After the Storm

10.29.13

New York’s Oldest Bar Stays Afloat

Since 1794 the Bridge Café had been serving drinks in New York—until Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters forced it to close. Michael Daly on the city’s oldest bar and its struggle to reopen.

Hurricane Sandy was hours from striking lower Manhattan when a motorist parking outside the Bridge Café asked the proprietor if his car would be safe there.

The proprietor, Adam Weprin, answered with the confidence of someone who owns the oldest drinking establishment in New York, its three story wood structure unscathed by all of nature’s buffeting over 218 years.

“Come on, the building’s been fine since 1794, what’s going to happen?” Weprin said.

Anyway, this spot on Water Street where the café stood was on a marked incline more than two blocks from the water below. And 48-year-old Weprin was giving himself further reason not to worry by adding more sandbags to those he had begun placing outside the cafe the day before. The guy running a nearby construction site had said he could help himself to as much sand as he needed and he was shouldering a 50 pound bag of it when he was surrounded by what his general manager tallied to be 15 cops.

“Sir, can you put that down?” one of the cops asked by his recollection.

“Is there a problem, officer?” Weprin asked.

The cops thought he might be a looter. They were not completely convinced otherwise even after he explained the arrangement with the construction site and he demonstrated that his key unlocked the cafe's door and he showed them ID and the general manager produced a Bridge Café pay stub.

“They actually wrote our names down in case somebody complains about missing sand,” Weprin recalls.  “I said, ‘If you want me to bring the sand back tomorrow, I’d be happy to.’”

Weprin was in the midst of the final preparations when two customers appeared, saying every other establishment in the area had already shut down.

“We’re sandbagging and they said, ‘Can we have as quick couple of drinks before the impending doom and gloom?” Weprin recalls. “We said, ‘Of course.’”

Weprin had closed the kitchen the night before with a final take out order of buffalo steak—hold the pepper—for his mother. He now kept the bar open for the couple to sip completely appropriate cocktails.

“Old fashioneds,” he recalls.

After all, this was the most old fashioned bar in the city, dating back to when George Washington was president. It started as a tough riverfront den and is said to have been the scene of at least two murders, one in 1862 in which a woman named Catherine Curran was forced to drink three decanters of “burning fluid and alcohol” in an hour by her ex-lover and his new paramour. It was one of a row of three bordellos owned by Tom Norton, who was said to have previously been a mate with the Black Ball line of mail carriers, “bloodboats,” so named because the management was notoriously brutal in its determination to run on time. The regulars there in 1880 included Joseph Frazer, a deputy U.S. Marshal whom the New York Sun described as also being “a thief and confederate of thieves.”

In 1922, it was purchased by the McCormack family, who kept it running through prohibition by discreetly dispensing illicit beer from Brooklyn. The real life Detective Eddie Egan of “The French Connection” fame found the hideaway McComrakc’s bar and grill tucked in beside the Brooklyn Bridge to be a perfect place to take his snitches in the Sixties and that earned the establishment’s exterior a cameo in the 1971 movie. The McCormack family put the place up for sale eight years later.

As Adam Weprin recalls, his father, real estate lawyer Jack Weprin, only came across the ad because it was mistakenly listed as “waterfront property.” Jack Weprin found himself buying it without yet knowing its history.

“On a bizarre whim,” Adam Weprin says.

The establishment‘s charms were obscured by some modern additions that were hardly improvements.

“You had to see though the fluorescent lights and the beer ad,“ Adam Weprin recalls.

The lights were replaced, but a good many of the old customers continued to frequent what was renamed the Bridge Café. They included various newspaper types as well as a pair of numbers guys named Sonny and Johnny and a fishmonger from the nearby Fulton Fish market named Anthony, who by special arrangement with the Weprins would come in the early morning when just the kitchen crew was there. He would afterwards leave four empty beer bottles, two dollar under three of them, the fourth a self-awarded buyback.

“We could also tell Anthony had been there because of the fish smell,” Adam Weprin says. “There would be fish scales under his seat.”

Among the new regulars was Ed Koch, who would come in for lunch at least twice a week at precisely 12:15 pm, during as well as after his time as mayor.  The café acquired further renown by retaining, Leslie Revsin, one of the first great American chef’s of either gender and all the more rare at the time for being a woman.

In 1996, Jack Weprin suffered a fatal heart attack. A fully accurate obituary would have described him as a lover of his family, his work and the place he had bought on a bizarre whim and made an historic haven. The Bridge Café had been somewhere near his work at City Hall and the courts for him to go between meetings and a place to take clients after a deal, a place where his life was a part of the city’s life, past and present.

Adam Weprin loved the café all the more because it had been so dear to his father and his devotion kept it flourishing. He felt sure that this establishment that was so vibrant after 218 years was in no serious danger as the last pre-hurricane customers finished their old fashioneds and he locked up. There were two feet of sandbags in front of every door, seemingly an abundance of caution on a corner where the water had never reached in all its storied history.

.As the storm hit that evening, the wind and rain did not seem as extreme as Weprin might have expected. Somebody who lives near the café then called him to say the water had risen over the sea wall.

“I thought, ‘I should go down there,’” he recalls.

But the wind had now kicked up.  He asked himself a question.

“What am I going to do?”

He answered it.

“Okay, there’s nothing I can do.”

The person then texted him a photo of the scene.

“I thought, ‘I-yi-yi,’” he recalls.

He got his first real sense of how bad things were when the lights suddenly went off not just in his apartment, but all of lower Manhattan.

“When the electricity shut down was when you went, ‘Uh-oh,’” Weprin recalls.

He stayed where he was until the next morning, when he went down to survey the scene firsthand in daylight. He noticed that the car parked outside had been swept away, but the café on first glance showed no obvious damage of any significance.

“It looks as if, ‘Oh, what’s the big deal? It’s just a little water,’” he recalls.

That was before he saw that the first floor had flooded and the basement had completely filled.

“To see the freezers floating,” he says. “Oh, my God.”

The contractor’s initial estimate was that 45 percent of the wood in the basement had to be replaced. That quickly became 100 percent. Along with new electrical and new plumbing and new kitchen equipment and new heating.

And because the café is a flood zone, he had never been able to get insurance. The emergency loans the government made available to businesses did not include restaurants, which are considered too risky a venture.

But, Weprin was not about just to walk away from this place that was so dear to him and his father along with a host of regulars. He set to rebuilding, slowly, but steadily.  

By Monday, a day shy of the first an anniversary of the storm, much of the work in the basement was done, along with the electric and plumbing.  He hopes he will be ready by February, but he has decided against reopening on Valentine’s Day, however appropriate it might be for a place close to his family’s heart. He can imagine the mishaps that are liable to occur when a restaurant gets back in operation after more than a year.

“The number one rule in restaurants is don’t mess up somebody's Valentine's Day,” he says.

He hopes to do something memorable with the old wood that had to be removed and now stands in a neat pile in the basement. The grain where it has been recently cut is gorgeous with rings that mark it as having been already of considerable age when the tree was felled and hewn and the resulting beam was installed more than two centuries ago. He figured it might be as much as 400 years-old.

“Good old days wood,” he said a she admired it on Monday.

He repeated “good old days,” and added “I find myself saying that a lot.”

But he is not so caught up in the historical charms of the café and his passionate struggle to reopen it that he loses perspective. He needed no reminding that at least 45 people in New York lost their lives during the hurricane and that more were killed elsewhere.

“People died,” he had said earlier. “Real estate is replaceable.”

He noted that New Yorkers discovered on 9/11 how vulnerable they are to an attack, but it had still comes as a shock that they were also so vulnerable to a natural disaster.

He was still amazed as he stood outside the city’s oldest drinking establishment on Monday and gazed down the two blocks and beyond an elevated highway and a seawall. The water was flowing along, sparkling in the sun.

“Mindboggling,” he said.

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