Posts Tagged ‘Berenice Abbott Billie's Bar’

Looking for a Berenice Abbott bar on 56th Street

November 30, 2020

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]