Looking for a Berenice Abbott bar on 56th Street

Wouldn’t you love to go back in time and have a drink at Billie’s Bar? 

The hand-carved bar, antique fixtures, brass handles, tiled floor, and simple, red-checked tablecloths evoke the Gilded Age.

Which makes sense, as the bar first opened in either 1871 or 1880 (depending on the source) by a Michael Condron at 1020 First Avenue, at 56th Street.

Billysbarmen

This remarkably preserved late 19th century-style saloon was captured by Berenice Abbott in four photos she took in 1936—when Billie’s grandson, William Condron, Jr., was running the place.

It looks like a true neighborhood joint, and perhaps the only change from the Gilded Age to the Depression is that women are allowed in (definitely a no-no in the 19th and early 20th centuries).

Visit First Avenue and 56th Street today, of course, and you won’t find Billie’s. Nor is there a clear paper trail explaining what happened to this bar and restaurant worthy of Abbott’s artistic eye.

The story of Billie’s is the story of a neighborhood, you could say. Changing New York, the book containing Abbott’s WPA-era New York City photos, states that Billie’s “stood at the corner of a block dominated by the abandoned buildings of Peter Doelger’s Brewery, which before Prohibition had kept Billie’s and many similar well stocked.”

Billie’s patrons were “recent immigrants who lived in nearby tenements and worked in the factories and slaughterhouses along the East River.”

Billy’s, not Billie’s, in a 1940 city directory

Tracking the story of Billie’s means accepting that Abbott may have gotten the name of the bar wrong. City directories note that “Billy’s Bar” was at 1020 First Avenue. (Not to be confused with another Victorian-era saloon, Bill’s Gay Nineties, long at 57 East 54th Street until it was transformed into the more upscale Bill’s Townhouse.)

Newspapers called it “Billy’s” as well. A New York Daily News article in 1967 noted that “Billy’s Gaslight Bar” was being forced to move from its First Avenue and 56th Street location because the original spot was marked for demolition. (A 1960s-style block-long high rise occupies the site now.)

Billy’s/Billie’s stove, by Berenice Abbott

“Reconstruction has begun on Billy’s Gaslight Bar, a landmark at 56th Street and First Avenue for 96 years,” the Daily News noted later that year. “The new location will be 52nd Street and First Avenue.”

So Billy’s moved down the street, a milestone covered by Craig Claiborne in the New York Times.

From the Daily News, 1967

“The wrecker’s ball wrecked Billy’s, the wonderful Sutton Place landmark, in 1966, and now it has reopened at a new location with many of the sentimentally remembered trappings intact,” wrote Claiborne.

“The present establishment seems smaller, cleaner, more polished, more civilized, lower-ceilinged, less personal. In the move, Billy’s has lost a good deal of its patina and original charm, but it is still worthwhile and tables are at a premium.”

So how long did Billy’s (or Billie’s) hang on at the 52nd Street site? I wish I knew, but the trail goes cold.

Perhaps the bar outlived its era. The East 50s along First Avenue transformed from a neighborhood of low-rise tenements to a stretch of mid-rise buildings and apartment towers, with some of the old walkups interspersed within each block. A handful are empty, supposedly awaiting that wrecker’s ball.

But earlier this year, I was tipped off by another New York City history fan that even though Billy’s the saloon is gone, its hand-carved wood bar might still be with us.

Reportedly, the French restaurant Jubilee, which has occupied a site on First Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Street since 2012, just might be using Billy’s bar in their own (very atmospheric and homey) establishment.

I couldn’t find anyone there who could confirm this, but the photos of the bar at Jubilee look eerily similar, no?

[Top three images: Berenice Abbott, 1936; Fourth image: Baybottles.com; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Berenice Abbott, 1936; seventh image: New York Daily News 1967]

Tags: , , , , , ,

26 Responses to “Looking for a Berenice Abbott bar on 56th Street”

  1. Shayne Davidson Says:

    If only bars could speak!

  2. MJ Fleischman Says:

    Yes indeed, Billy’s was in operation until fairly recently. You can still visit the bar at the restaurant now called Jubilee, a delicious French bistro!

  3. Greg Says:

    Very interesting – we should be able to crowdsource more info? Very curious to know more about this bar which lasted so long!

  4. Tony Says:

    I think I remember Billy’s from the seventies. There were a lot of places like this that are long gone.

  5. Bob Says:

    Billy’s Restaurant closed in September 2004.

    According to the NY Post, the restaurant started ailing after the stock market drop in 2000, then 9/11, and then the 2003 smoking ban. (https://nypost.com/2003/05/12/1870-bar-may-get-nuffed-out/)

    Then a dispute with the union over pension funds may have been the last straw.

    From: Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees v. Billy’s
    United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
    Aug 11, 2004
    No. 03 C 8337 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 11, 2004)

    ” […] BACKGROUND
    According to the complaint, Borkowski is the sole shareholder, officer, and director of Defendant Billy’s 1870 (“Billy’s”), a restaurant in New York City. Billy’s has executed a series of Collective Bargaining Agreements with Plaintiff Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (“the Union”). The complaint alleges that the Agreement requires Billy’s to make certain contributions to the Union’s pension and welfare funds for its eligible employees.
    Beginning in 2001, Billy’s fell behind in its payments to the pension and welfare funds. In 2003, Plaintiffs filed suit to obtain payment of the deficiencies. The complaint contains two counts: one against Billy’s and one against Borkowski personally. Each seeks identical relief.

    Neither defendant responded to the complaint. An order of default was entered against Billy’s on April 20, 2004; an entry of judgment followed in due course. Despite being personally served on June 2, Borkowski, though appearing before the court in person, has not responded to the complaint. Plaintiffs filed the instant motion for default on July 1. Although the motion’s caption refers only to an entry of default, the body of the brief clearly indicates that Plaintiffs seek an entry of judgment as well. Our discussion will address both issues. […]”

    • Bob Says:

      Per the NY State Liquor Authority, Billy’s liquor license (issued in 2-year increments) was allowed to expire without renewal in early 2005 (consistent with closing in September 2004).

      License Information
      Serial Number: 1028550
      License Type: RESTAURANT LIQUOR
      License Status: Expired
      Credit Group: 4
      Filing Date: 12/15/1972
      Effective Date: 03/01/2003
      Expiration Date: 02/28/2005
      Premises Information
      Principal’s Name:
      Premises Name: BILLYS 1870 INC
      Trade Name: BILLY’S RESTAURANT
      Zone: 1
      Address: 948 1ST AVENUE

      NEW YORK, NY 10022
      County: NEW YORK

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for this Bob…I can’t believe the bar lasted until 2004, which feels like yesterday. I do like that the official name of the bar was Billy’s 1870, which must be the true year the bar opened.

  6. MJ Fleischman Says:

    And it continued to be run by the daughter of the owner until it closed.

  7. Greg Says:

    Here is another interesting profile with a link to a 1995 review in the Times (that link is dead unfortunately) https://www.beeretseq.com/more-on-billys-bar-new-york-city/

  8. gothamtony Says:

    I used to take the M15 up First Avenue from the Financial District in the eighties and nineties and remember thinking this restaurant looked really great. A friendly and welcoming place that I wanted to check out but never got around to it. Thanks for all of the contributions about Billy’s. So many places like this are gone: Martell’s, Hunters, Haratty’s, Nodeldini’s ( and Cockeyed Clams ) not to mention all of the old German places in Yorkville. I could keep going but it saddens me that so much has vanished from the UES.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      The end of German Yorkville gets me down—I think there are a few places left, but it’s not what it was a generation ago, and certainly nothing like it was mid-century.

  9. gothamtony Says:

    So true. I was born in Doctor’s Hospital at 170 East End Avenue which became part of Beth Israel and then was razed. My family moved to the UES in 1969 and I lived there until I got married in 2008. The only places left are The Heidelberg and Schaller & Weber but you can see the “bones” of old Yorkville if you know where to look. Our Town has done great job over the years in covering the changing face of Yorkville. Also the Friends of the Upper East Side produced a very nice book recently on Yorkville. My doctors are still in the area so I go back for visits and also to wander around my old haunts.

  10. Michael Zullo Says:

    If you take a small trip to the Turtle Bay neighbrhood – Midtown – you’ll find Billy’s Bar is in ‘JUBILEE FRENCH CUSINE RESTAURANT’ loctaed on 1st Avenie between East 52nd and 53rd Streets. Ask for IIda, co-owner or Chef Luc.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, that’s what this post concluded—Jubilee occupies the former home of Billy’s, and it’s the perfect small bistro for that beautiful hand-carved bar.

  11. John G. Caulfield Says:

    I remember Billy’s (at 1020 First Avenue) quite well. I went to grade school just across the avenue (St. John the Evangelist, at 1015 First) from 1961 until graduation in 1966, so I saw it just about every day. And I did once enter it, so I can testify it still looked the same as in the 1936 photo. In April 1963, students were tasked with selling ads in the program for some school event. A classmate (John Martin) and I decided there was nothing to lose in going in and asking. To our delight, the barman said sure, and he wrote out a check for $50 (the most expensive ad) right on the spot. (And the school awarded us a small commission on that sale!) Billy’s was gone from 56th Street by 1967, when the 40-story Plaza 400 was being built. (I delivered morning newspapers in that monster in 1974-75.) Billy’s did move south, a little north of 52nd Street, near a florist that has been there forever, and a few doors from Pisacane Fish store (also a long-time survivor). It had great steaks, but around the mid-1980s, the woman who owned it (or acted as though she did) became quite rude to customers she did not know — as though she were another Elaine or something.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks so much for your comments, John. You mentioned Pisacane Fish Store, which I used to see when I rode the bus up First Avenue a decade or so back. Unfortunately it’s no longer there…but the florist remains.

  12. Tom Jones Says:

    There was an iconic brass, Victorian light fixture in the front window that appeared prominently in a Saturday Evening Post cover that featured Bill Clune, the original Marlboro Man, sometime in the late 50’s.

  13. Hazel Jones Says:

    Billy’s was our favorite restaurant in New York. Their New York Strip, cooked rare for me, was always perfect. Charred on the outside,, blood red inside, it was to my taste the best in the city. A salad and baked potato shells were the sides we preferred. Joe was our regular waiter and even after we moved away from New York and only came back once or twice a year, he always greeted us like long lost friends more than two decades after we left. What wonderful memories we have of all the evenings we spent there!

  14. Tracing Berenice Abbott’s steps in today’s Bowery | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] spending the 1920s as a cutting edge portrait photographer in Paris, Berenice Abbott returned to the United States to find that her documentary-like style of photography was out of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: