The little brick two and a half story Federal house at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village stood for a century without attracting much attention. Built between 1820 and 1830, it exhibited the expected architecture of a working class house of the period: a slim, unadorned doorway without a stoop, three bays of six-over-six windows with plain stone lintels and sills and two pedimented dormers piercing the pitched roof.
A narrow horse walk separated No. 86 from its neighbor to the north and provided access to the rear. At some point the house was extended to the back and a side entrance on the first floor was added. It opened onto a common garden or courtyard surrounded by Nos. 56 and 58 Barrow Street and 82 Bedford Street, with a narrow entry onto Barrow.
In 1905 the little house was still a private residence. Police Captain John J. Murtha of the Eldridge Street Police Station was living there with his wife, two children and a cook.
A shoring company was immediately brought in to stabilize the structure, after which the bar, the book jackets, the artificial bookcase door – all the elements that Simone de Beauvoir attributed as “atmosphere” were removed and put into storage.
With every attempt to restore the landmarked structure, another set-back arose. Little by little nothing remained of the Federal building except two walls. The roof was gone, the floors were gone and behind the plywood construction barricade was a gaping hole in the ground.
Three years later, in 2010, a facsimile composed of concrete blocks is rising from the rubble. Framed-out Federal-style dormers have appeared where the roof will be and at some point the bar and the book jackets and barstools will be reinstalled and Chumley’s will open again.
While bringing back the fixtures is not a problem, a writer for The New York Times wonders how long it will take for the stale beer smell to return. The main question, however, is simply whether a reconstruction is in any way a restoration. When the newly-built, Disney World-like replica of the 1830s building is complete, is it still a landmark or just a new building?
Despite the commendable efforts to clone the old Chumley’s building, the historic property -- a Village mainstay and literary footnote -- has been lost forever.