Posts Tagged ‘Subway Tavern’

The colossal failure of a 1905 Bleecker Street bar

March 6, 2017

subwaytaverngettyimagesNew York is a city rich with bars: corner bars, dive bars, gay bars, sports bars.

Bar culture is so ingrained here, a tavern functioned as the colony’s makeshift city hall through the end of the 1600s.

But imagine a bar that downplayed its beer and liquor menu and hoped to lure patrons by offering soda, hot chocolate, ice cream sodas—and a dose of religious sermonizing?

That was the idea behind the Subway Tavern, which opened in 1905 in a Federal-style row house on Bleecker and Mulberry Streets near the new subway system’s Bleecker Street stop.

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Dubbed by a snickering Newspaper Row as a “moral bar,” the Subway Tavern was the brainchild of Bishop Henry Codman Potter (below), leader of New York’s Protestant archdiocese.

subwaytavernbishoppotterAt the turn of the century, saloons were under siege, with the temperance movement bearing down hard.

It didn’t help that in the 1890s, reform-minded police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt began enforcing the excise laws that forbid the sale of booze on Sundays.

Potter thought that outlawing alcohol was a terrible idea, because “the workingman,” needed a place to drink “without hypocrisy.”

“When the day is done,” remarked Potter in a magazine article of the era, “what is to become of those persons whose lives are given over to laborious toil?”

subwaytavernnytimes8311905“I belong to the Century and the Union League and other clubs, and can go to them. But where are these people going?”

“By inevitable necessity to the saloon, and if you place the saloon under the ban you make it one of the most tragic or comic failures in history,” he explained.

So Potter launched his family-friendly tavern. The business plan had it that the manager would make money off the sale of non-alcoholic drinks yet receive nothing for liquor sales. The thought was that he would push the sale of soda—and fewer men would stumble home drunk.

subwaytavernmcny“In the front men, women, boys, and girls are invited to buy soda, and the place has the appearance of an ordinary soda water store,” wrote the New-York Tribune.

“A curtain in the rear leads to a saloon, where liquors and free lunch abound.” There was also a restaurant on a lower level.

Even in a reform-minded city, the Subway Tavern was a flop. Temperance leaders and clergymen denounced Bishop Potter for supporting an establishment that served evil alcohol. Few patrons showed up.

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Thirteen months after the Subway Tavern earned national attention as a way to clean up tavern culture without shutting bars down totally, it was shuttered. (Here’s the site today, after the building was razed).

In a city that revels in the ritual of drinking as well as alcoholic debauchery, this saloon was doomed to fail.

[Top photo: Getty Images; second photo: MCNY, 1905, x1905.34.2181; third photo: Wiki; fourth image, 1905 New York Times headline; fifth photo: MCNY, x2011.34.2169]