Some called it New York’s archeological find of the year when a local preservationist uncovered what appeared to be the site of the Bull’s Head Tavern, the legendary watering hole where George Washington hitched his horse and drank to victory after beating the British in battle in 1783.
Whatever it once was, now it’s rubble. Demolition is complete at 50-52 Bowery and history, never a match for a New York landlord, has been cleared to make room for a new hotel.
In retrospect, the fight to save the Bull’s Head might have been doomed from the start, coming as it did after the start of demolition. What may have been a great historical find was never much to look at—old ceiling joists and floorboards, even those once visited by Washington, are not the sort of buried treasures that captivate a crowd.
Opened in 1750, the Bull’s Head was well known locally as a drinking establishment and an outpost for the cattle trade even before it received Gen. Washington as a guest and entered national lore. Despite the tavern’s fame and prestige, its fate and exact location became obscured in the mid-19th century due to confusion over the inclusion of a cattle yard in the tavern’s property lot, to the south of the barroom. The confusion led some to believe that the Bull’s Head was demolished in 1826 and may account for why the site was never landmarked in time to preserve its history.
In October 2013, almost 200 years after the first false accounts of its destruction were spread, it was the real demolition of the building that revealed its history. Adam Woodward, a photographer and preservationist living in New York, noticed signs of colonial era building materials in a structure being torn down on the Bowery and, aware of the neighborhood’s history, went sleuthing in the building to see what he could find. His discovery, documented in a series of photographs, convinced many that he had found the long-sought location of the Bull’s Head tavern. As the historian David Freeland later noted of the Bull’s Head site, “What opened up the door for its preservation, ironically, was the onset of its destruction.”
Woodward’s announcement was met with an immediate burst of interest as journalists reported on the find and other preservationists, including Freeland, gathered more evidence supporting the legitimacy of the claim.
There was one major problem, however. With demolition already approved and under way, time was short.
Buoyed by a series of news stories and the evidence compiled by Woodward and Freeland, preservationists lobbied the city of New York and the building’s owner, Alexander Chu, to halt demolition until a historical survey of the site could determine whether it held the remnants of the Bull’s Head tavern.
At first it looked as if the claims of history had a fighting chance, as local politicians got involved and more observers heralded the importance of the find. But as the thrill of discovery faded, attention waned, and all the while the clock kept ticking.
Just getting a historical survey of the building proved to be impossible, as the building’s owner was under no obligation to conduct one and the artifacts at the site failed to rouse the interest of city officials. Had the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) been interested, it might have been able to expedite a historical review of the building before it was demolished. But as one official from the office explained, the agency wasn’t going to pull out the stops to save the remnants of a cellar that couldn’t even be seen from the street. Had a Beaux Arts building been slated for demolition, the official told The Daily Beast, it might have been a different story, but preserving the basement of a building where our first president had a drink wasn’t a fight the LPC wanted to get involved in.
Freeland, the historian who first made the case for the historical authenticity of the Bull’s Head building site, said he wasn’t surprised by the LPC’s reluctance to join him in the preservation battle. “Visually, the cellar was not an especially dramatic site,” he said. “It was more important for what it represented symbolically, historically, culturally.”
By mid-November, time had run out, and without any city injunction to prevent the building’s owner from moving forward with his hotel plans, he exercised his legal rights and leveled the building. Compared to the press that greeted the initial finding of the Bull’s Head site, its destruction went relatively unnoticed. Not that the demolition happened in secret—it ended with a bang in broad daylight on a busy city street, but only a few committed observers were there to hear it.
The good news for preservationists is that the owner of the Bull’s Head building has preserved the wood from the cellar and confirmed plans for some sort of exhibit, showcasing the artifacts in his new hotel. Said Freeland: “The best thing that we could hope for now is some kind of display within the building itself exhibiting the remnants along with tracing the history of the site and its significance, not just for New York but for our national history.”