Wednesday, October 16, 2013

P. J. Clarke's Saloon -- No. 915 Third Avenue

A slice of the 19th century, P. J. Clarke's hangs on (minus its upper floors), at the feet of its mammoth neighbor -- photo by Alice Lum

In the first years following the end of the Civil War a modest four-story brick building appeared at the northeast corner of Third Avenue and 55th Street.  In all probability the ground floor housed a retail space—such as a grocery—while the upper floors were rented to working class roomers.  The mostly-undeveloped area was still dotted with “squatters’ shacks” (as documented in city records) and gritty industrial buildings like tanneries, breweries and slaughterhouses.

The year 1871 was a particularly bad one for owner W. P. Simpson.  Smallpox had reached epidemic proportions in the city and the “Annual Report of the Dept. of Health of the City of New York” pointed out that there were five cases in No. 915 Third Avenue.  It listed the building as among the “houses containing the largest number of cases.”  The same year Simpson received a fine from the city, which added the structure to its list of “unsafe buildings, walls, chimneys, etc.”

Among the blue collar workers who lived upstairs in 1879 was H. H. Derr, a “chainman” for the Department of Public Parks.  Derr received a salary of $2.50 per day – about $50.00 in today’s dollars.

It was around 1884 that the retail space on ground level was converted to a saloon.  Run by “Mr. Jennings,” it offered thirsty men the latest in Victorian barroom d├ęcor—intricate beveled and stained glass, a carved mahogany bar and back bar, the near-obligatory built-in Regulator clock, and a mens room with an unusual curved stained glass ceiling.  The restroom would be improved around the turn of the century by immense porcelain urinals designed and patented by Winfield E. Hinsdale in 1901.  The deep fixtures were specifically designed “to suppress splashing.”
The intricate stained glass entrance survives.  Note the wheel-cut starburst transoms. .-- photo by Alice Lum

While the saloon served ale and whisky, it shared space with Benjamin Weinstock who ran his newspaper stand here at the turn of the last century.  Patrick Joseph Clarke arrived in New York from County Leitrim, Ireland and started working here as a bartender around 1902 at the age of 17.  The bar was owned by English-born “Mr. Duneen” and at the time Duane family was among the renters upstairs.  Michael Duane died in the building on December 13, 1902; but his family would stay on here for decades.

The side door, towards the rear, opened into a room where women were admitted; separate from the men-only saloon proper.  Around 3:00 on the afternoon of Friday, July 16, 1909 a woman dressed in black sat at a table.  When it began raining James Dinneny and his wife ducked into the side door of the saloon.  Mrs. Dinneny was carrying the 10-month old baby, Elizabeth.

The New York Times reported on July 18 “The baby was allowed to crawl about on the floor and the strange woman spoke admiringly of it.  The rain stopped and Mrs. Dinneny went out to see her mother-in-law in Fifty-fifth Street.  Her husband let the woman hold the baby.”

Apparently the flirtation between the married man and the unescorted woman became too much for the respectably-run saloon.  The bartender “said he did not like the way the woman and Dinneny behaved and put them out.”  Three hours later James Dinneny and the woman in black returned with little Elizabeth.  Dinneny stayed at the bar drinking until he decided it was time to reunite with his wife. 

When he arrived home his wife asked the obvious question.  “Where’s the baby?”

The pair rushed back to the saloon, but both the woman and the Dinneny child were gone.  Police had difficulty getting information from Dinneny regarding the three hours he spent with the women.  “Dinneny himself is rather hazy as to his actions on that afternoon,” reported The Times.  “The police, finding he remembered so little as to be of practically no assistance, have been questioning every one in the neighborhood regarding the women, who has appeared once or twice before in the saloon alone.”

Although the mysterious woman’s name and address were unknown, it was believed she lived nearby because both times she was seen in the saloon she was without a hat.  Mrs. Dinneny herself tried to find her kidnapped child.  The Times said she “wandered about the streets all day, red eyed with weeping.  Nothing whatever could she learn.”

The side door admitted women, and in one case, was the escape of a kidnapper -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1912 Mr. Duneen decided to return to his homeland.  Before leaving for England he sold the business to bartender “Paddy” Clarke.  Patrons would variously call the saloon Paddy Clarke’s, Clarke’s, or P. J. Clarke’s.  How Paddy Clarke weathered Prohibition, which was the end of so many barkeepers' livelihoods, is unclear.  But when the 21st Amendment was ratified on December 5, 1933 ending Prohibition, P. J. Clarke’s was still going strong.

At the time the Duane family was still living upstairs and on New Year’s Eve, 1936 tragedy struck.  Little seven- year old John Duane was struck by a hit-and-run truck right outside the bar.  The following morning, on New Year’s Day, John Duane died at the Midtown Hospital.  “Police are seeking the driver of the truck,” reported The Times.

Although Clarke owned the business, he did not own the building.  Reportedly owner Mary G. Breslin offered to sell him the property a few times, but he refused.  Finally in 1943 the Breslin estate sold the building to Joseph L. Ennis & Co, operators, who quickly resold it the following month to Matilda R. Lavezzo for $19,000.

The Lavezzos were already tenants in the building, running an antiques and restoration business from the second floor.  According to son Dan Lavezzo decades later, Clarke quickly had a change of heart about ownership.  “The day after my father bought it Paddy came to him and offered him $10,000 more than he had paid for it.”  Lavezzo declined the offer.

By now the Irish saloon in the shadow of the Third Avenue El attracted more than merely immigrant laborers.  The neighborhood had seen the rise of office and apartment buildings and the charm of the venerable 19th century bar was irresistible.  Writers like Charlie Jackson and Robert Benchley drank here, away from the more popular bars nearer Midtown.

When Jackson wrote the 1945 movie “The Lost Weekend,” P. J. Clarke’s was Billy Wilder's obvious choice as the set for Nat’s Bar.  But when Wilder saw the footage shot on location, he discarded it.  Outside the noisy El rattled by, disturbing the action inside.  A team of designers descended on the saloon, took measurements and made drawings, and a replica of Clarke’s was constructed in Hollywood.  Despite the care taken by the designers, the set fell short of an exact duplication.

Paddy Clarke died in 1948 at the age of 63.  For a year his heirs attempted to run the bar, but infighting resulted in their selling the business to the Lavezzos within a year.
Despite the movie and a few well-known patrons, at mid-century Clarke’s was still predominately an Irish-American haunt.  When Irish elections on February 11, 1949 resulted in anti-partitionists remaining in power in Northern Ireland, patrons here were dejected.  Alfred E. Clark wrote in The New York Times “There was a ghostly stillness in…Paddy Clarke’s over on Third Avenue and a similar atmosphere seemed to pervade other Irish bars yesterday afternoon.”  Clark said that “Even the juke boxes, with their abundance of Irish melodies, were strongly muted and the patrons, predominantly Irish born or Irish descent, conversed in somber and un-Gaelic-like hushed tones.”

In the 1950s Clarke’s was known as much for its dining room in the rear as for its drinks in the bar area.  On February 16, 1956 famed New York City chronicler Meyer Berger wrote in a New York Times article ”A member of the East gentry, a fellow of some means, maintains a hamburger account for his Great Dane at P. J. Clarke’s restaurant and bar at 915 Third Avenue.”   In the days before Health Department regulations ousted dogs from dining establishments, the large dog was a well-known regular here.

“The dog rises from a place at his master’s feet at the bar when hunger impels him, crosses to the food counter and gets into position for his meal.  He has never eaten fewer than thirty hamburgers at a standing, never more than forty-two.”  Berger said that although Clarke’s hamburgers normally sold for 45 cents, the Great Dane got his burgers, all prepared rare, for a discounted 40 cents.

The manager explained “They’re cheaper because he takes his meat without rolls.”

By now the Third Avenue El was a memory and Clarke’s attracted a high-end clientele.  The days of immigrant laborers were over.  In 1975 actor Martin Gabel made Clarke’s “his headquarters after doffing his stage motley,” according to The Times, and complained about “the escalating cost of double scotches, saying that it was pricing two-fisted drinkers like himself out of the market, forcing them to the psychologically damaging makeshift of drinking at home alone.”

Artist Leroy Neiman depicted P. J. Clarke's in 1978.  Close inspection reveals celebrity customers like Frank Sinatra, Jackie Onassis and Hugh Carey (painting reproduced on a postcard)

Frank Sinatra was a regular as were, later, Sarah Vaughan and Johnny Mathis.  Saloon lore maintains that Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics to “One for My Baby (And One More For the Road)” on a napkin here.

Then, in 1967, a century of history on the corner of Third Avenue and 55th Street almost came to a close.  Tishman Realty and Construction Company bought up all the properties on the east side of the Avenue between 55th and 56th Street—except Lavezzo’s corner.

On September 9, 1967 The New York Times reported on the startling David and Goliath story. "In one of the most unusual Manhattan real estate transactions in recent years, a 40-story skyscraper will be built around a Third Avenue landmark—P. J. Clarke’s bar and restaurant—to preserve it.
“The usually touchy problem of the preservation of a picturesque building will cause no pain to the principals involved.  In this case, Clarke’s will be preserved in a large plaza area and the skyscraper will rise without interference  behind it.  The owner of Clarke’s, Daniel H. Lavezzo, Jr., will thus be able to maintain a thriving business, which he believes has the most varied restaurant clientele in New York.”

While the historic P. J. Clarke’s saloon was preserved, the building was less lucky.  The upper two floors were chopped off; resulting in what the “AIA Guide to New York City” calls a “characteristic but truncated 19th century relic.”

The improbable survivor, even without its upper floors, is a charming remnant of a time when blue collar workers knocked back pints of ale before heading home to their harsh tenement homes.  Although today’s trendy and upscale East Side clientele, crowded in around the bar, obliterate the former atmosphere; the interiors are lovingly preserved—including the massive porcelain urinals under their stained glass shelter.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. I guess this is referred to as preservation at a price? Very similar to other "hold out" buildings found throughout Manhattan. like the old 4 story corner buildings on 6th Ave at the western edge of Rockefeller Center. The contrast between old and new, while overwhelming, is nonetheless eye catching and a significant improvement over what might have amounted to nothing more than addtional sidewalk or a barren plaza area. Nyarch

  2. Here's a charming little story about rock n roll pioneer Buddy Holly and PJ Clarke's:

    1. Thanks for that link. That story is just one of so many that unfolded within those walls. It has to be one of the most tender, however. Thanks again

  3. I wonder what happened to that missing baby?


    1. All I know is she was my aunt Lilly and she grew up with the family so I gather they found her. LOL I was amazing when I read this story.

  4. According to the NY Times Obit, Michael Duane died Dec. 13, 1902