Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Thomas Barclay Saloon Building -- 212 Eighth Avenue

 

Once a saloon and a Civil War recruiting station, the scruffy appearance of the venerable building disguises its colorful history.


As early as 1841 a "Mr. Hollock" operated his business from the first floor of 212 Eighth Avenue, at the corner of 21st Street.  He was a "pavior," who laid the paving stones on streets and sidewalks.  Hollock most likely lived above his business in the three-story structure.  Faced in brick, the non-assuming
Greek Revival building was trimmed in brownstone and wore a delicately-dentiled cornice.

Work for Hollock's pavers was physically taxing, especially during the hot summer months.  The city suffered a heat wave in June 1841 and one worker was brought back to the office, overcome.  The following day The Evening Post reported, "The Coroner was called to hold an inquest on the body of a laborer in the employ of Mr. Hollock, the pavior, lying dead at No. 212 Eighth avenue, who died suddenly from drinking cold water when in a state of heat and perspiration."

By 1853 the space had become the saloon of John H. Wilber.  Living upstairs was the family of William Banks, a tailor.  Wilber was looking for extra help that year, his advertisement in the New York Herald reading:

Wanted--A middle aged single man, an American, to attend in a liquor store; one acquainted with the business; none others need apply.

Within the year, however, it was not an American running the saloon, as Wilber was so intent on; but Scottish-born Thomas Barclay.  The new owner was proud of his new country while remaining connected to his native roots.  

Barclay was a member of the Thistle Benevolent Association, formed in 1831 by a group of established Scotch immigrants to provide aid to newly-arrived countrymen.  He organized the Barclay Guard around 1855, a group of volunteer citizen soldiers.  An announcement in the New York Herald on October 5 that year read: "The Barclay guards--The members of this company will meet on Saturday evening, October 6, at half-past 8 o'clock, for the transaction of particular business, at 212 Eighth avenue."

Barclay and his family lived in the upper portion of the building.  His business was successful enough that in 1860 he opened a second saloon on Houston Street.

Patriotic fervor ran high in New York City after the first shot of the Civil War was fired on April 12, 1861.  Thomas Barclay offered a portion of his saloon as a recruiting "depot" for the Union Rifles, a term applied to two combined Pennsylvania militia units.  On August 30 the New York Herald reported, "This regiment is rapidly filling up, and will soon be in a condition to take the field."

In 1865 two men attempted to pass a fake five dollar bill in the saloon, but Barclay was too savvy to fall for the scam.  They escaped before he could have them arrested.  Unbelievably, Joseph Keefe and Augustus Radinsky came back a few weeks later, on May 16.  Barclay's bartender, John Sheil, was equally aware and this time the would-be crooks were arrested.  The New York Herald reported, "Justice Ledwith committed the prisoners for trial in default of two thousand dollars bail each."  It was a hefty amount, nearly $33,000 in today's money.

Having operated the saloon for 14 years, on June 10, 1868 Barclay placed an advertisement in the New York Herald:

For Sale--The well known liquor store corner Twenty-first street and Eighth avenue; long lease and rent low.

It was taken over by Thomas Gilhooly, but unlike Barclay, his saloon would short lived.  In 1870 the space was converted to the store and office of Harris & Sands, run by James Harris and David M. H. Sands.  The men ran a retail paint store as well as doing painting.  

In 1879 Robert N. Thompson was taken into the business.  Sands was no longer associated in 1886 when it was renamed James Harris & Co.  Decorator Ethan Allen was now listed at the address.

Within the decade Allen and a new partner took over the business, now called Allen & Tofts.  The highly flammable inventory store in the cellar nearly cost firefighters their lives on August 7, 1894.  The New York Times reported, "The fire started in the cellar of the building, where a quantity of oils and paints is stored...When the fire was discovered the flames were shooting up to the sidewalk in front of the store through the grating."

Firefighters "found the cellar all ablaze."  After flooding it with hoses from outside, six men "crept slowly down the basement stairs" in order to direct streams into a corner where the blaze still raged.  They had been in the cellar only a few minutes when cans of benzine or naphtha exploded.

"The four who had been burned presented a pitiable appearance," said the article.  "Their faces and hands were scorched, while Dunn's hair and mustache had been partially singed off."  Luckily, none of the men faced live-threatening injuries.  The fire was confined to the store and basement.  The New York Times noted, "The upper part of the building was occupied by two families, who got out without any difficulty."

The Dasnoit family lived upstairs at the turn of the century.  In response to a news story about a young girl who married an elderly millionaire, Marie Dasnoit fired off a letter to The Evening World in September 1901, lamenting that modern young women put money before love.  Her letter said in part, "Yes, Cupid has grown mercenary.  Money rules the world, and I venture to say, woman's heart.  Woman has always been a vain being, and money alone can satisfy her vanity.  Money is her God, her love and happiness."

Edward F. Delea and his family lived here in 1919.  He was a bartender in O'Brien & Cotter saloon on West 42nd Street near Eighth Avenue.  But on November 18, 1918 the Government passed the Wartime Prohibition Act that banned the sale of alcoholic beverages with an alcohol content greater than 2.75 percent.

On October 29, 1919 Colonel Daniel L. Porter, Supervising Internal Revenue Agent for the New York District launched a midnight raid of nine saloons, including O'Brien & Cotter.  The New York Times reported that one witness said, "five officers bounded into the place at a run and at once began shooting."  The article went on, "The bar was crowded, and at first the customers, it was said, thought a holdup was in progress."

Within minutes agents and patrons were fighting.  "No one knew exactly how the scuffle started, but in a minute or two the place was filled with grappling figures."   Agents poured beer and whiskey from the bottles behind the bar into jars for testing.  Two men had been shot, Thomas Toomey, the porter, and Edward F. Delae, who was shot in the leg.

The Chelsea neighborhood went through significant changes throughout the 20th century.  By the third quarter it was being discovered by a new generation of New Yorkers.  In 1978 the space that had been Thomas Barclay's saloon became Rawhide, a popular gay bar.  But the increasingly trendy tone of the neighborhood would be the bar's undoing.

The commercial space was shuttered for the first time in more than 30 years in 2016.  photo via apartments.com

Early in 2016 the landlord raised the rent from $15,000 to $27,000, forcing the bar out of business after more than three decades.

The building's beleaguered appearance after 180 years disguises a fascinating slice of Chelsea history.

photographs by the author
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