Monday, April 10, 2023

The Lost Grapevine Tavern - 6th Avenue and 11th Street

A gas streetlight stood on the corner in 1895 when this photograph was taken.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.
In the 18th century, when Greenwich Village was still a day's ride north of New York city, a substantial Federal style clapboard house was erected near what would become  the southeast corner of 11th Street and Sixth Avenue.  Before the turn of the century, it was converted to a roadhouse known as The Hawthorne.

A grapevine twined up the 11th Street side of the building.  Sometime after 1800 it lent its name to the establishment, now known as the Old Grapevine Tavern.  The Commissioners Plan of 1811 laid out the streets and avenues, and (on paper) placed West 11th Street through the Spanish-Portuguese Cemetery which had opened in 1805 near the tavern.  The street became real in 1830, destroying much of the cemetery and requiring, according to Harper's New Monthly Magazine in June 1893, that the Grapevine Tavern be moved "a few feet" from its original site.

During the Civil War Union officers gathered inside, as did Confederate spies.  Those spies passed on information gleaned through eavesdropping to their superiors.  According to lore, they would begin by saying, "I heard at the Grapevine..."  If true, the phrase became the basis for the oft-used term "I heard it through the grapevine."

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Decades later, The New York Times would recall that the Grapevine "was not only a place to warm the inner man with the fermented juice of the grape, malted beers, and fine musty ale, but a place where good fellows met as in the more palatial clubs today, to match their wits, tell the latest story, and discuss in a friendly way the political destinies of the nation."  When the Jefferson Market Courthouse was erected in 1877, almost directly across the avenue, the Old Grapevine saw another type of patron haunt its rooms--lawyers and politicians who gathered to discuss cases.

In 1870 Alexander McClelland, still a boy, arrived in New York from Scotland.  He was hired by the proprietor of the Old Grapevine, a man named Clark.  McClelland recalled in 1915, "The tavern was then known by its familiar name and a magnificent grapevine spread its rich foliage over the entire Eleventh Street side of the house."  The teen added to the allure of the old inn almost immediately after being hired.

He recalled to a reporter decades later that shortly after he was hired "an old Scotch baker who had brought to this country the secret of making the finest mutton pies ever known in Scotland brought in a basket of them.  Well, I knew what the real mutton pie was, so I bought them and got a little heater to keep them warm.  It wasn't long before the Grapevine's mutton pies and ale became famous."  The patrons paid ten cents for a glass of ale and a mutton pie in 1870 (about $2 in 2023).  The New York Times would later say that the hot mutton pie "with a tankard of rich, musty ale, made a lunch fit for the gods."

At around 1:00 on the morning of April 5, 1878, two soldiers  from Governor's Island entered the Grapevine.  Both were drunk.  The New York Times reported, "On account of their drunkenness, Alexander McClelland, the keeper of the saloon, refused to give them liquor."  Instead, they were served seltzer and after drinking it, went into the back room where they got into a quarrel.

One of them, William Jamieson, drew a large revolver, put it to the head of his companion, and ordered him "to comply with a request that he made.  The man fell to his knee, in terror, but refused to comply."  Jamieson put away his pistol, but beat his friend "most unmercifully," according to the article.  That resulted in a confrontation with McClelland which nearly ended the bartender's life.

The New York Times reported that at one point Jamieson pulled out his revolver and ordered McClelland out from behind the bar.  "When he had reached the centre of the floor, Jamieson ordered him to do a degrading act, or he would blow his brains out."  McClelland fell to his knees, begged to be released, as Jamieson held the weapon to his head.  "In this way McClelland remained, he said, for fully 20 minutes."

Finally McClelland saw an opportunity, grabbed the drunken soldier's arm, and began fighting.  During the struggle, the gun went off twice, neither bullet hitting McClelland.  At long last, McClelland overpowered Jamieson, disarmed him and pinned him to the floor.  The New York Times reported, "Then for the first time it occurred to McClelland to scream for help, which he did lustily."  A beat officer rushed in and arrested Jamieson, ending the crisis.

photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The violent incident was a rarity in the Old Grapevine.  McClelland was famous for refusing to tolerate drunks and ungentlemanly behavior.  He noted, "every one who knew me knew that I kept the law, and I pride myself on that.  I had no Sunday side door, and I usually locked the door at night a minute or so before the legal shutting up time."  Later, he would also aver proudly, "Never in my career have I sold a drink to a woman.  No women were allowed in the place.  It was no hang-out for roisterers, and if I do say it myself, the Grapevine, from the day I went there in 1870 was a gentleman's café."

In 1883 Alexander McClelland purchased the Old Grapevine. He moved his family into the upper floors.  That same year he cut down the venerable grapevine on the 11th Street wall, which had died.  "I had to cut it town," he said, "and it made me feel badly to do it.  I kept several pieces of the stump for years, but so many persons wanted them for souvenirs that in a few years they were all gone."

By then Greenwich Village was the center of Manhattan's artistic community.  In 1915 The New York Times recalled, "A little room, open to the bar, with one or two small tables, was on one side, and there in the good old days the artists and writers from Washington Square and Macdougal Street used to congregate for their evening chat."  Among them were painters William Merritt Chase, Frederic Dorr Steele, Lewis Glackens and his brother William J. Glackens, Homer Martin, and J. G. Brown.  The writers included Sinclair Lewis, poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, playwright Byron Stephenson, art critic Charles Fitzgerald, and Archibald Gunn.

When photographer George F. Arata took this shot in 1907, the Sixth Avenue Elevated ran in front of the Old Grapevine.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Poet William Timothy Call wrote in his 1911 book Ten Great Little Poems Not by the Old Masters, that he and his literary comrades "raided Mac's oftener than any other place, because we liked his pewter, and nowhere else did the midnight sun shine so pleasantly.  When Mac was glum we knew just how to switch him.  It was only necessary to ask him about the old New Yorkers who were among his patrons."

"Do you know any of the Astors?" some one would slyly inquire.  The cloud would then slowly lift, as Mac paused to reply: "Well now, let me think.  I don't know John J. or William W., but I am very well acquainted with Tony P."

(The joke was a reference to Tony Pastor, called the Father of Vaudeville.)  Call said his group included, "little editors, little reporters, little space-writers, and little poets...Any one was welcome, regardless of race, color, or previous condition, so long as he had not accomplished anything worth doing."

Actors, as well, haunted the tavern.  Among them McClelland listed "Edward Harrigan, 'Old Horse' Hoey, Steele Mackaye, H. J. Montague, the 'lady's ideal'; William Davidge, Vining Bowers and Henry Beckett."

In 1894 Theodore Roosevelt accepted the position of President of the Board of Police Commissioners.  He immediately began a campaign to stamp out police corruption and illegal operations, including excise (or liquor law) violations.  One Sunday afternoon he stepped into the Old Grapevine, ordered a Vichy water, and made "a brief survey of the place," according to The New York Times.  McClelland related, "Mr. Roosevelt complimented me on the clean appearance of my place, and said he was anxious to see the Grapevine, as it was one of the few places in the city against which the police records had never revealed a complaint."

from the collection of the New York Public Library

After having been associated with the Old Grapevine Tavern for more than four decades, McClelland retired in 1912.  A subscriber of The Sun wrote a letter, published on December 30, that praised the innkeeper, noting that McClelland always referred to the the place as "the store."  He said in part:

For forty-three years he has presided in person over the quaint tavern, which itself has stood adamant against change for over a century...Over a mug of cream ale you might read your newspaper or periodical as undisturbed as in your own library.  Never was there loud talk or the slightest form of disorderly conduct.

In retiring, McClelland sold the venerable building to a real estate developer.  In reporting on the sale on December 26, 1912, the New-York Tribune said the Old Grapevine "has produced more artistic joy than any other house in old Greenwich Village, or, for that matter, in all New York."  The article remarked on the impeccably preserved condition of the ancient building.  "Its gable roof, stained a deep brown by many years of rain and sun and snow, has not lost a shingle in twenty years."  Commenting on the yellow paint of the clapboards and the dark green trim, the article said, "it is more than likely that had old Alec submitted the proposition of repainting the building to the artists and others, including Bohemians of both varieties, the real and the professional, who live in the neighborhood, and who form the bulk of its trade, the vote would be to retain the old house as it stands."

On July 18, 1915, The New York Times reported, "Since that time [McClelland] has been enjoying a well-earned leisure with his family on the snug little fortune amassed as the result of forty years of thrifty business in the picturesque wooden tavern."  McClelland returned from a trip to his homeland, "just in time to see the old timbers of the familiar building torn down," according to him.

A week before The New York Times's article, the venerable building had been demolished.  A former patron, Dr. John P. Davin, wrote a letter to the editor of The Sun on July 22 that said in part:

The old Grapevine was literally a place of "rest and entertainment."  It had, carefully hidden from the gaze of the vulgar, its "memento Mori" in the old Portuguese cemetery in the rear of its premises.  Its ale was served in pewter mugs, and its crackers and cheese were a kind not to be found elsewhere.  Punch, the Graphic, the London News and The Sun were at hand to be spread on its mahogany with your order; an indication of the kind of mental pabulum affected by its frequenters.  Its host was of a type now obsolete, who was at all times philosopher, friend and guide.

The building that replaced the Old Grapevine Tavern survives.  photo via

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. Another amazing post. What a wild set of stories. Thanks!