Bull’s Head Tavern

11.12.13

Is This the Tavern Where Washington Drank After Beating the British?

Plans for a new hotel in New York have been halted by the discovery that the building site may be the original location of the famed Bull’s Head Tavern, a bar Washington visited.

Pity the poor developers. Chu and Associates were planning to build a 20-story, 220 room hotel at 50-52 Bowery near the Manhattan Bridge. But there’s a problem:  Apparently the old Bull’s Head Tavern, New York City’s oldest pre-Revolutionary structure and the site of a visit by Gen. George Washington, is still in the basement. The developers knew the existing buildings were old. They just may be older than they thought.

In mid-October 2013, photographer/preservationist Adam Woodward, who knew something of the building’s history, went downstairs. As he told The New York Times, he observed “a distinct change in the building material, from cinder block to a brick-and-stone foundation wall. I…saw…18th-century hand-hewn and hand-planed joists and beams with extremely wide floorboards right above them….I (was) standing in the cellar of the Bull’s Head.”

Woodward went on to say: “I can’t think of another lot in Manhattan that has a more important history, and…that it might be intact, a couple of feet under the [existing] building, is an incredible opportunity to get on archeological record.”  He has asked the city government to halt the planned demolition so archaeologists can investigate the site. 

This is bad news for the developer.

The Bull’s Head Tavern opened around 1750 on the Boston Post Road in the butchers’ district, just beyond the outskirts of New York City. There, upstate cattle drovers brought some 200,000 head of cattle a year for sale and slaughter. Called “the last halting place for the (stagecoaches) before entering the city,” the Bull’s Head was a center of trading and drinking for nearly 75 years. 

George Washington stopped there, by which hangs a tale. The British still held New York when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781. The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, required the British to evacuate New York.

In early November 1783, when the treaty was proclaimed in the king’s name from the City Hall steps, some Loyalists committed suicide. Others, like William Smith, were as shocked as if they had lost “all I had in the World and my Family with it.” Most New Yorkers felt up to regime change. A tailor was asked, “How does business go?” “Not very well,” he replied. “My customers have all learned to turn their own coats.”

On November 21, 1783, the British withdrew from upper Manhattan. That evening, Washington and Gov. George Clinton rode into Harlem, stopping at a tavern near Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 126th Street. 

Whether George Washington slept, had a Scotch and soda, or only watered his horse there is immaterial: Everyone reports that he stopped by.

The British evacuation of Lower Manhattan was scheduled for four days later.

On November 25, 1783, Gen. Henry Knox and 800 Continentals marched south from McGown’s Pass, in northeastern Central Park. He paused before the British pickets near Cooper Union, chatting with red-coated officers as they awaited orders to move out. At about 1 p.m., the British began marching to the East River wharves.  

Gen. Washington and Gov. Clinton followed Knox’s troops. The Bull’s Head was on the Americans’ route of march. Whether Washington slept, had a Scotch and soda, or only watered his horse there is immaterial: Everyone reports that he stopped by.

New Yorkers celebrated November 25 as Evacuation Day for more than a century. But around World War I, overwhelmed by R.H. Macy’s publicity campaigns for the Thanksgiving Day Parade, Evacuation Day faded away.

After its moment of glory on the first Evacuation Day, the Bull’s Head Tavern remained in business until last call some 43 years later. It became first the New York Hotel and then a stove factory. In 1858, William Kramer transformed the one-time tavern into the Atlantic Gardens, a beer hall and vaudeville theater notorious for vending beer on Sundays, when the sale of intoxicating beverages was then forbidden. However, in 1879, Police Justice Flammer found the beer so watered down that “a man might drink by the gallon without getting drunk” and dismissed all charges. Tin Pan Alley composers plugged their songs there, most famously “Daisy Bell,” with its lyric about “a bicycle built for two.” When the Atlantic’s curtain came down in 1910, Charles Eschert, who had conducted the orchestra for nearly 30 years, broke his baton and handed the fragments to longtime patrons.

In 1911, the building was to be replaced by an eight-story office building. That never happened. In 1913, the Atlantic Gardens Athletic Club began presenting boxing matches in the old theater. Three years later, a new owner had tentative plans for a 12- or 16-story business building. That never happened, either. Judging from decades of photographs, the Atlantic Gardens have been renovated out of all resemblance from an old tavern or a Gilded Age showplace. Its most recent tenants were a Duane Reade drugstore and two decent Chinese restaurants, South China Garden and Danny Ng’s Place. Now it’s empty. Only the old construction in the cellar recalls the day when the Father of Our Country stepped through the door and, perhaps, up to the mahogany.