first owner, Mr Jennings, or when exactly the bar transferred ownership to Mr Duneen is unknown. As is, for that matter, either Mr Jennings’ or Mr Duneen’s first names.”
And that, my friends, is what I call a challenge.
Using only the internet, could I tap into PJ Clarke’s history enough to find something interesting, perhaps fascinating — or, at the very least, fill in a blank or two?
Pages from the past
In keeping with the lore, there was confirmation that “915 3d Av” existed at least as early as 1877. Gouldings New York City Directory shows it to be the home address for several tradesmen — including an engineer, blacksmith, clerk, carpenter and upholsterer — which dovetails perfectly with the sort of working-class men who made up the saloon’s earliest clientele.
From there, it didn’t take long to match the name Michael J Jennings with the address on Third Avenue, thanks to the Directory of Liquor Tax Certificate Holders in New York. Old city directories and legal notices substantiated his connection from at least 1888 and up until 1902. (Records also showed that, for a period of time around 1893-1896, Jennings had a business partner named John J Hickey.)
Of the elusive Mr Duneen, however, little could be found. So little, in fact, a genealogist suggested that the name might have been misspelled somewhere along the line, as Dineen was a much more common surname. But even accounting for the possibility of such an error, details about the gent who hired the bar’s namesake were nowhere to be found.
Part of something bigger
Although there were only a couple dozen records to be found, many of the aforementioned legal notices linked Jennings’ name with one other: George Ehret.
Ehret was, put simply, a local beer baron. The quintessential self-made man, Ehret was already a trained brewer when he came to the States from Germany in 1857. He built his company intelligently: creating the supply (with his Hell Gate Brewery), building the demand… and ensuring that he profited on all fronts.
Through both trade and tactics, Ehret’s business was one of the most successful of the age.
In 2012, the New York Times wrote that the brewer “lent saloon keepers start-up money and even owned saloons outright to assure an outlet,” and noted that in 1899, The New York World called Ehret the “King of Beer Corners,” with 42 saloons owned in New York, and mortgages on yet others.
Without a doubt, the place now known as PJ Clarke’s was part of that empire. From at least 1888 through 1902, Jennings received lease payments from Ehret, apparently totaling $4000 a year (based on the fact that the dollar amount remained the same in every record found; see one example from 1900 to the right).
In 1878 — still years before a certain Third Avenue address would draw his attention — the man had amassed such great wealth, he built a fancy five-story brownstone mansion at the junction of Park Avenue and 94th Street. As impressive as that was, those early days were nothing compared to the $40 million fortune George Ehret left when he died in early 1927 (which translates to more than half a billion dollars in today’s money).
Within three years of his death, however, the king’s castles had fallen. On April 28, 1928, the New York Times wrote, “The George Ehret mansion, the first fine residence on upper Park Avenue, built more than half a century ago, was sold yesterday to builders as a site for what is expected to be the largest housekeeping apartment building in New York.” Then, August 1929 brought the news that Hell Gate Brewery was closed — largely a victim of prohibition.
So while the massive buildings that the millionaire made were long ago turned to rubble, one of the small buildings that helped make the millionaire truly thrives in the here and now — having managed to ride out both the nation’s ban on alcohol (which stretched from 1920 to 1933), as well as the city’s relentless drive to expand.
And for that last one, we can thank the Lavezzo family — formerly the bar’s upstairs tenants — who bought the place in 1948, after Clarke moved on to the great tavern in the sky. Amid increasingly feverish bids from developers, the Lavezzos stubbornly refused to sell the property until 1967, when they eventually relented… but not before ensuring the purchase included one all-important caveat: a 99-year-long leaseback.
From that nearly-miraculous victory of sentiment over dollars and cents, the original Clarke’s has the legal right to exist at Third & East 55th until the year 2066.
That leaves you five-plus decades to stop by and bask in the glow of history before tucking into “The Cadillac” hamburger (so dubbed by Nat King Cole) and raising a lager to Jennings, Clarke, Ehret, Lavezzo and all the others, whose combined century and a half of effort made it possible for this warm, welcoming fragment of the past to open its doors today. ♦
Credits: Original photo at top by Jazz Guy; Composite by NJP / Ehret ad from the New York Tribune (New York, NY) September 28, 1909 / Lower photo from 2011, courtesy Google Maps.