Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rockefeller Center's David vs. Goliath -- No. 1240 6th Avenue

The 4-story Victorian building went up against one of the most powerful titans of American finance and industry--and won. photo by Alice Lum

Unlike its haughty neighbor, Fifth Avenue to the east, Sixth Avenue in the late 19th century was decidedly blue collar.   The 6th Avenue elevated tracks blocked sunlight and the passing trains spewed cinders and smoke.   Between 43rd and 44rd Streets sat the 6th Avenue car stables, and at the northeast corner of 49th Street was a saloon owned by three Irishmen.

Patrick “Paddy” Daly, Daniel Hurley and his brother Connie took a long-term lease on the four-story, red brick building in 1892.  They established a partnership and opened a saloon called Hurley Brothers and Daly.   The block was lined with similar Victorian structures, terminating on the opposite end of the block with a three-story brick building owned by the Boronowsky family.

Things went well for the partners who reportedly shared the heavy-drinking habits of their clientele at the 54-foot long mahogany bar with bronze fittings.  But 27 years later, as with every other saloon in the city, the foundations of Hurley Brothers and Daly would be rocked by Prohibition.   Prompted by well-intentioned reformers who believed that the elimination of alcohol would result in reduced crime, increased morality, improved public health and financial stability, Prohibition had other effects.   Thousands of New Yorkers were suddenly unemployed—bartenders, tavern owners, brewery workers and waitresses.  Hotels and restaurants, unable to survive were forced to close.

But the headstrong Irishmen who ran what was known as Hurley’s would not let a simple Federal law get in their way.   Within five years after the enactment of the Volstead Act there were an estimated 100,000 speakeasies in New York City.  Hurley’s was one of them.

The saloon was moved to the back of the building with an unmarked entrance on 49th Street.  The front section was rented to Greek florists.   For additional income and camouflage, the upstairs was leased to Mrs. Shea who rented out furnished rooms; and a barber shop, fruit stand and luggage store shared ground floor space with the hidden saloon.

Although heavily altered now, the speakeasy's entrance was on the side -- photo by Alice Lum

But there was an even bigger problem looming for the Hurley brothers.   John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had begun aggressively buying up a staggering twenty-two acres of midtown property, right in the middle of Fifth Avenue’s most exclusive district, for a seemingly implausible project:  Rockefeller Center.  One by one he purchased buildings from Fifth to Sixth Avenue between 48th and 51st Streets.    In the stranglehold of the Great Depression, none but the city’s wealthiest property owners could resist the offer to convert real estate to cash.

None except John F. Maxwell, grandson of John F. Boronowsky, who owned the three story building at the opposite end of the block from Hurley’s and, of course, the feisty Irishmen themselves.   In June 1931 Maxwell sent word to Rockefeller that he would not sell “at any price.” 

Daniel Hurley and Patrick Daly did not own their building, but still had a long-term lease.   They worded their refusal to budge as a veiled offer.   Rockefeller’s agents had managed to buy the building so the saloon-keepers, realizing that the repeal of Prohibition was only months away, requested a lease buyout from Rockefeller:  $250 million.

According to Liz Trotta in her book Fighting for Air: In the Trenches with Television News, Connie Hurley would later proclaim in his Irish brogue, “I’ve seen sonofabitchin’ Rockefellers come and sonofabitchin’ Rockefellers go and no sonofabitchin’ Rockefeller’s gonna tear down my bar.” 

And, indeed, no Rockefeller tore down Hurley’s bar.

Construction had already began on the gargantuan Art Deco complex of 19 buildings on May 17, 1930.   The block of 49th to 50th Streets, Sixth Avenue to Fifth Avenue was eventually demolished, leaving only the two brick Victorian buildings standing on opposite corners of a devastated landscape.

The RCA Building—70 stories tall—rose around Hurley’s, diminishing the bar building only in height.   A reader wrote to New York Magazine decades later calling Hurley’s “a four-story David thumbing its nose at the Goliath that was Rockefeller Center,” and Jack Kerouac deemed it “a real old building that nobody ever notices because it forms the pebble at the hem of the shoe of the immense tall man which is the RCA Building.”

And then a strange thing happened to the Irish saloon that had been the watering hole for blue collar workers and immigrants.  It became the watering hole for radio, television, newspaper and sports celebrities as well as tourists and midtown workers.  As the century progressed, the old-fashioned saloon and its crusty Irish owner (“Old Man Hurley” lived to an extremely ripe old age), as well as the convenient location in Rockefeller Center, made Hurley’s a favorite.  Liz Trotta noted “You never knew who would be standing next to your lifting elbow at Hurley’s.  Jason Robards, Johnathan Winters, jazz musicians from the local clubs and the ‘Tonight’ show, starlets, football players, the lot.”

Johnny Carson made the Hurley name nationally familiar while he did his show live from Rockefeller Center.  It was the bar in all of his Ed McMahon drinking jokes.   David Letterman did several on-air visits to the bar.  NBC technicians haunted the place so regularly that among themselves it was known as Studio 1-H.

Hurley’s was known as a place where status was left at the door.  Mayor John Lindsay stopped in once, only to be hissed by the patrons.  When Henry Kissinger and two bodyguards got noisy, they were ejected by the bartender “for rowdy behavior.”

But nothing in New York City is permanent and in 1979 Hurley's was sold.  Journalist William Safire spoke for New Yorkers in an article mourning the loss.  The mahogany bar was removed to a Third Avenue restaurant and, as Nancy Arum wrote in her letter to New York Magazine that year “a pretend old-fashioned bar now stands where the real old-fashioned bar once was.”

The pretend old-fashioned bar took the name Hurley’s and, most likely, tourists never noticed the change.  But proximity, tradition, or habit still brought the Rockefeller Center workers and celebrities into the bar until September 2, 1999.   That night owner Adrien Barbey served the last glass of beer in the bar that had stood at Sixth Avenue and 49th Street for 102 years.

The 64-year-old bar owner, having undergone stomach and heart surgery, decided to retire.   On the final day of operation, the windowsills were crammed with floral arrangements sent by patrons.   As the last hours ticked away, loyal customers took away menus and matchbooks as mementoes.

No trace is left of the gritty and riveting history that played out behind the brick walls of Hurley's -- photo by Alice Lum

Today the red brick building is painted gray—a no-doubt purposeful near-match to the limestone fa├žade of the RCA (now GE Building) that wraps it.   Where three Irishmen once served beer—legally and illegally—to tough, boisterous working men, a pristine bakery sells cupcakes.

The two little buildings on either side of the soaring 70-story RCA Building stand as monuments to independent businessmen who steadfastly refused to be bullied by a millionaire with limitless fortune and power.

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  1. "David Letterman did several on-air visits to the bar."

    "But nothing in New York City is permanent and in 1979 Hurley Brothers and Daly was sold."

    What show was that again?

  2. I'll back that up - David referred to it as Hurleys on his visits there (and on-air food orders from there.)

  3. I worked at NBC News for a period of time in the mid-1980's and frequented Hurley's. I'm surprised there's no mention of the well-used entrance directly from 30 Rock into the bar. My memory that it was an unmarked door on the second floor of the building.
    It opened onto a metal staircase that took you down into the bar. Anyone else remember that?

  4. I opened the door one night and out flew a drunk getting heaved out. Adrian ran out and picked me up off the ground, apologizing profusely, and bought me and bought me dinner. I plotted for years afterwards to be standing outside the door exactly when the drunks would be tossed.

  5. I was told by an NBC operator there was an extension from the switchboard behind the bar to easily find employees in Hurley's.

  6. My grandfather used to serve drinks over the mahogany bar. I'm trying to track down the bar itself, I heard it was sold to Ruppert's restaurant uptown, but that closed years ago. Anyone have any intel on if that bar still exists somewhere? I'll offer a small reward!
    Don Weyback,

  7. As the great grandson of Patrick Daly, I would love to see any photos that have survived.

  8. Can anyone give the full name of John the Bartender, the bus boy, or any other patrons shown in this video from 1987?